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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Turning for Help
by Rhonda R. McClure

February 01, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

One of the reasons that I find genealogical research so fascinating is the fact that I am always learning. As my ancestors migrate from place to place I find that I must read about the new region, state, county or country.

I must read about more than just the record availability. While that is certainly paramount to my research, it is important to understand the history of the area as well. The history of the area may have been a deciding factor to the initial migration. In addition to this there may be other things I need to do as well.

Don't be afraid to ask questions.

Getting Prepared

Logically, the first step to researching a new line or a line that has entered a new locality is to be prepared. This preparation requires learning about the locality and learning about the records. This information may not be available online though.

While I encourage you to visit the USGenWeb site for the county, state or country that you find yourself researching in, there is more to preparation than just this.

Many states have books that have been written by researchers experienced in that locality. These books will save you time and frustration. They will point out hazards in some of the records that you may have been unaware of. They will explain the right way to go about accessing records in certain repositories.

In addition to all of this, you will also want to get the Research Outline for your new state or country. Research Outlines are published by the Family History Library. You can purchase the outlines through your local Family History Center. You can also find them online at They give you a nutshell approach to the new locality.

You will also want to check out the variety of columns written here on These are also written by experienced researchers and are designed to be of help.

Where to Turn

Despite all of this preparation though, you may find that you are still up against an insurmountable problem. It happens, especially when find yourself having to deal with records in a foreign language. Despite having read all that you could, and picked up the handy word list from the Family History Library, you may still find yourself stumped.

If you find yourself fortunate enough to be using these records while at the Family History Library, don't be afraid to ask the folks behind the counter. They are there to help. If they can't help you, they will either tell you when someone will be in that can or they will go off in search of that someone.

Recently I found myself again immersed in Italian records. Each time I find myself back in them, it takes me a little while to reacquaint myself with the language. I do not speak it, but I can do fairly well at reading it, when armed with my word list and a trusty dictionary. I much prefer the records in southern Italy as they tend to be forms that have been filled out. But once in awhile I will get a certificate that has been completely written out by hand. These tend to throw in some quirks. After having struggled for some time with one particular marriage record, I decided that I could not waste any more time and went to the desk to ask for help.

The staff member was very kind. In addition to helping me find the pertinent passages in the cramped hand-written certificate, he also took out his atlas and showed me where the new towns were in relationship to the town I was already aware of. He even allowed me to make copies from his book rather than having to go off and find another atlas.

If you are not at the Family History Library, do your best to make as clear a copy of the record as possible. Then either scan it and send it to someone online, assuming they have volunteered to help you with the translation or see if there is someone local who may be of help. Don't overlook the foreign language classes at local universities. Sometimes students will make a translation for a small fee. Even if they don't ask for any money, you should thank them in some way. Either pay them or if they refuse to take the money see if there is some other way you can extend your thanks.

Finally, if you can transcribe the document, you might try one of the online translation services. They are not perfect, but they may help you to get the gist of the document in question. That is often all that is needed to get you on your way again.

In Conclusion

As your research progresses you will continue to learn new things. This is, to some, one of the benefits of the chase. However, no one said you must learn it all on your own. Read anything that has been published and if you still don't understand or your question hasn't been answered, don't be afraid to ask someone.

Remember — the only dumb question is the unasked question.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning 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

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