Be Prepared

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Be Prepared

The first of the year brings resolutions for many people, and I am no different. While I have done some 
dabbling my wifeís Swedish and Belgian lines, I have decided to make a concerted effort to seriously work 
on these families. Like many genealogists, I start out the year with great visions. Hopefully, Iíll stick to this 
resolution and have some success. While there are differences between the two areas that I will be 
researching, they do have two things in common: there are excellent records for both areas, and I have a 
minimal understanding of the languages spoken in both countries. 

In order to maximize success and minimize confusion, I need to be prepared before I continue work on these 
lines. With that in mind, this week we discuss what should be done before I have a foreign-language record 
staring me in the face. While past columns have discussed my initial attempts with these records, we will 
start in the beginning.

Homework in the U.S.A.
Iíve already researched these families in the United States as much as possible. This is an extremely 
important first step. The comprehensive research on both these families conducted in the United States 
included the following records:

ó Vital records (including records of birth, marriage, and death) were used to determine places of birth where 

ó Census records (federal and state) were used to estimate dates of immigration and birth dates and places 
when necessary.

ó Tombstones and cemetery records were used because these sources sometimes provide places of birth.

ó Church records were used because sometimes these records (particularly in immigrant Lutheran or 
Catholic congregations) provide clues regarding European origins.

ó Naturalization records were used because naturalizations after 1906 are fairly detailed. Even pre-1906 
naturalizations can help estimate years of immigration.

ó Immigration records were used because some passenger lists provide information on the last residence 
in the home country.

ó Anything else I can findówe donít want to leave out any possible source!

As weíve seen from other columns, possible siblings and neighbors of our ancestors may also provide clues 
as to our own familyís origins. From these records, I had the places of origin for my wifeís Swedish and 
Belgian ancestors. Taking the time to get that information was crucialóthis was not a five-minute process.

Homework in the Homeland
It is also crucial that I learn about the country from which the ancestors emigrated and the records that will 
have to be used. Iíve already done some initial work in records from both countries, so I have a limited 
knowledge of the records Iíll be using. However, there is still is a great deal to learn. For my Swedish work, 
Iím using ďCradled in Sweden,Ē by Carl-Erik Johannson, as my guide. For my Belgian work, Iím using a small 
book published by the Genealogical Society of Flemish Americans ( that includes 
translations of typical Belgian vital records in French, Dutch, and Latin. These translations of typical records 
have been extremely helpful in reading the few records I have already located.

Getting Organized
Getting organized is the most important part of any research in foreign materials. The different language and 
culture will probably be confusing enough, so itís best not compound the issue by researching in a haphazard 
fashion. The following are things youíll want to have on hand and in your research notebook before you even 
order microfilm from the Family History Library:

ó Words. Have a basic genealogical word list in the languages you need (if you donít know the language 
in which the records are written, the Family History Library Card Catalog citation for the records you will be 
using will indicate this). The word list will reduce confusion and help you when youíre ordering the records 
on film and when Iím actually using the records. The Family History Library website ( 
has genealogical word lists for most languages genealogists will encounter. Click here for a direct link to the 
first page of these research guides. It is organized alphabetically.

ó Charts. Blank family group charts and pedigree charts with wide lines are another must. While you will 
probably not extract complete records on these charts, constantly updating the family structure as you 
research is essential to keep you from becoming confused. These are working charts, so youíll complete 
them in pencil. 

ó Maps. Having detailed geographic information convenient is crucial. I prefer to have maps at several 
different scales so I have multiple perspectives of the area, from the small nearby villages to the larger, 
perhaps more distant cities. MapQuest is a great place to obtain some modern maps, particularly showing 
villages in the immediate vicinity of the ancestral village. Local Family History Centers may have maps in 
their permanent collections and additional gazetteers are available on loan. The previously mentioned 
research guides from the Family History Library will include bibliographic information to assist the 
researching in locating these maps. I always make two copies of maps, one that I can write all over in 
pencil and another one from which I make additional copies. 

Getting Ready to Take Notes
Scribbling research results in a notebook is not a good practice. Previous articles have discussed some note 
taking styles for researching foreign records. Organization before the research starts will make note taking 
easier while you are researching, and it will facilitate documentation when you return home. When using 
LDS microfilm, I have a list of what I would like to look for in each record. The list is headed by a complete 
citation for each source Iíll be using. This way I can quickly note on my list if I found the entry or not. Plenty 
of room is left between each item on my sheet so that notes can be taken directly on the list itself. I 
photocopy located records if at all possible.

Preprinted Forms?
More recent records may be on preprinted forms. These records are much easier to use, especially when the
researcher is unfamiliar with the handwriting and the language. If Iím using this type of record, I create a note 
taking template by making my own blank copy of the ďform.Ē The best way to do this is to copy one entry 
from the records and create your own blank form. If I have access to a scanner, Iíll scan the headings and 
make the form that way. If I donít have access to a computer, Iíll cut the headings apart and, using some 
tape, create my own homemade template from which copies can be made. Self-made extraction forms are 
extremely helpful if youíll be copying a significant number of entries.

The script in which the records are written can compound language difficulties. Genealogical word lists can 
help, as can guides to the various types of script that might be encountered. Included below are links to a 
few sites with old European handwriting samples. Cyndiís List also has links to numerous sites about reading 
old penmanship.

In Summary
The Boy Scout motto is appropriate here: Be Prepared. Preparing in the area where the ancestor settled by 
comprehensively researching the ancestor, preparing in the homeland by learning research techniques and 
a little about the area and languages in question, and preparing to research by obtaining adequate forms and 
supplies will increase your chances for success in foreign language records. In future columns, we will 
expand on previous columns that touched on these Swedish and Belgian families.

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