The trick to acquiring information by mail is to become familiar with the records and policies of the archives and repositories in the area in which your ancestors lived. Questions that you need to ask before requesting copies by mail include:
- Can photocopies of documents be sent by mail?
- What records are available? For what time periods?
- Have the records been indexed?
- Can indexes for a particular surname be obtained by mail?
- What are the costs for obtaining copies?
- Is there an additional charge for requesting copies by mail over visiting in person?
- What forms of payment are accepted?
- Can requests be faxed or emailed?
- Is a complete citation (exact name, date, etc.) required, or can searches be conducted?
- What is the average turnaround time for genealogy requests?
Indexes are Key
To make it easier to request genealogy records by mail, it helps to first obtain access to any published indexes. Indexes make it easy to locate your surname, check for other possible relatives living in the area, and explore possible spelling variations. They also allow you to easily request specific documents with a citation of volume and page or certificate number. Many facilities don't have the resources for undertaking genealogy searches, but most are happy to provide copies of documents when they are provided with the specific source information obtained through the index.
Many land deeds, vital records, immigration records, and wills have been indexed and can be obtained on microfilm through your local Family History Center. You can also write to the facility directly and request copies of indexes for a specific surname or time frame. Not all repositories will provide this service, however.
Corresponding With Confidence
Unless you plan to send out only a single request, it is useful to use a form, called a correspondence log, to help you keep track of the requests you send out, the responses you receive, and the information you've obtained. Use the correspondence log to record the date of your request, the name of the person or archives with whom you are corresponding, and the information requested. When you recieve a reply, make a note of the date and the information received.
When requesting information and documents by mail you should keep your requests brief and to the point -- try not to ask for more than one or two records per transaction unless you have checked in advance with the person handling your request. Some facilities require each individual request to be handled in a separate transaction, while some will gladly copy two dozen documents for you. Include payment, if it is required, along with your letter. If payment is not required, it is always nice to offer a donation. Libraries, genealogical societies and churches, especially, appreciate this gesture. Some repositories may send you a bill after receiving your initial request, based on the actual number of photocopies required by the documents you've requested. In most cases, you will then have to send payment prior to receiving the copies.
For the best chances of encouraging a successful response to your requests:
- Always include a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE)
- Include your name and address on the letter as well as the SASE
- Include spelling variations and alternate names, or the clerk may only look up the name as you wrote it.
- Include your email address and phone number with your letter. This allows the person handling your request to contact you quickly if they have any questions.
- Be polite and courteous.
Where to Write
There are numerous sources on the Internet as well as several published books which can provide details on where to write for specific records. The country, state, county, and local sites on WorldGenWeb.com and USGenWeb.com are a good source for contact information and tips on local libraries, courthouses, churches, societies, and archives. Good published books include: [blockquote shade="no"] The International Vital Records Handbook
Thomas J. Kemp
The Genealogist's Address Book
Elizabeth Petty Bentley
The Family Tree Resource Book for Genealogists
Family Tree Books
Handybook for Genealogists
Ancestry's Red Book
A lot of your genealogy research can be successfully conducted by mail as long as you do your homework, are polite and considerate in all of your correspondence, and keep good track of your results. Happy hunting!