France has a large number of quite dynamic local genealogy associations, filled with knowledgeable volunteers. In each department, at least one genealogical association will have formed. There will sometimes be quite a few. As with most clubs, they are entirely voluntary, understaffed, and enthusiastic. They can call themselves associations, unions, centres généalogiques, etc., but the older term is cercles, and we will use that here.
The cercles function like any club in that they charge an annual membership fee and produce a monthly or quarterly publication. They also go much further. Generally, once you join a cercle, you are asked to provide a list of the surnames you are researching, along with your family tree so (numbered according to the Soza-Stradonitz system). This information will be published in the Bulletin, and the trees kept in an ever growing library of members' trees.
Each cercle usually also has in their library genealogy and history books specific to their department and region. A member may request a lookup in these. You may also request the annuaire des familles étudiées par les membres, the directory of families being researched by members, and contact other members pursuing the same line of research. The publications also have a questions or small ads section, where members ask for help on specific research points. Many but not all cercles now have websites, where the directories and questions may appear.
The umbrella organisation for the cercles is the Fédération Française de Généalogie. To find a cercle for a particular department, go to their website and click on the box on the left that says "je recherche une association". This brings up a list of the departments in numerical order. The departmental structure, with its numbering system that links post codes with license plate numbers and with identity card numbers, also applies here. Select one and you will then see a list of all associations for that department (that are members of the FFG).
One of the most significant efforts made by the cercles, begun long before the internet or the microfilming on the parish and civil registers, has been to extract and publish the data from the registers. This has been a monumental amount of work over the years. Some cercles sell the extracted information in little booklets. Many -- but by no means all -- make that extracted data available via Geneabank, which serves as a central index to all of the data contributed by all of the member cercles.
To use Geneabank, you need to be a member of one of the member cercles. On joining the cercle, each member is given a certain number of Geneabank points for the year. The points are used to make and view the results of the searches. Finding your ancestors in the extracted data gives also the date and location of an event such as a birth or marriage. With that, you can then go to the archives online and quickly retrieve the right record, or you can request of a volunteer to please make a copy the next time they go to the archives. (They will usually do this for other members, asking only for stamps in payment for the copies and postage.)
Geneabank is a major boost to cercle membership. If all of the microfilmed records were to be made available on FamilySearch with its powerful indexing, as discussed in the last post, Geneabank would probably be dead within a month, taking down a few cercles with it.
Next post: Les cercles and Minitel.
©2010 Anne Morddel
Update: We are most honoured that this post was accepted for the First Edition of the California Genealogical Society's "Carnival of Genealogical Societies - Doin' Things Right"