On-Site research Tips & Tricks

You are planning a trip to Italy and you want to do some family history research.  Here’s how to prepare.

First make your plans.

Are State Archives on your list?  Check with https://www.familysearch.org/ to find out what civil records the State Archives have.  If Family Search has filmed at that archive then what they have filmed is what the archive has.  There is nothing more!  There may be other types of documents you want to research, military, catasto or notary records but the civil records they have are just what have been filmed.  Certain archives were not included in the LDS filming so be sure to confirm that also.

Find out in advance how many books you will be permitted to consult in a day!  Naples has a limit of TWO items for every pick-up which is only 3 times a day, so be sure to take a friend so you can double up on the allowed limit.  I did just that with a client and when I went to ‘help’ her I was reprimanded and told I should order the book for myself.  Smaller archives like Frosinone and Isernia permit you to research at will and often bend over backwards to help you find the right documents.  Don’t count on that in the major archives.  Search their on-line catalogue beforehand so you know what to ask for.  Be aware that many of the major archives have their records stored off-site.  This means they only have certain times when they actually go and pull the records.  If you miss the time slot you may be waiting hours before the next pick up occurs.  Check if is possible to pre- order the books you need by email so they are waiting for you on your arrival.

Have some small change with you.  There will be a charge for photocopies or photos (that you take yourself) and they may not be able to change a 50 Euro note.  Be sure to have your passport with you as you will have to register before entering.

The Comune is sure to be one of your stops.  How you will make out depends on the size of the town and how busy they are.  Small towns are much more accommodating than large cities. If they are registering births or deaths or conducting a civil marriage they won’t have time for you.  Go there on the first day so you can make an appointment to return if necessary.  You may, or may not be permitted to actually rummage through the books.  Ask if there are 10 year indexes you can check if you are lacking precise dates.  ASK if you may take photos of the records.  If this is not permitted, then request a photocopy and failing this ask for an ‘estratto’ and make notes of other information you may need, like the address or witness names.  At this point they may just tell you to take the photo!  If your ancestor emigrated after 1921 you might ask if they have an address for them.

Next stop, the parish church.  While you should have written to the priest advising him of your arrival and your need to see the parish records he may not have replied.  Not to worry.  Find out what time the mass is said and show up half an hour before and wait until he arrives.  Show a copy of your letter and ask if you can view the records during the mass.  He may prefer to turn you over the sacristan for an appointment.  The churches often have very poor lighting and so you should have a magnifying glass with you and your trusty cell phone can provide some extra light if needed.  Oh, and don’t forget to take a photo of the baptismal font and the altar where your ancestors were baptized or married.  Check with the priest and local book stores for a local history book.

If the parish records you need are held at the Diocese offices you will need to plan differently for this.  Not all are open daily so be sure to check their website and email them for an appointment.  Again, depending on the size there may be a limit on the number of books you can access in a day.  Rome, for example has a limit of four but they may be flexible if you are from out of town.  Rome has also asked me for a letter of reference from my local Diocese.  Not sure if that applies everywhere but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.  They are usually equipped with desks and lamps for researchers but you will be asked to register.  Again ASK about taking photos or getting photocopies.  There is usually a small charge for this.

Photo tips & Tricks

Turn off the sound on your cell phone.  This will usually silence the photo taking ‘click’. If you are taking photos in church when people are praying it can be very disturbing.

TRY NOT TO USE FLASH FOR TAKING PHOTOS!  Make sure you have the owner’s permission to take photos of the documents.  An up-to-date smart phone is all you really need for this purpose and if it has a scan option or ‘multi-focus’ even better.  Since you will often taking the shot in low-light conditions you will need to hold the camera very still. Not an easy task and a tripod may not put the book at the right angle.  One of those plastic or wood ‘folding plate-stands’ from the dollar store will work here and if your ‘act’ is at the bottom of the page just turn the book up-side-down.  It’s easy enough to turn the photo when you get home.  Another tip is to have some of those strips of post-it notes to place beside the act so you don’t spend hours later trying to figure out why you took this photo. Use your pedigree chart or family group sheet to make notes of the photos taken and their source.

If you are having trouble holding the phone still enough or the text is always slightly out-of-focus try removing it from its case and plugging your earphones in.  Then use the volume button to take the shot.  If you need an extra hand to hold the book, put the volume bar between your teeth and bite to take the shot. Touching the screen to take the photo in low-light conditions almost always results in a blurred shot. NOTE:  Not all earphones have this photo taking feature so be sure to check this out beforehand.

Finally, most places will not require the use of gloves but some will and if you are prepared with a snug-fitting pair of white cotton gloves you will come out looking like a pro and they will be infinitely more comfortable than any latex gloves they may supply.   OH! and don’t forget to offer a donation to the church or Diocese.

Stop at the cemetery!  While you may not find any of your ancestors graves (See my blog post on Rest in Peace) you just never know.  Go early and look for the office (only in larger towns) or stop at the Comune and ask there.  Someone should have a plan of the cemetery and know who is buried where.  Resist the temptation to photograph every tomb with your surnames.  Restrict yourself the one ones born in the same time period as your ancestor or earlier.




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