November 29, 2001
One of the biggest complaints I hear from researchers is the lack of foreign records available to aid them in their family history. Part of this problem is that many think that everything should be available online.
Before you can jump to your foreign research, you need to exhaust any records that may have been created by the immigrants in their adopted country. Of course, when you discover an immigrant ancestor, It is tempting to immediately jump back to the old country. When you do this, however, you'll often miss some very interesting records that can be found in the new country. Those overlooked records may hold clues to where in the old country the ancestor came from (often, the most important detail when researching in a foreign country).
As you are gathering and exhausting all records in the new country, you can begin to prepare for the research you will do in the old country. You may need to begin to learn a new language, or at least learn how to recognize some of the words in the records. You will also want to learn of record availability and the jurisdiction where you will find the records.
If you know the town where your ancestor came from, you will want to turn your attention to a gazetteer to learn more about the town. Keep in mind that it is possible that the gazetteer you will need to use may be in the language of the country, so you may need to spend some time translating the entry.
You may also want to get a map of the area to see what towns are nearby. Then, you can look those towns up in the gazetteer. Often the gazetteer will tell you about the parish church that serviced that town. This is often important when working with the church records, as the parish church may not actually be in the town where your ancestors lived. The map will help you to get acclimated to the area so that any additional town names you come across will be more meaningful.
Angus Baxter has written a number of books that may help you investigate a country and its records. His books include In Search of Your British and Irish Roots and In Search of Your European Roots. These books and others are available on the Genealogical Publishing Company's site. It is a good idea to get at least one how-to book about researching in the country. In addition, you'll find some how-to books compiled on CD or available online.
You will also want to check the FamilySearch.org site to see what may be available for your country in the "Research Helps" section. The research outline will give you insight into the records. For those records that have been microfilmed by the Family History Library, the outline will give you insight into how to find them in the Family History Library Catalog. If the records have not been microfilmed, the research outline will give you some indication where you might be able to get the records.
You will also want to find the country page of the WorldGenWeb Project. It is possible that you can make contact with others researching in the same area. This may save you some frustration or the need to redo research, as you may learn from the mistakes of others.
Just because you can't find the information that you are looking for in an online database doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. It may just mean that you have to use more traditional resources. Fortunately, through your Family History Center, you have access to the microfilm of the Family History library. This means that you do not have to plan a trip to the old country and that much of your research may be accomplished on microfilm.
Of course, as you are compiling your family tree, you might want think about spending a little time transcribing or abstracting some of the records in which you find your ancestors and posting it online. That way, you will help others find foreign information online. Keep in mind that it is only through the efforts of those researching in the foreign records that some of these records will begin to make it online. While this may not seem fair, that you will need to do the work that others will benefit from, it seems to even out in the end. Someone will help you down the road.
Like all areas of research, it takes some time for records to make it online. Many of the early records were the results of the volunteer spirit of previous researchers. Like any research the most important step is to learn about the records, the availability of those records, and anything peculiar about either the record keeping or the jurisdiction that is in charge of those records and much of that can be done online.The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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