Working for a tour operator, I frequently encounter travelers who decide that while they are abroad they will just take a day and pop down to the ancestral village and pick up the family records. They have done no previous genealogy research, but they know grandma came from Wells in Somerset. I usually cringe when I hear this and try to give them a quick lesson in genealogy because they will probably just waste their time and accomplish no more than see the town (which might not be the right town after all). With the cost of hotels, meals, train tickets, etc. a couple can easily waste several hundred dollars and end up with little to show for it. The money could have been much more productively spent on a professional researcher.
By starting in advance (unfortunately, these ideas usually come up about two weeks before departure), the traveler can do a bit of research before leaving and then the visit to the ancestral village can be a lot more productive.
What Can Go Wrong?
Why not just go right to the source? Isn’t this the best way? NO!! Here are a few things that can go wrong:
Wrong village: Many immigrants came from tiny villages that no one had ever heard of. Grandma got tired of explaining that she was from Rodney Stoke, a small village a few miles from Wells, England. When people would ask, she would just say she was from Wells so that is how it went on her death certificate and in her obituary. The traveler may visit Wells and find it a charming town, but no associations with Grandma. Had a birth certificate been obtained, it would show she was born a few miles away and, in fact, the visitor could have seen the tombstones for her parents and grandparents.
Moved records: You might have the right village and go to the church. However, the church may no longer have the records. It is quite possible they have been moved to the Genealogical Society in London. In most countries, older records are being consolidated in central repositories. Always ascertain in advance where the actual records are kept.
Repository closed: Even if the records are still at the church, that does not mean someone will be around to get them for you. The person who is in charge might be out of town for the afternoon. Or, they might be repairing the roof of the church and have put the records in temporary storage. Even if you are visiting an official record office, it might close every Wednesday afternoon or you may happen to be there on an obscure local holiday. Always check in advance that the facility will be open when you plan on visiting.
Advance reservations: Some record facilities are very strict about each researcher having a table or seat. You will often be able to look at original documents, and they want to be sure you do not do so while standing in an aisle balancing the fragile paper in one hand and your notebook in the other. You may have to make a reservation for a specific time.
Missed connections: If you contact the local parish priest, library or record office in advance, someone might be able to refer you to a history expert or even a distant cousin in the village. It would be a shame to travel to the village, to find out about such a person, and then learn he or she was gone for the day.
Anyone who has done research in Salt Lake City will find foreign record offices quite a bit different. At the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, you won’t be looking at original documents, but you can go and take as many films as you want out of the cases, copy anything you like yourself and return the films. You can cover a lot of territory in a short span of days, especially since it is open from 7:30 AM to 10 PM most days. Groups of people come to Salt Lake from England and France to do research because so many records have been gathered in one place. It is so much more efficient than running around to different archives in their native countries.
A foreign record office will have government hours (perhaps closing for lunch) and you may need advance reservations to even get in. You will probably have to look up your document in a catalog and then present a request slip to a desk. Your document may take a half hour to arrive at your table or central collection point. If you are allowed to request more than one document at a time, you might not be able to actually look them all at once. If you are trying to cross check between two documents it can be awkward. If you want copies, you don’t make them yourself. You fill out a request form, take the document to a central copy area and go back and collect it later — sometimes a day later. The bureaucrat behind the desk will inform you if the document is too fragile to be copied (hard to understand when you have been handling it with your bare hands) or if you are requesting more copies then are allowed because of copyright rules.
Researching under these conditions can be frustrating but you do have the thrill of handling papers that may be 200 years old. I always felt like I was definitely doing something I shouldn’t when handling these ancient records. I would think it would be worthwhile for these archives to microfilm everything and only bring out the originals under very special circumstances.
What Should You Do?
You should do as much research as possible before you leave. You may find a lot of work has already been done and is available at your Family History Center. Order certificates if you have time and they are not available on microfilm. A birth certificate may give you a different village name than you expected or it might give a street address so you can see the actual house where the family lived.
If you are not inclined to get into genealogy, it would be worthwhile hiring a researcher in Salt Lake City. What you spend on a researcher may save you money in the long run. The more information you have about your ancestors, the more interesting the trip will be.
If you have time to do a thorough job of research while still in the U.S., you can then determine what records have not been microfilmed. If you can find out what other relevant records might exist and where they are located, you can then make good use of your time by visiting that archive abroad.
In order to do effective research abroad, you have to be very well organized. In addition to ascertaining where the record is located, when the facility is open and making a reservation, there are other things to slow you down. Using a new library or record office requires you to learn a lot of new procedures — how the records are filed, how they are cataloged, how to obtain them, how to get copies, etc. This is time-consuming. You need to know what records you want to see. If you just tell the librarian you want information on your family, you probably won’t get very far. However, if you know there are military records from the Revolutionary War for the regiment your British ancestor served in, you just might find a treasure trove of information.
Research abroad can be hard work, but most researchers will probably find much pleasure in visiting, and taking pictures of the villages where his or her ancestors lived; looking up the addresses or farms,and visiting the church and graveyard. If you have done your research in advance, you can compile a list of locations and plot an itinerary for a pleasant day of driving through the countryside and seeing the places associated with your family.
I recently arranged for a private car and driver for an elderly couple to go from London to Birkenhead (some 400+ miles, about 7 hours driving time). When I found out the reason was genealogy, I asked it they wanted to visit a particular address, church, cemetery or village. The travel agent said the lady wanted to visit the record office. I asked if she had checked to be sure it would be open so she could do research. When the agent indicated she didn’t think that was necessary, I told her it was absolutely essential. She called the traveler and found she wanted to visit the library and “record office.” I decided to do a bit of looking online and on GENUKI link found the Birkenhead library does have a genealogy collection and the library is closed on Wednesdays. The only “record office” is the local registry for births, deaths and marriages. The county record office is in Chester. Since birth, marriage and death certificates can be obtained in London or by mail or through the Internet, it would be such a waste of time and money to drive to Birkenhead to get a birth certificate. Since the trip was three months away, she could even go to a local Family History Center, order the index films and then order the certificate herself.