Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Does Genealogy need to be Internationalized?

From reading books written about doing genealogical research and attending conferences around the country, I have been constantly reminded that the overall emphasis of genealogy and genealogical instruction in the United States and in most English speaking countries focuses, and properly so, on the participants local and national records. However, the upcoming RootsTech 2014 Conference points up an important and often neglected aspect of genealogy: the entire study of family history is international in scope.

Yesterday I presented at a genealogy club meeting for a large retirement community outside of Tucson, Arizona. Their interest and enthusiasm for genealogy was highly evident. The one theme that came through again and again from questions and comments made was the need to do research in languages other than English. For some, finding information about the country of their ancestors's origin was an almost insurmountable obstacle. There was no doubt that at some point in their research, every single one of the researchers would encounter a non-English language and culture.

How well prepared are we, as genealogists, to move across international boundaries in our research? I suggest that we need far more than word lists and Google Translate, to assist us in understanding enough of the culture to find our ancestors. This need extends to every aspect of the countries of origin including social, cultural and political issues that lie at the heart of doing competent research in another country. This is particularly true when our research takes us outside of the main area of focus in Western Europe.

Let me illustrate one aspect of the problem. It is widely believed that is the "largest online database" for doing genealogical research. This may be true, but let's look at the composition of the records on If you look at the World Edition of the program you will find the following by filtering the Card Catalog and noting the number of records in different categories out of the 31,458 Collections listed:

  • North America: 26,953 Collections
  • Europe: 4,662 Collections
  • Canada: 1,965 Collections
  • USA: 25,163 Collections
  • South America: 12 Collections
  • Africa: 15 Collections
  • Asia: 57 Collections
  • Mexico: 22 Collections

You might note that North America includes the USA and Canada and Mexico. Now let's do the same thing with some of the other large online databases, such as and has 1673 Collections listed. You might note, as I have observed before, that the number of collections bears only a limited relationship to the actual number of records. You might also discover that both and list books as "collections." Whereas has an entirely separate category for books and has over 100,000 digitized books. Any comparisons between the three are almost impossible to make. My point here is not to compare the three, but to point out the composition of the records. Here is the breakdown:

  • United States: 749 Collections
  • Continental Europe: 444 Collections
  • United Kingdom and Ireland: 104 Collections
  • Caribbean, Central and South America: 153 Collections
  • Mexico: 65 Collections
  • Africa: 20 Collections
  • Asia and Middle East: 33 Collections

There are other areas listed, of course. But you can easily see that the bulk of the records come from the same places as those in Now what about's Collections? owns but has additional records available not directly listed on that website. So the count comes from's Card Catalog and a total of 23,209 records:

  • USA: 11,024 Collections
  • Canada: 1,104 Collections
  • United Kingdom: 2,399 Collections
  • Mexico: 6 Collections (none of which are actually source records from Mexico)
  • Germany: 138 Collections (almost all from the United States)

As you can see, the number of records online in these large online databases is markedly shifted towards English language records. Another example, is the only site with records from Iceland with 2 Collections.

Now, my point here is that to be successful in genealogical research, we need access to records. It is very likely that the emphasis in providing records for research has historically followed the ethnic composition of the United States and Western Europe. If we want genealogy to grow, we need to become involved in moving the records of all of the rest of the world into a position where they can also be accessed online. I certainly realize the political and cultural implications of my statements. But if your family came from Estonia or Lebanon or Israel or China, you should also be able to research your family online.


  1. There are many countries that have records online, only not through the FamilySearch or Ancestry behemoths. Estonia, for example, since you mentioned it, has one of the best online resources out there - Saaga, which has almost everything you need to do your Estonian research, supplied by the Estonian Historical Archives. It is free and available anywhere in the world, you just need to register a free account (and keep an Estonian translating program or dictionary handy if you don't speak Estonian, since once you leave the top level menus, everything is in Estonian, and the records themselves could be in Estonian, German or Russian, depending on the time period). Not only do they have digital images of BMD records, but also revision lists (similar to a census), military records, town records, government records, court records, and more. I'm sure they haven't digitized everything in the archives yet, but they're certainly well on their way. Many other Eastern European countries also have online resources that are growing in size, and they are also usually freely accessible.

    I'm not sure about record accessibility outside of Europe, but in many cases, you just need to look and think beyond the behemoths - and also be willing to do some looking in the local language. You don't need to be fluent in it, you just need to know what words to look for. I didn't know a word of Estonian before I started to use Saaga, but now I can find what I need, whenever research takes me north of the Latvian-Estonian border.

    1. Thank you so much for this comment and insight. I must admit that no one has asked me to research Estonian records yet.