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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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