The Need for Examining Original Documents in Genealogy

Why doing a check of the original document images is useful

Often researchers will find a document in an index online and don't bother to check the original document it came from originally. Locating the document itself, whether in paper or digital form, can give you more clues that can further your genealogy research.

Index vs Original Document

The big online websites for genealogy focus on indexing records to make them easily searchable. If you are able to type your ancestor's name and get a record as a result, or if you follow a hint from your tree, you are using an index. All indexes are based on documents that were kept and preserved.

When you are viewing the document itself, whether a digitized image or have a paper copy of it, you are using the original document. Often an index will have the image of the original document attached ot it, but sometimes you'll need to research further to find the document itself.

Why Viewing the Original Document is Helpful

It's helpful to look at the original document because:

1. There can be errors in the index (i.e. a surname isn't quite correct) so you can check what you found with the original and confirm the information.

2. Not everything on the document is always indexed, so you may find additional information on the original document.

Here are some examples of additional information you may find by looking at the original document:

  • A census record may have additional columns of information that aren't in the index. Also, by looking at the image you will be able to see those living nearby who could be relatives or friends.
  • A marriage record may have additional information such as places of residence of the couple, names of witnesses to the event, name of the minister who performed the ceremony, etc.
  • A death certificate may have information not included in the index such as names of parents, cause of death, name of the informant giving the information, etc.
  • A probate record may give additional details about the individual and his or her family members.

Using an FHL Film Number to Find a Document

If you are using an index from or, an index may have an FHL film number on it as in the example below:

FHL number

Once you know the FHL number, you can search in the FamilySearch catalog for the original document.

You will go the FamilySearch catalog

  • You will then click on the "Film/Fiche/Image Group Number (DGS)".

  • Type in the number and it will bring up the microfilm with the original image.

    For more information on using the FamilySearch catalog see our article The FamilySearch Catalog: the Amazing Free Resource You Might Be Missing

    Need help finding more records? Try our genealogical records directory which has more than 1.3 million sources to help you more easily locate the available records.

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