It’s an exciting time to research your genealogy. These days records and information from around the world can often be quickly accessed online with a few strokes of a keyboard. Major subscription databases like MyHeritage, which has well over 6 billion historical records so far, are actively growing their online records collections. FamilySearch continues to put more and more Family History Library microfilms online and recently released a new collection of 4.2 million images of civil registration records from the Rome, Italy area. Even more obscure record sets can be accessed online; for example, FindMyPast just added 13,000 prison records from Plymouth, Devon to their collection.
Easily accessible online records have become a crucial part of genealogy research and should never be overlooked. However, with all of this information at our fingertips, it can be tempting to forget that not all records are available online and to limit your research only to those sorts of resources. In reality, for every online record, there are countless numbers of historical documents that have never been photographed or microfilmed, let alone digitized and put online. Many common ancestral countries have very few records available online or even at the Family History Library.
Russia, Australia, and South Africa, for example, all have excellent historical records for genealogy purposes that are often not easily accessible. Although the digital community is making inroads, the bulk of genealogically-relevant documents throughout the world remain recorded in fading ink on the original paper on which they were first written.
When online and microfilmed genealogy resources have been exhausted, it is time to turn to onsite research.
As an international professional genealogy company, we have the privilege of working with onsite researchers to find records that are being held in archives, libraries, churches, and other repositories around the world. Obtaining your ancestors’ information from these documents is far more complex than just sitting down to a computer and entering a few key points of data into a search engine, or quickly scrolling through a microfilm. The process requires patience, skill, and experience working with original documents as well as a familiarity with each archive and the linguistic, legal, and cultural roadblocks and expectations that accompany working in a specific country.
Every archive’s goal is to preserve information and records, but each can have varying systems of (and budgets for) organization, preservation, and public accessibility. This can sometimes make viewing and retrieving the documents challenging. Political or other local circumstances in the area in which the archive or repository is located can also greatly affect the process.
Still, while the repositories may differ, the primary stages of most onsite cases look similar. For instance, when an onsite researcher is asked to find information on a family after all online and microfilm resources have been exhausted, the first step is usually identifying where the pertinent records might be held.
For example, in Italy the records for one town are usually held in three places: the provincial archive, the Town Hall in the village, and the local parish church. The provincial archive is usually the most easily accessible, but they often don’t have records prior to the mid-1800s, and some records may be missing. Therefore, the best place to begin researching for each case may be unique. This particular portion of the research (determining where the records are held) can often take a long time by itself, before any actual records can even be looked at.
In many places in Eastern Europe, records may be held in different towns depending on the religion to which the ancestors subscribed, and where they attended church. Records may even be held in other countries because of the historical changes in political boundaries. A wise researcher will often contact various archives to confirm that the necessary records for the right time and place are available at that archive before scheduling a visit. Even then, however, there may be no guarantee when the researcher visits that the records will be there. Belarus is one country in which it is notoriously difficult to conduct onsite research because their actual physical holdings never quite seem to match their listed collections.
The records themselves at these archives are usually kept in bound books or folios of various sizes, and they may weigh several pounds. The ink may be fading, the paper delicate, the spines crumbling. There are often no indexes and each record will be a paragraph of old, flowing handwriting followed by another handwritten paragraph, and so on. It is almost never as simple as checking an alphabetical list for the right name(s). Most often, each page of each book must be carefully read to look for the ancestors in question. In order to do so, a researcher must be skilled at reading old handwriting efficiently, and often in different languages or even alphabets. For example, in certain places in Poland the records may be written in German, Polish, or Russian (which uses an entirely different alphabet) depending on the time period and the political entity running the country at the time.
Many archives are very research-friendly and organized and do everything they can to make using their records a pleasant and successful experience. On the other hand, some are disorganized and have very limited budgets or resources, making working there a challenge. The archive may impose strict rules on how many books or folios a researcher can look at in a day or may not have complete or clear listings of their inventory. They may not even have the records they claim to have after all, or may not be able to physically find them in their facility (this happened to us once in Romania!). Many archives require someone to request information in person, meaning that requests by mail or in other formats are not possible. Sometimes archives close at unexpected times for renovation or move into a new building or experience budget cuts. We have also encountered situations in which record sets which are normally available have been sent away for preservation and are inaccessible for weeks or even months.
Researching in churches presents its own obstacles, since the records are not public. They are considered private property and it’s ultimately up to the priest whether he will grant access or not. Many priests will allow researchers in their church for a limited number of hours for a donation, but if it’s the middle of winter in a remote Italian town and you’re trying to read faded records in an unheated parish church building lacking any and all amenities, the experience can be far less than pleasant and require several trips.
Sometimes complications arise because records are not held by government archives or churches but by individual families. In mainland China, families have often held onto their genealogy through generations (and in defiance of previous communist commands to destroy it) but it requires tracking down the ancestor’s village of origin and reaching out to living family members to request access to these precious family records. If they can be located and then translated, though, they can take your genealogy back to about 1000 AD. If you’re really lucky, you may even be one of the families that can be traced back to about 1500 BC! This is a cultural legacy which is unique to that part of the world and one of which those of us of European descent can only dream!
Even if records are held by a government or other public institution, local circumstances and factors outside of the researcher’s control may affect the accessibility of the records. Archives may be closed due to extreme weather. Once, our researcher heading to an archive in Eastern Europe couldn’t get in because there were tanks blocking the road! In another instance, after completing some highly successful research projects in Turkey, the recent political upheaval has caused some delays. It may take a little time for things to settle down and for genealogy research in the governmental records to be able to progress forward. Research in other countries like Israel can often be stymied due to legal restrictions on who is allowed to request records (often family members only). In some countries, a signed power of attorney is a sufficient means of overcoming this hurdle. In other cases, however, there is no other recourse.
We share these anecdotes not to be discouraging, but to present to our clients and friends a realistic view of this process! Substantial frustration can be avoided on both sides when are all able to be educated about and patient with the challenges unique to tracing foreign ancestry. Though the wait may at times be long, and the progress can be slow, we have many examples of clients who were overjoyed to finally make the connection with their international forebears and who could not easily have done so without the dedication of Legacy Tree’s agents.
Despite the obstacles that researching in original records throughout the world presents, onsite researchers continue to push forward searching for ancestors and extending genealogy back further than what can be accomplished using online or even locally-microfilmed records alone.
While onsite research may take more time than a quick internet search, each record that is found is truly precious and should be viewed as a family treasure!
Do you have ancestors from another country? If you’re finding yourself stuck due to lack of record availability in the United States, Legacy Tree Genealogists can help. We have onsite agents in most countries around the world and can work to identify and obtain the records you need. Contact us today for a free consultation.