The International Genealogical Index

The International Genealogical Index (IGI) is one of the most useful sources for family historians, but it is frequently misused and misunderstood.

It was created under the auspices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) – otherwise known as the Mormons – in 1988 in microfiche format. A later edition appeared in 1992, but the most common way to access the information now is through their Family Search website. To genealogists the index represents an attempt to catalogue the places and dates of baptism for approximately 187 million individuals, of which 58 million relate to England and Wales.

However, the LDS believe this interest in genealogy has a more profound theological significance. It founded the Genealogical Society of Utah in 1894 to gather records relating to family history. Whilst this is partly due to genuine historical and personal interest, it is a belief of the church that those who have died unbaptised according to the Mormon rite may not share in the afterlife, but that a ceremony of baptism after death may be performed by a member of the LDS on behalf of their ancestors, allowing them to be reunited.

This has led them to collect a vast amount of genealogical material from all over the world, with databases (at the time of writing) containing more than 2 billion names, over 2.4 million rolls of microfilmed records, and a quarter of a million books at their Family History Centre in Salt Lake City. They also have local branches of their family history libraries in 88 countries. Their collections include occupational records and registers of wills but they are best known for their transcriptions of parish registers.

The most amazing aspect of this achievement is the fact that LDS share this information with any interested party, Mormon or now, completely free of charge. To search this extraordinary repository of data, one can visit the Family Search website www.familysearch.org without subscription or even registration. The IGI itself can be found through clicking on ‘Search’ and then ‘International Genealogical Index’ (http://www.familysearch.org/Eng/Search/frameset_search.asp?PAGE=igi/search_IGI.asp&clear_form=true).

The form is quite simple to use, and can quickly produce many useful results. The most important information to enter is the first name and surname of the particular ancestor you are looking for. You can then specify a region of the world, eg. British Isles, then a country (England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland), then a county or state. Name and region must always be filled in, but it is helpful if you can narrow the individual down to county level. It is also useful to restrict the rite of passage and search period. The most profitable ‘Event’ is the ‘Birth/Christening’ category, since this is where the Mormons’ religious interests primarily lie. There are, though, many marriages and fewer deaths and burials included.

Having submitted the form, you are then provided with a list of results, showing name, date of birth or baptism, and the parish they were registered in. By clicking on the name you are given more details, such as the date of birth as well as the baptism, as well as the parents’ names.

A great advantage to searching via the website as opposed to using the microfiche format is the greater flexibility of the former. The microfiche version, which is stocked at large libraries and county record offices, is organised alphabetically by surname under county (in the British Isles). Family Search allows you to search by country if you are unsure which area the person lived in, and it automatically uses variant spellings to search for ancestors. That is to say it looks for antiquated and peculiar versions similar to the name you put in to the search, eg. for the surname Smith it would also find Smithe, Smyth, and Smythe, since until fairly recently there was great fluidity in the written form of names.

If you are searching for siblings of an ancestor and know the parents, you can input the surname and locational details, and put an asterisk (*) under ‘First Name’. Unless you do this the search will not be allowed.

Though the scope of the IGI is wide, covering some parishes from the mid-16th century to the recent past, some parishes are only covered for part of their history, and some have yet to be included at all. It can be tricky working out whether the area you are interested in is mentioned, but a great aid to this is The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers, 3rd ed., (ed. Cecil Humphery-Smith, Chichester, 2003). As well as providing highly useful maps of parish boundaries, it also has an index listing the parish registers deposited at a record office, and also whether a parish is covered by the IGI, and over what span of years.

It is very important not to take the information from the index as final and definitive. As the name shows, it is merely a guide to the location and date of original records, and where possible, they should be consulted at local record offices. Since the information has been transcribed it is open to human error, particularly if those undertaking it are not experienced in interpreting parish registers or reading old handwriting.

I hope this will encourage some of you to go out and use the IGI, but to use it sensbibly. If employed with a critical and open mind, it can be an astoundingly powerful tool, but in the hands of the lazy and naïve researcher, can result in all kinds of genealogical trouble.

Jeremy Goldsmith

4 December 2006