Genealogist Lynn Serafinn tells what you can find at the Church Archives in Trento, Italy, and shares crucial tips for how to prepare BEFORE you make the trip.
For me, one of the most beautiful places on early is the city of Trento, a hidden gem in the Dolomites (part of the Alps) in northern Italy. Apart from Rome, the city of Trento is arguably the most important place in the history of Christianity, especially as the venue of the Concilio di Trento aka Concilio Tridentino (Council of Trent) in the mid-1500s.
But Trento is also a vital place for modern historians, as it is home to a wealth of archival repositories, including the State Archives, the Archives at the Castello di Buonconsiglio, and the Archives of the Catholic Archdiocese of Trento. It is the last of these – the diocesan archives – that we’ll be looking at today.
In this article, we’ll be looking at what you can find in these archives, how to communicate before you make the trip, and how to prepare for your research so you can make the most of your time there. If you are fairly new to Trentino family history research, you might wish to read these previously published articles before reading this one:
- Parishes, Parish Records & Genealogy Resources for Trentino
- Searching Online for 19th & 20th Century Trentini Ancestors
- Preparing for Research: Using Microfilms for Family History
SIDE NOTE: ‘Trento’ is sometimes referred to as ‘Tridentino’, and things to do with Trento are sometimes called ‘Tridentine’. In English, you will frequently see it written simply as ‘Trent’, undoubtedly due to the influence of Austria and the Germanic influence of the Holy Roman Empire, which ruled the area for many centuries.
Genealogical Resources at the Archives
The Tridentine Diocesan Archives preserves, stores and makes available to the public many original historical writings of the bishops of Trento and many other individuals and institutions. But what is of most interest to genealogists is that they have an excellent on-site facility for viewing digitised images of all the baptisms, marriages and deaths of ALL the parishes within the Diocese of Trento, starting from the mid-16th century (when parish records began) until 31 December 1923. These digital images are NOT available online or at any other facility in the world.
In the parish record room, there are five viewing stations, with each high-resolution computer screen measuring 70 cm x 40 cm (27.5 inches wide x 15.75 inches high), which is just about as large as you could ask for in a personal workstation. You have instant access to ALL the parishes of Trentino at your fingertips. Each parish is in its own folder, and then further divided into births, marriages and deaths. You’d have to pay a small fortune to have the microfilms of all of these parishes sent to your local Family History Centre.
While the images themselves are identical to the ones you will find on the LDS microfilms, the fact that they are in digital format makes research a radically different experience. For one thing, the viewing facilities at the archives are state of the art, with extra-large computer monitor screens. This gives you many advantages over microfilm viewing:
- Computer displays are much brighter and crisper than most microfilm readers.
- You can quickly zoom in and out to enlarge the images.
- You can simply ‘click’ to the image you want, without the need to scroll through a whole film.
- As each image has a unique file number, you can quickly find it again later.
- You can have several windows open at one time, making it easier to compare records, or work on baptisms, marriages and/or deaths, or even different parishes at the same time.
However, to be able to reap the full benefits of these features, it is important to know the ‘house rules’ at the Archives, as well as how to prepare before you make the trip.
House Rules When Working at the Archives
When working at the archdiocese, there are two crucial ‘house rules’ you will need to know and adhere to:
- You cannot download the digital files yourself.
- You cannot take photos of the images off the screen using your phone or camera.
However, for a very reasonable fee (30 cents per image, when I was last there), you can ask the VERY helpful archivists who work there to download specific files onto your USB memory stick for you, OR even upload them to your DropBox folder. When you enter the research room, you will find a tray with forms where you can make a list of all the files you’d like to order. Here’s a scan of one of the many dozens of forms I filled in when I was there earlier this year (please excuse my horribly messy handwriting!). To see it larger, just click on the image and it will open in a new window:
If you look at the penultimate column on the right of the form, there is a space to write the file number you require. To ensure the archivists get the correct file for you, you will need to enter the parish, the type of record (baptism, marriage or death), the name of the person whose record you’re particularly interested in, the date of that specific record and the file number. Some archivists will give you the entire page, while others will crop the image and give you only the record you list, so be sure to be very clear when filling in the information.
IMPORTANT TIP for Americans: For dates, Europeans put the DAY first, and the MONTH second. In other words:
12.04.1604 = April 12th 1604
(NOT December 4th)
Contact the Archives BEFORE You Book Your Trip
I highly recommend that you contact the archivists BEFORE you book your trip, and make sure:
- That they will be open the week/days you want to come. The centre is always closed for a couple of weeks in August, and also on national holidays. They might also occasionally need to close if some construction or a conference is taking place.
