Why is it so difficult for me to search the various Czech Archives’ catalogs?
My husband and I are planning our itinerary for our second trip to the Czech Republic this fall, and of course it largely revolves around the archives and when they are open. Now that I realize what a small percentage of records for my Czechs are digitized and online, I really crave going to the archives and gathering the other valuable records which exist so that I can transcribe them and actually flesh out my ancestors’ stories.
I spoke for a long time about this with my friend Petr today. He feels like you can’t really know a person if all you have are the dusty archive records, but I have strong feelings about the value in trying to know them, even if he is right, that you can’t really completely know them. Of course, if you find a diary or a stack of letters, you come a lot closer to knowing a person than if all you have are legal disputes and vital records, but my experience is that the more I learn about my ancestors, including the important dates and events in their lives, the closer I feel to them, and the better I know them. The act of getting to know them is extremely valuable to me, even though it will never be “done.”
And anyway, can you ever really “know” somebody else, living or dead?
Back to the comparatively easier side of this problem, how to find the records themselves?
After our first trip to the Czech Republic, and my experience of being completely shocked at experiencing first hand how much exists in the archives that does not exist online, I am so excited to have another chance to gather some more important records myself. But what should I look for? How can I know what exists? How can I prioritize my search?
Obviously, I will have to have all of this planned before we go. Not only do we have to request that the records be pulled in advance, but also the trip itself is not the time to be spent in front of a computer screen! What precious few hours we have exploring my ancestral homeland, I want to really savor and experience live. I want to spend time with my Czech friends and live in the present, not in my head, which is basically where I am when in front of a computer screen.
I feel really frustrated because I feel like it should be easier to figure out which records I want to pull. Maybe it’s from being utterly spoiled by how the Family History Library in Salt Lake is so organized and centralized with so many billions of records in one single place, organized by one system. Maybe I’m whining about the learning curve. This is exactly why I have focused so much of my recent efforts on learning Czech, though!
Basically, when I think about our trip, I daydream about sitting next to my friend Lukáš in front of his computer and having him walk me through how to use the ZA Opava catalog effectively. I guess that throws the whole living-in-the-present-and-avoiding-living-in-my-head idea…haha.
Here are the reasons why I find it difficult to use various Czech archival catalogs to find non-matriky records:
1. Lost in translation
Since I have been learning Czech, I have discovered that my ability to use various Czech archives’ sites has dramatically improved. I have a lot to learn, but I’ve discovered that literally every Czech archival site is easier to navigate in Czech than it is in the abridged English version, with the only exception being perhaps SOA Třebon. Something is often lost in translation when I get a list of search results, though. Important records do not stand out, whether they are translated by the browser or by the site itself, or remain untranslated. It is very difficult to tell what it is I’m looking at. I have a hard time judging at a glance if something is interesting or not.
Possible solution: learn Czech.
2. Many archives = many learning curves
Navigating the catalog for ZA Opava is entirely different from MZA Brno. SOA Prague is totally different from either of these. In fact it is very frustrating that there is no consistency between archive sites and especially their online catalogs. I almost wish that they could all be housed under one umbrella archive, and organize things in one place, but of course the American in me shudders at that kind of power. But you’d have to admit, it would be much more convenient for the researcher to have some standard website layouts and search forms, rather than have to relearn every site.
Possible solution: practice, practice, practice.
3. Catalog quality itself
So, when were the holdings cataloged? It could vary quite a lot from collection to collection. Those labeled in the 1950’s or 1960’s might be less detailed than those labeled within the last decade. How can I know if a record is relevant to me without it actually having a detailed catalog description? I’m sure there are some tips about reading between the lines, but when I’m squinting really hard and barely reading what’s on the lines, reading between them becomes exponentially more difficult than it might otherwise be.
Possible solution: learn Czech.
4. Technical requirements
Something I’m really interested in finding are the zemský desky for my Moravian ancestors. Supposedly all these early records for Moravia are in tact and complete, and are housed in the archives in Brno. Searching the Brno archives’ catalog, I found that many (well…some) of these super old records have been digitized. But some are only viewable with :::groan::: microsoft silverlight? Didn’t that thing die a few years ago?
Possible solution: ask my techie husband for help.
5. How to search for something in Czech?
English is an analytic language, and Czech is a synthetic language. Czech is highly inflected. This makes doing a google search, well, “interesting” is putting it mildly. What is second nature and intuitive in English is really tough in Czech. For a long time before I could speak any Czech except “pivo”, “prosím”, and “ty jsi Moravec”, it didn’t even matter; how would I have known what I was looking at anyway, even if I could search for it? I know that my language skills are drastically improving, because a few days ago I searched for >> Hilšer Frenštát tkadlec and found an article in Czech about my weaver ancestors, who were really important members of the Frenštát weaver’s guild and the community there. With the help of several very patient Czech friends, I was able to read it and learned some really interesting stuff about my family – my direct line is this Hilšer family, and we go back to the 1640’s in this place! More about that later – with links and details – but for now, I just want to mention that it’s pathetic that it’s taken me a decade of trying to research my Czechs to be able to get to this point. Doing a google search on my English ancestors is one of the first strategies I would try!
Possible solution: learn Czech and ask for help from Czech speakers.
Anyway, these are my thoughts right now about why it is so difficult.
Do you have other theories about why searching these catalogs is so difficult? Any other possible solutions for how to improve at it?