How To Research Foreign Records Without Leaving Home

by Lisa Alzo | Sep 20, 2011

Lisa Alzo

For many genealogists making a trip back to the ancestral homeland is an ultimate goal. We envision ourselves strolling along the same roads our grandparents or great-grandparents once walked, visiting with living relatives still residing in the family home, and perhaps even spending time in foreign archives or repositories trying to find a glimpse of any family surnames in historical documents. Certainly, embarking on such a trip can be the experience of a lifetime. However, such a journey takes time, money, and plenty of planning, and may not be feasible for everyone. This article will discuss seven strategies for researching "over there" without leaving home.

1. Find Resources At FamilySearch

Utilize resources at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Family History Library (FHL). It is the largest public library of its kind in the world, containing more that 2.4 million rolls of microfilmed genealogical records, 727,000 microfiche, 356,000 books, serials, and other printed matter, and thousands of periodicals and other electronic resources. The library is open to the public. There is no charge to research at the library headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah. Patrons can also visit one of its more than 4,500 Family History Centers (FHCs) in nearly 100 countries, and order copies of microfilms for a small fee. Furthermore, on the newly unveiled FamilySearch website, you'll find easier one-stop searching of a variety of indexes and/or images of digitized records from many countries. Consult the FamilySearch Research Wiki as a jumping off point. Browse by country, or do a keyword search to see resources, get research advice, or links, and much more.

2. Join An Ethnic Genealogical Society

A genealogy society dedicated to a specific ethnicity or geographical area can bring together people of like-minded interests and offer a venue for possibly meeting new cousins. By connecting with those who are searching for similar surnames or villages, you'll build relationships that may help you solve personal research problems. The collective knowledge of a society keeps you better informed because they often have the first-hand knowledge of where the records are kept and how they may be organized in the archives in the country of origin, as well as any special collections or resources particular to a region or ethnicity. They may offer exclusive access to databases or information on "members-only" sections on their websites, and provide recommendations for professional researchers. Ethnic societies keep heritage alive through special cultural or language programs, events or festivals, or trips/tours back to the homeland. They also educate members through newsletters, meetings and conferences. For example, I belong to the Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International, which publishes a newsletter four times per year, hosts an International conference every two years, and smaller symposiums every year. Their website offers members access to message boards, surname and special records databases. Use Cyndis List, the Federation of Genealogical Societies' Society Hall, or the Federation of East European Family History Societies Resource Directory to find information about active societies and groups.

3. Contact Archives Or Repositories

Submitting an e-mail or snail mail request to a foreign archive is another method of obtaining information sans travel. Response time, submission requirements and fees may vary, so you'll want to check if the institution you're hoping to contact has a website (some may even offer the ability to search some of their collections online). The Repositories of Primary Sources provides a listing of over 5,000 websites describing holdings of manuscripts, archives, rare books, historical photographs, and other primary sources. You can also perform a Google search (e.g. "Slovak Archives"). If you need assistance with completing a written request, try the Letter Writing Guides available via FamilySearch, or hire a translator.

4. Locate "Virtual" Cemeteries

You may think that the only way to see where an ancestor is buried is to visit the cemetery in person. This is not the case. The Internet contains a number of dedicated sites where you can view and share burial information, Popular sites such as Find-a-Grave or offer access to digital images and/or burial records from cemeteries around the world. A few other resources to locate information on cemeteries include: Genealogy Research Guides: Cemeteries & Obituaries, and popular blogs such as The Graveyard Rabbit and Digital Cemetery Walk. Some simple web surfing led me to the Virtual Cemeteries of Slovakia site, which provided some interesting leads for my research (and there is even an option to view the site in English!).

5. Network

Never underestimate the power of networking. Going to conferences, posting to message boards, creating a family website or blog, using Facebook and Twitter can literally open up the world to you. One contact can lead to another. In 2003, I met a fellow Slovak researcher at a conference in Salt Lake City, who as it turned out, was related to me by marriage on my maternal grandmother's side. In 2010 we went to Slovakia together. During this same trip I met some of my Alzo family for the first time. This reunion resulted from e-mail correspondence with a newly found cousin--our grandfathers were brothers, but they never met (my grandfather had left for America before his brother was born). It was only because of my Internet presence (a blog and website) that my cousin had found me. Even if a face-to-face meeting isn't possible, you can still use technology such as e-mail, social networking, and Skype to stay in touch and share information.

6. Hire A Professional

If you can't get to your ancestral homeland, it may be more economical to hire a professional who resides there and is familiar with the language and the archival system in the country you're researching. This can often be a more cost-effective option than traveling there yourself or writing to the archives. On various occasions, I've hired researchers in Slovakia to track down hard-to-find records in the archives and take pictures of gravestones and churches in remote villages.

A Final Word

Certainly, a "virtual" trip to your ancestor's place of origin can never totally replace the emotional satisfaction of a personal visit. However, if you find yourself "grounded," don't despair. A combination of smart sleuthing, creative Web surfing, and savvy networking may offer you "the next best thing to being there."

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