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Is It Time for Overseas Help? Working with a Foreign Researcher

Most Americans need to look overseas to fill in the earlier branches of their family trees. A foreign researcher may be the quickest way to re-construct your family's history before they set foot on American soil.


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Most Americans need to look overseas to fill in the earlier branches of their family trees. Some people will have the resources to go to their ancestral countries and find documents by themselves; some of those people will also be fluent enough in their ancestral languages to make their genealogy search relatively painless.

But not all of us are that lucky. German, French or Italian may have died out in your family generations ago. You may be unable to read the Asian scripts or Cyrillic letters that document your ancestors' births, marriages, and deaths. International travel may not be an option, or you may not be comfortable navigating a foreign country's bureaucracy and archives.

Why Choose a Foreign Researcher?

Using the Internet, microfilmed European records, and genealogy word lists in other languages may be enough for your search. But if you're at the point where you're considering writing to a foreign registry or archives for copies of documents, you may want to consider hiring a professional.

"Most of the time agencies that retain archives do not have the staff to devote to research," explains Clemente Suardi, a genealogist in northern Italy. "They end up storing the letters that come from abroad and the people responsible for these files are not passionate about genealogy. Generally they stop at the first barrier."

Foreign researchers also know the intricacies of how documents are stored in their country. Chantal Cosnay, a French genealogist, urges potential clients to make sure they know the exact location of their French ancestors, since there are no national records. Uwe Porten, a German genealogist, tells clients on his website that knowing religious denominations is helpful when locating sources.

Hiring a professional can do more than just fill in your family tree – besides constructing genealogies, Suardi has also found lost Italian relatives for foreign clients, as well as determined ancestral properties in Italy, and located documents for dual citizenship.

Working With a Foreign Researcher

Much like any service, and especially in the tricky field of genealogy, it's hard to know how an international genealogist will work out until he or she is tested. "It's difficult to assess in advance the actual capacity of a genealogist," says Suardi, who recommends starting out with one assignment. Costs, timeframes, and scope of the project should be clearly laid out, and there should be frequent contact to see how the investigation is progressing. You should receive copies of documents referenced or found. If the first assignment goes well, you can continue the research with confidence in your foreign researcher.

But trust goes beyond being willing to pay, cautions Suardi, who has been a genealogy researcher for over 20 years. "In my experience it is very important that the customer sends to the researcher everything that he or she knows about the history of the family, even seemingly useless details," he says. "Sometimes customers don't give all of their information, and this makes everything more difficult."

Suardi says that some clients are hesitant to share sensitive information or family secrets, either out of embarrassment or fear that it will be published online. "Remember that the professional genealogist is bound to observe professional secrecy," says Suardi, "and uses the information it collects only for communication with government agencies and other institutions."

Where Do I Find an International Genealogist?

So where do you find a professional genealogist in another country? The Association of Professional Genealogists offers a search for genealogists by country on their website,, as does American genealogists who share your nationalities may even have recommendations on researchers they have used.

But before you make a call, make sure you're prepared. Have all of your family information and have a good idea of what information you need and how much you can spend. It will cost some money (rates vary between researchers) but a foreign researcher may be the quickest way to re-construct your family's history before they set foot on American soil.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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