Two Sides of


In my experience, many beginners get confused about the nature of FamilySearch. When teaching people to search for records in FamilySearch, for example, they have asked, “Why do I have to search for them if they are already in FamilySearch?” Or, “If I find them in FamilySearch, why do I have to ADD them to FamilySearch?” This article will help those who have difficulty understanding

The confusion lies in the difference between the source documents that FamilySearch has in their collection and the Family Search Family Tree. Without getting into how they are actually stored in the computerized database (because frankly I don’t know), you should see these as two separate but related systems. Relationship

Relationship between different “sides” of

Historical Source Records

Granite Mountain Records Vault

Entrance to the Granite Mountain Records Vault located in the foothills of the mountains surrounding the Salt Lake Valley. © 2010 Image Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.

One side of the FamilySearch website contains Historical Source Images (the yellow circle). This collection comes from all around the world. It contains many different types of collections including government records and church records. Common source records include vital records (birth, marriage, and death), census records, and court records like land transfers or estate (probate) records.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“LDS Church”) owns and operates The LDS Church holds the largest collection of genealogical data in the world. They also have the largest online digital collection. They have been collecting and microfilming records from around the world and storing them in the Granite Mountain Record Vault. The vault houses more than 3.5 billion images.

The LDS Church continues the process of digitizing those records and making them available on free of charge.

Index-only Sources

Technically there is a part of this group which is made up of index-only sources. These are records that have been transcribed, or at least indexed, but images of the original documents are not available online. This means you might find information about your ancestors and the location of where the information came from.

Indexed Records

A subset of the historical source images have been indexed. This means key information from the image has been transcribed into a database to make it searchable. You can learn more about FamilySearch Indexing here. Only a fraction of the images in the FamilySearch collection have been indexed.

As stated before, an indexed record means that you can search for it. Keep in mind that the records are indexed by humans and errors do occur. FamilySearch claims an accuracy of above 90% in their indexing. Search for variations in spelling or use other techniques to “widen your net” if you don’t find what you are looking for.

You can search for records directly from a “person page” or through the Search page. There are lots of options for searching and filtering the records. You can also browse a collection. This allows you to look at images of records that have not yet been indexed.

Search Historical Records

Search Historical Records in the FamilySearch collection

FamilySearch Family Tree

The other side of FamilySearch is the Family Tree (blue circle). The Family Tree is built on the “One World Tree” concept. Instead of everyone working on their “own” trees, everyone collaborates to create a single tree of the human family. The Family Tree should actually contain conclusions drawn from the source information. In fact, the concept of “attaching sources” is a little backward. Normally you would enter the information in the family tree based on information in the source documents you find. So what gives?

The answer is simple. The FamilySearch Family Tree has its own genealogy! It is the current version of a long line of systems and databases. These include the International Genealogical Index (IGI) and Ancestral File. Most of the data in the Family Tree was at one time supported by at least some evidence but it didn’t carry those source citations along with it. The process of attaching sources to the tree today helps validate those conclusions. Or in some cases, may lead you to conclude that there are errors in the family tree. Keep in mind that there are many more resources today for the researcher than in the past. So the information in the tree may have simply been the best they could do given the information and resources at hand.

Twigs and Vines

In addition to the “Great Family Tree,” there are other records that I like to call “twigs.” Twigs are individuals or small family groups that have been added to the Family Tree database but are not attached to the larger branches or trunk. In essence they are orphans. This can happen for a number of reasons, but most often it is the result of extraction projects in which family records were created from a source record.

You may stumble upon a twig when trying to add a person to the tree. When you do this, FamilySearch looks for possible matching records to avoid creating duplicates. Sometimes the records it suggests are so data-starved that you can’t determine with any certainty if it is a match. But sometimes you have dates and even family relationships that make it clear it is a match. By selecting these records you merge or “graft” the twig into the main branches of the Tree.

What Does “Find” Do?

FamilySearch FindAnother source of confusion can be the “Find” option in the Family Tree menu. Choosing this does not search for historical records at all. Instead it searches the Family Tree database for individual records that match your search criteria. The search results will be made up of people in the tree whether they are twigs or branches.

Don’t confuse the “Find” option with the “Search” menu!

Attaching Sources

The process of attaching sources creates a link between these 2 major systems (the sources and the tree). It then provides supporting evidence that reinforces the conclusions in the Tree. The two sides of FamilySearch begin to overlap as in the diagram above.

In the future it is highly probable that changes to Family Tree record data will be weighted based on supporting evidence. For example, if four sources support a conclusion that an individual was born in 1852 and someone comes along and tries to change it to 1860, the system may prevent the change from being made. Therefore, as we move in to the future, it is very important to attach sources.


I have found it useful to diagram the two sides of FamilySearch. When people begin understanding better they find it easier to use. Earlier confusion about searching for records and adding people or attaching sources dissipates. Hopefully this explanation has helped you as well.

What has your experience with FamilySearch been? Comment below.

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  1. Reply

    First, I love your Venn Diagram graphic to explain FamilySearch.

    Second, FINALLY! Finally. you have a great way to explain the reasons some ancestors are already in the tree… they’re twigs! I LOVE that analogy. Way to go in keeping things simple and easy to understand. I’ll be sharing this in social media and in future workshops that I teach.

    • Reply

      Thanks for your comment. I am glad it helped. I have been thinking about this for some time because it can be a difficult concept to understand. Please share with your friends!

    • Reply

      I am so often surprised at new things I learn about “familiar” sites that I should stop being surprised at being surprised! 😉

      I love it when others share these simple “nuggets of experience” with me, so I am glad you found it useful!

  2. Reply

    Thanks for this information. While FamilySearch is one of my first stops for records, I’ve been hesitant to explore the Family Tree, not really knowing what to expect from a “One World Tree” setup.

    • Reply

      Kathleen, thanks for your comment. I think the “One World Tree” has a lot of merits despite its downsides (which you are probably familiar with). It may be worth taking a look around!

  3. Sue


    Really enjoyed your post! I’ve always known FamilySearch functioned a little differently to other sites, now I know exactly why! Well explained and easy to understand.

  4. Reply

    Thank you for sharing how to search historical (usually unindexed) records. Many people do not seem to realize that it is possible to browse and even find indexes buried in the original images.

  5. Reply

    I don’t think I’ve run into any “twigs” yet, but I’ll certainly be keeping my eyes peeled for them now! Thank you for sharing this post in the September Genealogy Blog Party!

  6. Shelly Huston


    This explains things very simply but powerfully and in a way I can share! Thanks!

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