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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill  8/10/2005

Ready for the FHL?

The annual Federation of Genealogical Societies' conference from 7-10 September provides me with almost two days of research time in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. Advance knowledge of this trip means I have no excuse not to be prepared. This week we take a look at some things I am doing to make the most of my time at the library.

Review the Language
Some of the records I will be using are in languages that I do not speak and do not easily read. Yet I still want to work on some of these families while at the library. Learning these languages on the fly is not a sound approach and would seriously impair my efficiency while at the library (not to mention slow my research down considerably). Becoming well-versed in a language in two weeks is not a reasonable expectation either. However, all is not lost, but my preparation to work in foreign language records must begin before I set foot in the library.

Many foreign language records use the same words repetitively. I will use this to my advantage. I will print out the lists of "main" genealogy words in the languages I need from the Family History Library's website (the Family History Library card catalog's entry for the record should indicate the language in which the materials are written).

A list of Latin words should always be on hand whenever using records from a Roman Catholic church. This is true regardless of the language the catalog says the records are in. Some priests threw in an occasional word of Latin just to throw us off. In addition to the word lists, I will review the Family History Library's guide to research in the countries from which I intend to use records. These word lists and research guides for the desired foreign countries can be accessed directly from the Library's website.

The language is not the only potential problem. My difficulties will be compounded by various handwriting styles and scripts that differ from ones used in English. The Family Search site has guides to handwriting in some foreign languages and Cyndi's List also has a links to several sites with handwriting samples in non-English languages. I will review these sites before leaving for the library in order to locate as many guides as possible. Familiarity with the handwriting is not something I can develop overnight.

Note: I have decided to work with records in only one or two non-English languages while at the library in order to minimize my potential confusion. As my time at the library will be limited, I have chosen to not work with records in a language I have never utilized before. The place to learn "from scratch" is at my local Family History Center when I have more time. Additional research problems on my "to-do" list will be ones that utilize records in the English language.

Study What I Have
Because I have chosen to avoid any "new" foreign languages while at the library, I already have some documents at home in the languages I will be using in Salt Lake. To get my skill level back up to par, I will periodically review my earlier transcriptions and translations of these documents in the weeks before my trip. I will even take duplicate copies of these records and their transcriptions with me to the library (additional review while traveling is an excellent idea and if I lose these copies I still have the originals at home). Again it is best if I do as much learning and review as possible before I set foot in the library. While there are staff members who are willing and able to help, I want to utilize them for things that really confuse me and avoid asking them what words in Swedish translate to "christening."

Learn about U.S. Sources as Well
Genealogists who are using American source with which they are unfamiliar should also do some learning or some review before hitting the library. If you will be using land records in Maryland, learn about metes and bounds and what kinds of records are available before you get to the library. This is especially true if your work in land records has only been in federal land states and never in a state land state. While it is not necessary to be an expert to search these records, some knowledge is absolutely necessary. Not knowing a grantor from a grantee will be a serious hindrance while trying to use these records and may result in hours of wasted time (a grantor sells the land and the grantee is buying it).

Ancestry's Red Book: American State, County and Town Sources or the Family History Library's state specific research guides will provide information on records in a specific state. The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy will provide a good overview of American records in general and Wade Hones' Land and Property Research in the United States will provide background on land records. The same learning should take place if I am using court records, probate records, etc.

Can the Locals Help?
If your research time will be spent on microfilmed records for Mercer County, Kentucky, consider posting a query to the message board or the mailing list for that county asking if anyone has suggestions for using the records on microfilm and if there are any pitfalls or things of which to be aware. Someone familiar with the county and the records is in a good position to provide that information. Again, I want to learn about any idiosyncrasies in the records before I am actually using them if at all possible.

Chart the People
I will bring family group and pedigree charts on relevant families for reference while researching. I personally do not use these charts for note taking, merely to help me review the family structure when necessary. In addition to these common charts, I will also have a few relationship charts that I have drawn manually. These charts help me to keep the extended family and kin network in mind while researching. These charts take a little time for me to construct, but they are worth the effort. Knowing that my great-great-grandparents were step-siblings, that a cousin married my great-great-grandfather's wife's brother, and that my great-great-grandfather's sister-in-law was also his wife's cousin are things I need to know. They are not things I should be wasting time re-figuring out at the library. The charts will help me recall the relationships when necessary.

Print Out Catalog References
I usually print out (or copy into a word processing document) the film notes for any microfilm I wish to use while at the library. Notes can be taken on this reference before I go to the library and while researching at the library.

Bring Appropriate Maps
I will bring copies of all relevant maps with me for use at the library. The library has an excellent collection of maps, but if I already have something at home, I do not want to spend time at the library copying something I already have.

Bring Enough to Do
I always bring more than I plan to do. Sometimes work does not take as long as I thought it would or I get completely stonewalled and need a change of pace. When I bring more than enough, have a guarantee that I will not be wasting time or be unprepared for additional research.

Bring A Variety of Things to Do
While I am minimizing the number of languages I will have to use while at the library, I plan on having a variety of records and materials to use--some microfilm, some books, some recent materials, and some earlier materials. I do this to keep me fresh and challenged. Sometimes late in the day reading old handwriting goes from being a pleasure to being a chore. That is when it is time to change pace. Think about how you work and prepare accordingly.

I also will have some research tasks that will take a fair amount of time (looking for references in un-indexed records, searching for deeds over a thirty year time period) and some that will be fairly quick search (making "better" copies of records I already copied years ago). Again the variety helps keep me fresh and the "quick lookups" can be done when I only have a few minutes of library time remaining.

A trip to the Family History Library can be a dream come true. After writing this column, I realize I have a great deal of preparation before I head off to the Federation of Genealogical Societies' 2005 Conference in Salt Lake City. To learn more about the conference, go to the FGS website (

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) He conducts seminars and lectures nationally on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2005,

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