- That they can reserve a work station for you on the days you intend to be there.
- That someone who speaks English will be on site that day, if you do not speak Italian.
The best way to communicate is via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can write in English if you need to, but if you can write in Italian (or find someone to write it for you), that would be best. The official website for Archives of the Archdiocese of Trento can be found by clicking here.
ALWAYS Confirm the Opening Hours
So you can plan your research, it’s a good idea to confirm their opening hours before you go, so you don’t end up disappointed. The ‘official’ hours of the centre are:
- Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday: 9 am – 12 pm, and 2 pm – 5 pm (closed between 12 pm and 2 pm)
- Thursday: 9 am – 5 pm (no closure for lunch, as on the other days)
- Friday: 9 am – 12 pm only (closed in the afternoon)
Although these are the ‘official’ hours, I still recommend you confirm them before your trip, as sometimes the centre needs to close early, and sometimes you might even get a ‘surprise’ bonus day where they are unexpectedly open when they would otherwise have been closed.
Preparing for Research
Going to Trento can be a major trip for many researchers, especially if they are coming from a great distance. Thus, it is crucial that you make a detailed plan for what you want to achieve while you are there. Otherwise, you are likely to drift around the records (much as people surf the Internet) and go home without much to show for the time you’ve spent there.
STEP 1: Calculate your time
The first thing you should do before you create your plan is to take a look at how many HOURS you will be spending at the Archives. There is a huge difference between what you can accomplish in a single day versus a couple of weeks. Assuming the Archives will be operating according to normal opening hours, you can calculate the maximum number of hours you will have for research:
- 6 hours a day on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays
- 8 hours on Thursdays
- 3 hours on Fridays
Thus, you will have a maximum of 29 hours for research per week (especially if you’re neurotic like me, and your backside stays glued to the chair for the entire day once you’ve sat down).
STEP 2: Make a detailed research plan
The next thing to do is to create a research plan that will keep you on track during your time at the Archives. Before I go on any trip to Trento, I might spend a full week – or even longer – working on my research plan. That might sound like a LOT of time to invest in planning, but doing so has enabled me to make the most of every moment I was there. Here’s the method I use and recommend:
- IDENTIFY MISSING DATA: First, I systematically go through all the branches of the tree I am working on, and write down EVERY piece of vital information that is still missing (e.g. unknown marriage dates, incomplete names, etc.). One way to see this clearly is to generate a ‘pedigree chart’ using a genealogy programme like Family Tree Maker. That way, I can quickly see which ancestors are missing or incomplete.
- CREATE GROUPS: I then take this list and group all the missing/incomplete people according to parish, then their frazioni (villages) within the parish and then into surnames. The main reason I break them into frazioni is that some parish priest would group the records according to frazione, rather than mix them altogether in chronological order. You may or may not need to be as detailed, if your particular parish does not categorise its records according to frazione.
- MAKE A REVERSE CHRONOLOGY: I then organise each group in reverse chronological order, so I can weave my way backwards when I do my research. There is little point in starting from the earliest records until I know how they connect with later generations.
- CREATE ‘BATCHES’: The next step is to take these groups, and bundle them into ‘batches’ of about 10 to 15 records etc. Each batch should have something in common. For example, they could be baptismal records of people who all have the same surname or live in the same frazione between a specific set of years (one or two generations). Or, I might chunk together all the marriages within a certain span of years. The reason I suggest 10 to 15 records in each batch is that this is the number you might expect to work through on a half-day session (3 to 4 hours).
- ORGANISE YOUR BATCHES IN ORDER OF PRIORITY: Once I’ve made my batches, I then sequence them in order of priority. Of all this information, what are the things I most want to find out on this research trip? Which things would be the most difficult to find at home, if I don’t try to find them in Trento? Which things could I leave to the end of my trip, and look for them only if I end up having extra time?
- ASSIGN RESEARCH SESSIONS TO EACH BATCH: Finally, I made a day-by-day plan by assigning each batch to a specific morning/afternoon session on a specific day on the trip. This enables me to pace myself each day, and shift gears if I feel like I’m getting nowhere.
- TWEAK AND REFINE: I look through my plan, and tweak it to ensure I have some ‘buffer’ time. Is there some area where I am being overly ambitious and trying to cram too much into one session? How can I lighten the load, in case some things take longer than others to find?
- PAGINATE, PRINT AND KEEP IT SAFE: When I am satisfied my plan is doable, I put the plan for each date onto a SEPARATE page in Word. In other words, 10 days of research means I have a 10-page plan. Then, I print it out, staple it together, put it in a plastic sleeve and then store it in a document wallet where I will keep all my notes for the trip. You might prefer not to print your plan, but I find it easier to have it sitting next to me on my workstation. That way I can keep my tablet available with my family tree software open, and not need to switch back and forth between screens.
