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Genealogy Research at the Courthouse, Archives or Library

10 Tips for Planning Your Visit & Maximizing Your Results


The process of researching your family tree will eventually lead you to a courthouse, library, archives or other repository of original documents and published sources. The day-to-day joys and hardships of your ancestors’ lives can often be found documented among the numerous original records of the local court, while the library may contain a wealth of information on their community, neighbors and friends. Marriage certificates, family histories, land grants, military rosters and a wealth of other genealogical clues are tucked away in folders, boxes, and books just waiting to be discovered.

Before heading for the courthouse or library, however, it helps to prepare. Try these 10 tips for planning your visit and maximizing your resutls.

1. Scout the Location

The first, and most important, step in onsite genealogy research is learning which government most likely had jurisdiction over the area in which your ancestors lived during the time they lived there. In many places, especially in the United States, this is the county or county equivalent (e.g. parish, shire). In other areas, the records may be found housed in town halls, probate districts or other jurisdictional authorities. You'll also have to bone up on changing political and geographical boundaries to know who actually had jurisdiction over the area where your ancestor lived for the time period you're researching, and who has current possession of those records. If your ancestors lived near the county line, you may find them documented among the records of the adjoining county. While a bit uncommon, I actually have an ancestor whose land straddled the county lines of three counties, making it necessary for me to routinely check the records of all three counties when researching that particular family.

2. Who Has the Records?

Many of the records you'll need, from vital records to land transactions, are likely to be found at the local courthouse. In some cases, however, the older records may have been transferred to a state archives, local historical society, or other repository. Check with members of the local genealogical society, at the local library, or online at the local GenWeb site to learn where the records for your location and time period of interest can be found. Even within the courthouse, different offices usually hold different types of records, and may maintain different hours and even be located in different buildings. Some records may also be available in multiple locations, as well, in microfilm or printed form. For U.S. research, The Handybook for Genealogists, 11th edition (Everton Publishers, 2006) or Family Tree Resource Book (Family Tree Books, 2004) both include state-by-state and county-by-county lists of which offices hold which records.

3. Are the Records Available?

You don't want to plan a trip halfway across the country only to find that the records you seek were destroyed in a courthouse fire in 1865. Or that the office stores the marriage records in an offsite location, and they need to be requested in advance of your visit. Or that some of the county record books are being repaired, microfilmed, or are otherwise temporarily unavailable. Once you've determined the repository and records you plan to research, it is definitely worth the time to call to make sure the records are available for research. If the original record you seek is no longer extant, check the Family History Library Catalog to see if the record is available on microfilm. When I was told by a North Carolina county deed office that Deed Book A had been missing for some time, I was still able to access a microfilmed copy of the book through my local Family History Center.

4. Create a Research Plan

As you enter the doors of a courthouse or library, it's tempting to want to jump into everything at once. There usually aren't enough hours in the day, however, to research all records for all of your ancestors in one short trip. By planning your research before you go, you'll be less tempted by distractions and less likely to miss important details. Create a checklist with names, dates and details for each record you plan to research in advance of your visit, and then check them off as you go. By focusing your search on just a few ancestors or a few record types, you'll be more likely to achieve your research goals.

5. Time Your Trip

Before you visit, you should always contact the courthouse, library or archives to see if there are any access restrictions or closures which may affect your visit. Even if the Web site includes operating hours and holiday closures, it is still best to confirm this in person. Ask if there are any limits on the number of researchers, if you have to sign up in advance for microfilm readers, or if any courthouse offices or special library collections maintain separate hours. It also helps to ask if there are certain times which are less busy than others.

Next > More Tips for Your Courthouse Visit

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