2021.05.25 – Go to the Location


Go to the Location
By Dale E. Lee


  • Finding the location
  • Family History Libraries
  • Genealogical Societies
  • Social Network Groups
  • Professional Genealogists
  • Educational Institutions
  • Graveyards
  • Civil Offices
  • Archives
  • Libraries


After exhausting all other resources, it may become necessary to physically go to the location to determine if the records you cannot find online do exist but just have not have been recorded electronically. However, finding the site may be more complicated than envisioned and you definitely need to do some research before you go.

Names for locations change over time, and knowing what the site is called today may be as necessary as what it was called historically. The name could have changed multiple times over the years. Changes can occur for many reasons such as population growth, wars, redistricting, and other issues. An example of renaming for war is Poland. During the partition of Poland, it was a common practice to rename cities from Polish to German. However, the German names are no longer in use.

An example of redistricting is Marinette, Wisconsin which can be found in three different counties in three different censuses in a 30 year timeframe. The same city moved from one county to another over time. And you can just image the things that modern day Dublin was called over its existence. It has been inhabited at least since 140 AD (Ptolemy called it Eblana polis). It is essential to identify the location you wish to study before physically going there or you may just be wasting your time.

But if you know the names of a location over time, does that mean that you should go to that location? Unfortunately no. Many times records were not kept at the site itself, they were kept in locations dictated by the governing body. Some countries, such as England, kept most of their vital records in one single location, others like the United States, kept them at a county level and yet others, such as Italy, kept them at a local civil office. Not only do you need to find the location of the event, you also need to find the location where the records were stored.

Note that although most countries kept records in designated locations, some kept duplicate records in separate locations. This can be important when researching the records. If one copy is destroyed, you may be able to find its duplicate in the other site.

One of the best resources available to help your research project is the Research Wiki found at FamilySearch.org. The Research Wiki contains Research Guides from all over the world. They help researchers get critical information on how to do research on the part of the world of interest. Once you discover the location you need, the Research Wiki can be invaluable in knowing who to contact, where to look, and what kinds of records you need.

Another very important resource will be maps, especially maps that are pertinent to the period of the event you are searching for. There are many maps available on the internet, some of which are free.

  • Family History Libraries

Before physically going to a foreign country, you may want to visit a Family History Library from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They are in many parts of the world. Depending on the level of expertise at the particular location, they may be able to help resolve your issue or point you in the right direction. Assistance at the libraries is always free. You can determine the nearest location by using the Family History Center Locator at https://www.familysearch.org/help/fhcenters/locations/.

Always attempt to find the information from the least expensive options first. If you are in Europe and your ancestor was from a neighboring country, it may be no more than a day trip for you. But if you are in South America and you ancestor was from the Netherlands, it could be an entirely different matter.

  • Genealogical Societies

Another resource to help guide you is Genealogical Societies. Many Genealogical Societies have staff that can help with research questions. Some even have certified professionals. Since they deal specifically with genealogical research, they will have a greater level of expertise in the field than others. Since Genealogical Societies are often no-for-profit, this option will reduce the amount of money needed to solve a problem

Look for the Genealogical Society that will help you solve your research problem. Some are dedicated to particular geographical areas, ethnicity, religion and nationalities. Some limit their membership to descendants of a particular person or group. A good place to start your search is at Wikipedia, however, the Societies currently listed there are mainly for Western Cultures. Cyndi’s List has information on a few societies across Asia and the Pacific. And if you are African American, you can find over 23 different Genealogical Societies by querying the internet for “genealogical societies african americans”. Be creative in you internet searches if at first you don’t find a society, try again a different way.

Don’t leave your country without checking here first.

  • Social Network Groups

After Family History Libraries and Genealogical Societies, the next best thing is Social Network Groups. Social Media networks, have formed Family History Groups to help with specific countries. Some in the group are even generous enough visit graveyards and archives to help others look for their ancestors. If someone can help you, it may save a costly vacation to a foreign land. If they are physically in the location of interest and are trustworthy, their help will be invaluable. If they help, be sure to thank them.

  • Professional Genealogists

Professionals are also beneficial if they are in the area and have the expertise to do the research needed. They may be expensive, but less costly than making a trip to a foreign country only to come up empty handed when you go. As you can see, there are several resources you can look into before you go to the location. As your agent, a Professional Genealogist can act on your behalf and they may be able to go there physically for you. Remember going there physically doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to do it personally.

