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Researching in Overseas Archives

Contains tips on experiences dealing with research in foreign archives.


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Researching in Overseas Archives

If you are lucky enough to "jump the pond" and find the location of your ancestors in Europe (presuming that was their place of origin), there are some experiences that I can share which may help you with continuing your research. My experience has mostly been in Germany with a little in the Alsace region of France.

First, many records are in the churches. It is not unusual to see 400-year-old church books with your ancestors in them. Why wouldn't you look at those on the film that may be available through the LDS church? Because there may be other "family books" which have not been filmed. And because you may be able to see that actual church books and photograph them, without having to pay workers at the church an arm and a leg (circa 25 to 50 dollars per hour, plus copying fees) for research. However, many times the church books are not in the churches and have been moved to regional civil or church archives. The advantage is more than one location may be held in an archives, which is good. You can examine a radius of towns at one stop. The down side? Especially in the former East Germany, you may look in vain for a scanner, photocopying machine, etc. Why would you use an archives during a trip? Well, what if you are looking at what seems to be a blank page, but you can make out what seem to be scratches on it. There could be vital information on the page, but you cannot read it. I looked at an old church book • not at the church, but at the archives • in Bruehl, near Cologne, Germany twenty years ago. I saw brown ink on faded brown paper, perfectly legible to the naked eye, but invisible to the film taker who did the filming. Speaking of that archives • at that time they were open 10 to 12 and 1 to 3, and that's it. They did not speak English. They had no copier. They did not allow photos, and so on. Be prepared to do hand copying, and quite frankly, to not be able to speak effectively to the staff unless you have foreign language capabilities. The same thing happened at the main central library in Frankfurt • no one on the reference desk could even try English.

The archives in Strasbourg France were quite helpful. As I can also speak French I explained that I was a librarian and would like to know what they had about the town I was interested in. They told me about some citations, and I was able to make copies of pages that dealt with my family. More importantly, I was put onto the fact that American writer had been through looking for quaint and curious items • and had written about my family in the (translated title) journal of Alsatian History. Yep. There they were, in the NY Public Library, on this side of the pond.

The Archives in Rudolstadt in Thuringia had records showing families that I am interested in , going back to 1500. Thing is, the court and ecclesiastical proceedings were 1> typed transcripts and not the original writing, and 2> they were in Latin. Thank goodness for a rigorous high school curriculum.

I think you can see a pattern. Be prepared to deal with staff in a foreign language. Be prepared to drive to another town where the actual books are held. Centralization of archival records is becoming more common. Limited hours are possible. Ask about copying and come prepared to write. Ask about making photographs, digital and otherwise. You'll have no trouble getting prints in big cities, but a little farm town in the hills is a different story. Check special sites and guides such as, in this case, the church web pages. I found a page with the lists of the evangelical churches in Thuringia with their phones, fax numbers, and street addresses including postcode, on the web. Write and ask before you go.

Web site referred to:

· (Thuringian Lutheran churches, clickable to local level).

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.

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

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