10 Practical Tips To Kick Start Your Research In The Netherlands

Dutch archives are vast and can therefore be a real goldmine. Large parts of the basic birth, marriage and death records since 1811 have been digitized and can be easily searched online. The rest of it however (records prior to 1811, deeds, military archives, photo archives and much, much more...), still exists only on paper or microfilm and is not accessible online (yet). In this article I will give you ten practical tips to get your search for digital and non-digital records started...

1. Know What You Want
It is tempting to set a goal like "Finding out everything I can about Grandpa". But if you are to find anything useful in Dutch archives, you have to come up with a question far more specific than that. It is wise to first set out to find the three basic archival records about this grandfather: his birth, marriage, and death records. So a better question to start with would be "I want a copy of grandpa's birth record".

2. Get The Right Name
You need to know exactly who you are looking for. This sounds rather obvious, but it also means you have to get the surname right. So you need to know the precise Dutch spelling of the surname and not the anglicized version you may be carrying. Besides getting the spelling right, you need to know that women can be traced only by their maiden names, even after they got married.

3. Find The Exact Place
Dutch archives are organized by province and then by place. So in order to contact the right archive you need to know in which town you ancestor was born, married, or died. If you do not have this information and you see no way you can get it, you can have a go at the online search engine for the Dutch archives Genlias*, which does not require a place to search. Keep in mind however that the database is not complete yet and only contains records after 1811. If you are seeking records prior to this date, you must find out the place otherwise it will be searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack.

* Update: the search engine Genlias was replaced in 2013 by WieWasWie.nl

4. Pinpoint A Date
It is possible to search for records without knowing the exact date. But unless you are in the fortunate position to be visiting a Dutch archive yourself, you will probably outsource the search to an archival clerk. Having the clerk search dozens of indexes for your ancestor can become an expensive affair. Therefore it is wise to pinpoint a date or at least a year. If you do not know the date you may be able to creatively infer it from other sources you do have like birth records of children, naturalization records and the like.

5. Find The Right Archive
Once you know the name, date and place you can find out which archive you need to contact. Using an atlas you can work out in which province the relevant place is located. Every province has an archive that holds copies on microfilm of all basic records of every municipality in the province. Very useful is this list of archive addresses (in Dutch only). If you are looking for something more exotic than the basic records, you may have to contact the municipal archive or the national archive. This list of archives can be helpful in this case.

6. Request A Copy
It is wise to first search for the records you need in Genlias*. You can see the basic data for free and this may be all you need. But keep in mind that what is visible in the database is far less than what the original document holds. I recommend to always request a copy of the original, so you can search it for details and vital new clues. If there is a digitized copy available it will say so in Genlias, and you can order it online for a small fee. Be aware though, that not all records have been included in the database yet and not all included records have been digitized yet.

If you cannot find your ancestor in Genlias*, you can always send a request to the archive that holds the records in question. They will retrieve the data you need and send you a copy for a reasonable fee. All Dutch archive clerks speak, read, and write enough English to communicate with you. Just send an e–mail with your request. Be specific so the clerk can help you swiftly which will save you money.

* Update: the search engine Genlias was replaced in 2013 by WieWasWie.nl

7. Translate Documents
Unless you speak Dutch you will need to get the documents you have found translated. With a little imagination you can make out the primary data like names, dates and places without actually translating the document, but chances are you will miss out on vital clues. A cheap and very easy way to get a rudimentary translation is to transcribe the text and feed it to an online translation program like Babelfish or Google Translate. This may just do for what you need and it is free.

Sometimes however it pays to get a proper translation from a qualified translator. We can provide you with a good translation and interpretation for a reasonable fee.

8. Search For Clues
Try to read the document you have found with the eye of a detective. What else can you find in it beside the basics? Who were the witnesses to this marriage, how are they related, what was the address of the people involved and what does that tell you. Look out for abbreviations and small notes in the margins: adopted children and divorces were often noted in this way on marriage certificates, for example.

9. Dig Further
Once you have the basic data on your ancestor, you can start digging for more. Venture into deeds, photo archives, military archives, colonial archives, newspaper archives, and the like to see what fascinating details on your ancestor's life you can piece together...

10. Get Help If Needed
Dutch archives are vast and can be a real gold mine if you know where to look and what to look for. We can give you coaching on specific issues to get your research going (again).