Here’s an image of my plan for one of my own research days. You can click the image to see it larger:
If you prefer, you can download a Word docx of this sample page by clicking here.
Getting Oriented on Day 1
Before you start working through your plan, I strongly recommend that you spend the first session (or perhaps the entire first day) creating a ‘map’ for yourself, showing where different records are located within the parish you are researching. Once you create this map, you won’t need to do it again, unless you start working with records from a different parish.
What I mean by ‘map’ is a spreadsheet (or whatever system you prefer) where you list the range of file numbers that contain specific information. For example, as I said earlier, some parish records are organised according to frazioni. Thus, you might see records for a span of years ALL from a single frazione, and then all of a sudden the records leap back in time to the starting point, showing all the records for that time period for a different frazione. Sometimes (if you’re lucky) the priests will have put indices at the beginning of each book saying where these divisions occur, but this isn’t particularly useful if you’re searching for the records via file number. Thus, I might sit for a morning and go through, say, all the records for the 1600s, and write down the numbers of the first and last file within each sequence.
Here’s an example for how I mapped one frazione called ‘Larido’ in the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio (I did the same for all the frazioni in the parish). Note that there was one file (01111) that contained two out-of-sequence entries for the year 1612, so I made a special note about this in the right-hand column:
How is this map useful to me? Well, let’s say that later in the week I am trying to find the birth record for a person born around 1660 in the village of Larido. From my map I can see that the records for 1646 – 1686 are spread across 21 files (01516 – 01536). Knowing that, I can probably guess that the file I’m looking for is probably just a bit before the mid-point of this span, say file 01522. I can go directly to that file, and probably locate the document I am looking for in 5 minutes or less. Without such a map, I’d be likely to spend hours – maybe all afternoon – trying to find it.
Having a map like this also enables you to decide quickly whether a particular file is missing or (more likely) that the person was actually from a different frazione. Remember, when it comes to research, NOT finding a file is often just as informative as finding it.
Working with Your Plan
Once you create your map, you should work methodically through your plan, trying to stick to it as best you can. If you get ‘stuck’ trying to find a particular record, or you think you are spending too long on one thing, make some notes about what you already tried, and then move on to the next item in your plan. Maintaining some sort of momentum can help keep you from becoming bogged down and discouraged.
When I go to Trento (or anywhere else), I like to use Family Tree Maker to enter all the new data I find, making sure to include the number of the file where I found the information. Rather than try to transcribe records while I’m researching, I use the order form to request the digital file of the records I want, so I can study them in greater detail later, when I am not under a time limitation.
At the end of my research day, whenever I close Family Tree Maker, I created a ‘change log’ (which you can generate via the ‘sync’ button) and save it as a PDF file, so I can see exactly what I added, deleted or changed throughout the day. Only later do I sync the data to the online version of the tree, if I have one.
To prevent myself from getting side-tracked, if I happen to stumble upon some interesting discoveries that are NOT included in my plan, I write down the file number, and order the digital file from the Archives, so I can look at it in more detail when I get home. This method is especially useful if I happen to find records on someone whose connection to my tree is not immediately apparent, but whom I suspect could turn out to be relevant later.
Setting Goals and Expectations
Something you are probably asking yourself is how you should set your own research goals. How many records can you expect to find every day? Your individual research expectations will depend on four things:
- Your preparation, i. e. whether or not you’ve made a plan
- Your orientation, i.e. whether or not you’ve made a ‘map’
- Your experience, i.e. how much time you have previously spent working with parish records using LDS microfilms at your local Family History Centre
- Your familiarity with the parish, i.e. how well you know the frazioni, the local surnames, common soprannomi of certain families, etc.
If you can give yourself high marks on all three of these things, you can comfortably expect to find at least four records per hour. I have often located more than 10 records within a single hour, because I knew exactly what I was looking for, and exactly where to find them.
If you have had NO experience with the microfilms at all and/or you know next to nothing about your family or their parish, it does not mean you should not make the trip to the Archives. However, in this case, I suggest writing to them in advance asking whether someone who speaks English there can help you with your research. Try to bring as much concrete information about your ancestors as you can, such as birth names, birth/marriage years, parish, etc.
OF COURSE, I am also available for hire as a genealogist, specialising in the family history of Trentino. I could mentor you through your research OR you could hire me to do the research for you. As an experienced author, I can also help construct your family history in writing. If you would like to discuss how we might work together, I invite you to write to me via the contact from on this website, and request a (free) 30-minute Skype chat, so we can get to know each other.