  • Educational Institutions

Educational institutions are another resource you can use before expending a lot of money to go personally to a remote location. Genealogical Societies have fairly extensive Family History holdings, but they are not the only institutions. For example, Brigham Young University has a whole library dedicated to Family History and this is in addition to it’s standard Educational library. If you have access to an Educational Facility which has holdings from the area of interest, going to its library may turn out to be just as good as going physically to the country itself.

Even if you don’t find exactly what you need, you may be able to ask a librarian to help point you in the right direction and show you how to approach your research.

Yes, we haven’t yet talked about actually going to your ancestor’s site. The point is to be very sure you have exhausted all the less expensive options before getting to the more expensive ones.

  • Graveyards

After you have done all other less expensive things, you’ll need to resort to physically going to the location of interest. Visiting graveyards has been one of the activities genealogists have been involved in for many, many years. Before you go to the graveyard, you’ll want to get prepared for your visit. It won’t help much if you can’t locate the grave when you get there. And if you don’t get there at the right time, the office may be closed and you won’t be able to ask the staff where to find it. Call ahead. Sometimes the staff can even send you a map that indicates the exact location of the grave of interest.

Many people volunteer their time finding and taking pictures of graves and donating them to online repositories. Before you go, check with Find a Grave and others to see if it has already been located and if the writing on the grave is clear enough to see. You may be able to save a trip by downloading a picture.

If a picture of the grave has not yet been uploaded to the internet, by all means go. And if you can take a picture of the grave do so, and then share it with online repositories so other distant relatives can benefit from your visit.

If the stone is so worn that it is difficult to see, an old trick is to take a sheet of paper, place it on the stone, and then rub a charcoal pencil over it. The charcoal tends to hit the high points on the grave and miss the low points causing a readable picture of the grave face. Even if the writing is difficult to read on the grave itself, sometimes the charcoal imprint can be seen clearly.

  • Civil Offices

Each Civil Office will have its own rules and regulations. Some allow viewing of original records and others do not. Some will look up the information for you for a fee and give you a certificate of what they saw and some won’t allow access to the records at all.

Call or write ahead to be sure you understand what is possible and what is not. And always make sure there is a good possibility that the records are housed there. Be polite when in your communications and when you get there, you are a guest at their location and you don’t want to wear out your welcome, especially if it is a long distance from your home.

  • Archives

Different Archives were created for various reasons. Be sure you understand the purpose of the archive you’re visiting. For example, The National Archives of the United States is a storage facility preserving Federal records. If your ancestor was not involved in the United States Federal Government, nor was someone famous, you would probably not find them there.

Wikipedia explains that “In general, archives consist of records that have been selected for permanent or long-term preservation on grounds of their enduring cultural, historical, or evidentiary value. Archival records are normally unpublished and almost always unique, unlike books or magazines of which many identical copies may exist. This means that archives are quite distinct from libraries with regard to their functions and organization, although archival collections can often be found within library buildings.”

There are many different types of archives: Academic, Business, Government, and Church to name a few. Parishes are an example of Church entities that may have archives. All archives have their own rules to follow. Some will allow you to copy the records with a copy machine or camera, others will only allow you to manually copy the information onto a notepad. And some will not allow access to the records at all. It is crucial to understand what materials the archive contains and the requirements of the archive before you go. It may even be a good idea to schedule an appointment with an archivist who can help lead you through the maze once you get there.

  • Libraries

Most people have a basic understanding of what libraries are and what they can be used for. Libraries have books that may be of interest and may have newspapers, magazines and other artifacts that can be helpful. Be sure to see if their holdings are online before going, you may be able to locate the information you need online. However, be aware that just because the library does not have a book physically on the shelf does not mean it does not have it. Some libraries have microfilmed the books they used to physically hold on their shelves and afterward threw away the physical copy. If the book is old, check to see if it was microfilmed or written to DVD or other media.

Also important is to note that different libraries have different ways to access data. Most books in the US are cataloged using the Dewey Decimal system. However, the Library of Congress uses a another numbering system LLC (Library of Congress Classification), the Swedish library has it’s system, SAB, and The Hague in the Netherlands uses a classification system called UDC, the Universal Decimal Classification System. Get familiar with the numbering system you’ll need to use before you get there. That way you can use the time finding the records instead of training.

Although there is not enough space here to discuss all of the intricacies of each of the locations you may want to visit, hopefully the information above will alert you to things to be aware of as you prepare to go to a physical site.

Get familiar with the location, get familiar with the record repository, and get familiar with its holdings, means of storage, and rules, and you’ll be far better off when you get there.

Seekerz LLC, © 2021

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