When you travel abroad, you have an opportunity to visit your ancestral home, as well as the important buildings and locations that might have been relevant to your ancestor’s life. These include houses of worship, schools, businesses, beaches, parks and other locations your ancestors may have frequented.
In addition, you may be able to visit repositories holding documents for your family, including libraries, archives and record offices. However, just showing up at a location won’t always do much good. It’s important to pre-plan and do prep work before you visit, or you may just be frustrated and come away with little of real value.
Here are some tips to help you make the most of your visit.
Before you go:
- Understand what repositories are in the place you will visit. Start with the most detailed geographic location for your ancestor. If you know their ancestral city, learn what remains of the time period in which you are interested. Over the years, many smaller geographical locations have consolidated their collections to larger repositories in bigger cities. Contact local houses of worship, schools, libraries, records and vital recored offices. Look first in the city you have for your ancestor. Be sure to provide information on the dates in which you are interested. They will advise you if they still have the data or if it’s now somewhere else.
- Once you know the address of one or more repositories of interest, learn what each offers online. Many have not yet digitized their collections, but do have catalogs and indexes available online, or perhaps through contacting their offices. Keep the address and name of the repository on paper, or in your phone, to show a taxi or bus driver and to ask for directions. If possible, print out a map from your hotel to the location. This is especially useful if it’s within walking distance.
- Learn what days and hours it is open. Many repositories, especially in smaller towns, are open for only very limited hours or days. It is hard to keep these offices fully-staffed for visitors to explore the collections. Often, hours of operation are the first things to be cut when considering the state of the global economy. Make sure you will be visiting when the office is open. Plan your travel around the respository’s schedule, if you can.
- If you don’t speak the local language, try to bring someone along who can translate. While most major tourist destinations – as well as restaurants and shops - will have bilingual staff, more out-of-the-way locations may not. Communication is necessary when trying to navigate a collection of documents whose organization may not be readily apparent. Reach out to local genealogical or historical societies for assistance. Their members are probably well versed in searching the archives, and they may be interested in helping and practicing their English skills.
- Ask what services are available on site. Is there Internet? That will be useful for accessing your online family trees on MyHeritage and looking up other information. Is there a copy machine? If so, what's the charge? Some archives have copy machines, but require staff to operate them. Are cameras allowed? Some will allow cameras as long as you don’t use flash photography. Some won’t allow any photography.
What to bring:
- Printed work sheets of relevant ancestors, with the names, dates, locations and other information to aid in your search. Use the mobile app from MyHeritage to always have this info at your fingertips.
- A pad of paper and pens or pencils. Take notes of what you find and where you found it. Use catalog reference numbers, or any other method easy for you to search and locate that document again at that repository. Collect all the indexing or cataloging references for the document. In some cases, when collections are combined or moved, they are re-indexed or only one kind of indexing is used. If you only write down one - and that’s not the one they will later use – you’ll have to start again from the beginning next time, or when sharing information.
- If possible, bring a laptop to enter information into your genealogy software. Be sure to check first with the repository to see if this is allowed and practical.
- Your smartphone. Today’s phones have very good cameras, and are an excellent way to “scan” images of documents for future reference. One great free app for this is DocScan. If your phone isn’t compatible with this app, or your phone is older and not up to the task, bring a small digital camera, but make sure it is permitted. The archive might require the flash to be turned off, but it might be alright. A copy machine may be available, usually for a fee. It’s more convenient in some cases, but the quality and fees may be enough of an incentive to bring your camera, in my opinion.
- Your smile and patience. Being friendly and courteous will always get you farther than being rude, pushy or demanding. Remember that you are a guest , that you are forcing the person to speak a second language for your ease, in their country. The same rules apply at your local repositories. Treat the archivists and other staff with respect and they’ll be much more willing to help you.
- When you begin planning your trip – and you want to focus on your heritage – look for companies that offer tours of ancestral areas. Some countries have embraced this type of tourism and list tours geared toward this. Try searching for the country or town and the term “ancestral tour.” These tours are constructed to provide overall history and sense of the area where your ancestors lived.
Things not to do:
- Don’t bring food or drinks, especially messy foods. Usually no eating or drinking is permitted in libraries, archives and other repositories to protect the documents. If you intend to be there most of the day, plan on having lunch outside of the repository. If you do bring food, eat it only where permitted. A water bottle may be acceptable, but be cautious of this as well. Obey all signs!
- Don’t take, mark or otherwise damage documents – a very basic rule. Sometimes people think “That rule doesn’t apply to me, I’m on vacation.” I’ve seen many examples of this, and feel that I should mention it. I’m not saying any of you would do something like this, but be aware of anyone else doing this damage. If you see someone doing this, tell the staff, or scold the person yourself, if you feel up to it. People who damage or steal documents create losses for us all. Even if that document has no bearing on your personal research, the repository might just decide to stop allowing visitors! Please follow all rules and don’t damage anything!
This covers tips for visiting local repositories while traveling abroad. Be sure to use your time in the area to learn about the life you could be living. What if your ancestors hadn’t left this area? Would you have been born there? Would you speak that language? Live in that house?
Imagine what the place was like when your ancestors lived there. Some places change very little over the years. Some are now unrecognizable, due to war or natural disasters.
Visit the local museum to learn more history, and visit a historical society, if there is one. Remember that the tips above apply to those places as well. Drink in the culture you are visiting – hopefully, you have discovered that it’s also a part of your own history and heritage.
MyHeritage will feature Ty's family history travel updates on this blog.