The Really Important Work Starts AFTER Your Trip
One thing that can REALLY slow you down in your research is if you try to process all the information mentally while you are in the ‘discovery’ phase. Thus, my best advice to you would be to use your trip simply to FIND the files you need, and not to analyse them or transcribe them (unless you want to do that in the evening). Be sure you keep a good record of what you managed to find, and what you TRIED to find but could not.
Then, assuming that you’ve obtained all the digital files you discovered, when you return home you can sit and spend as much time as you want studying, translating and ‘connecting the dots’ with your discoveries. Remember, hidden within a baptismal record for one of your ancestors could be the names of that child’s grandparents. Or, you might discover that a child’s godfather/godmother, or the witnesses at your ancestors’ wedding are yet OTHER ancestors of yours. You might see clues indicating they originally came from another parish. You might see hand-written notes indicating death dates, marriage dates, occupations or many other gems. There is no way to take it all in when you are on the hunt for the records themselves; what’s more, you shouldn’t try to.
I am STILL working methodically through the 300+ pages of records I located and retrieved during my 5 weeks in Trento earlier this year. I have a special spreadsheet where I write down the number of each file, which village(s) it covers, the earliest and latest date in the file, and how many records it contains. I also make notes if there were some records I couldn’t read or understand in the file. This way, I always know which files I have already analysed, sparing me from accidentally repeating work I have already done. It also helps me identify which files I might still need to locate at a later date.
Using this method, my primary tree has blossomed from about 1,000 people in December 2015 to (as of this writing) over 8,700 people, supported by nearly 1,500 digital images (old photos, civil documents, census records, parish records, and my transcriptions of the same).
Don’t Fear the Learning Curve
I am sure some of you are feeling a bit overwhelmed at this point. I’d like to quell your feelings by telling you about the very first time I went to the Trento Archives. Back then, I couldn’t yet speak Italian, and I had a very sparse tree through the 19th century with no actual images of the records. Bringing my Italian friend Vanessa with me as a translator, I went to see an archivist there named Claudio Andreolli (who speaks almost no English). Claudio knew I was coming, and I had given him all the information I had gathered so far. When I arrived, I was thrilled to discover that he had ALREADY traced my father’s Serafini line back to the late 1500s! While this was just the male line – about seven generations of Serafini grandfathers, with the names of some of their wives – this really kick-started my research, and everything I have done since blossomed from that point. Over the next year, I actually found a couple of errors in Claudio’s original research, which I corrected. However, when I did that, I discovered that Claudio himself was actually my 4th cousin. What an exciting discovery!
I tell this story for two reasons. First, please remember that EVERYONE starts out as a beginner in genealogy. Second, don’t worry about MAKING MISTAKES. Every single researcher, no matter how learned or experienced, will make mistakes. The important thing is to check, double-check, and triple-check your work over time, as you gain experience and expertise. Sometimes the answers to things you didn’t know or corrections to mistakes you made in the past just sort of POP out at you, and you can’t figure out why you hadn’t seen them before.
Coming soon on the Trentino Genealogy blog, we’ll be looking at:
- Reading and interpreting parish records from Trentino
- Notaries and noble families
- Using church parchments to understand more about your ancestors’ daily lives
I hope you’ll subscribe to this blog so you can follow along on this genealogical journey, and read all future articles on this site. Desktop viewers can subscribe using the opt-in form at the right side at the top of your screen. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to email@example.com.
We also have a thriving ‘Trentino Genealogy’ Facebook Group, open to ANYONE interested in discussing genealogy, and meeting others who are researching their family history. Who knows? You might meet a long-lost cousin there!
Lastly, if you have any questions or comments about this article, or if you’d like to talk to me about researching your family history, please feel free to drop me a line via the contact form on this site, or leave a comment at the bottom of this page.
Lynn on Twitter: http://twitter.com/LynnSerafinn
Join our Trentino Genealogy Group on Facebook: http://facebook.com/groups/TrentinoGenealogy
View My Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry:
LYNN SERAFINN is a bestselling author and genealogist specialising in the families of Trentino. She is also the author of the regularly featured column ‘Genealogy Corner’ for Filò Magazine: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans.
In addition to her work for clients, her personal research project is to transcribe all the parish records for the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio (where her father was born) from the 1400s to the current era, as well as to connect as many living people as she can who were either born in Bleggio or whose ancestors came from there. She hopes this tree, which already contains tens of thousands of people, will serve as a visual and spiritual reminder of how we are all fundamentally connected.
View the Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry: