Tips & Techniques for Researching in Archives, Courthouses, and Libraries

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I learned what TO do and what NOT to do while researching in archives, courthouses and libraries over the last thirty years while researching at locations in California, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Washington, D. C., and at the Family History Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Hopefully these tips will help you to be better prepared BEFORE you go on your research trip.

Before You Go to the Archive, Courthouse, or Library

  • Search the Internet to see if the records you are searching for are available locally or on the Internet. You should know that only a SMALL FRACTION of genealogy records are online. My recommendation to is to visit the locations where your ancestors lived to find records that are not online. I have found many, many records in places where you would never think to look — records that have NEVER been digitized and therefore are found nowhere else.
    • Check to see if records are available locally —
      • In a Genealogy Library? (If in Orlando, Florida, please visit the West Oaks Branch Library and it’s Genealogy Center. http://www.ocls.info/Locations/Woaks/west_oaks.asp?from=vurl_westoaks
      • At a Family History Center? Available worldwide. For locations go to https://familysearch.org/locations/
      • Online books — Google books, Amazon, Archives.org, http://www.genealogybooklinks.com/ JSTOR (use at a library or university)
      • At a local University — They often have genealogy info in their Special Collections.
      • Google what you want to know to see where you might find the information you need.
      • Join a Rootsweb Mailing List for the area where you will be searching. Members can provide valuable information on what’s available in their area and some volunteers might even do some look-ups for you.

Make a LIST of your Research Goals before you go

Your list should be specific and include location of where the record is kept, if possible. For example: Deed, 13 Nov 1856, Ohio Co., KY, No. 48, pg 309, Carson & Arthur Warren. Deed Book, Ohio County KY Courthouse.

Google “Genealogy Research Plan” to get tips.

What to bring

  • Pencils, mechanical (several)
  • Change and lots of bills ($1, $5, $10)
  • Checkbook. Some libraries will allow you to make copies and pay after with a check. Most don’t accept credit cards.
  • Camera with extra memory stick, plus battery and/or charger
  • Paper for taking notes
  • Small stapler and/or paper clips
  • Laptop or tablet to record your findings. Or you can enter info found directly into your family tree software.
  • Laptop lock (if you are concerned about leaving your computer
  • Flash drive. Some repositories & libraries will let you save info onto your own flash drive — that will save you the time it will take to copy each page and will save you money you would spent to make copies.
  • Your Research Plan or list of what information/documents you want to find.
  • Descendant charts, family group sheets or research notes specific to your intended research
  • Driver’s License (some libraries or archives require them)
  • A“fanny pack” instead of a purse to keep your valuables with you so you don’t have to carry a purse back and forth to the stacks or copy machine.
  • A magnifying glass and a piece of yellow cellophane for viewing microfilms easier.
  • The book Where Did They Put Wakulla? A Genealogist’s Guide to the Library. This book is especially good for researching in the libraries that use the Dewey Decimal System.

When you arrive

  • Ask if they have a map of their facilities or a list of what records they have and where?
  • Ask if they offer tours that will explain where records or books are located.
  • Look for abstract books or books of indexes and ask if they have microfilm records.
  • Be friendly and patient! Remember that clerks are there to do their job, and may not have much time to help genealogists.

Archives/Libraries – Questions to ask

  • Is there a fee to use?
  • How are records/books organized?
  • Do they close for lunch?
  • What items can you bring in? MANY libraries do not allow backpacks, etc., but do provide lockers to store those, for free.
  • Is there a plug for your laptop?
  • Can they recommend other places to research in the area?
  • Is there a local genealogical or historical society that might have records? Many societies have repositories of their own, apart from libraries and courthouses.
  • Ask if there is a local historian that might have knowledge of your family.
  • Are there locations to purchase local record books?
  • Do the local churches keep records?

Archives, Courthouses, & Libraries

  • Some have books of abstracts or transcripts of deeds and wills.
  • Look at books first before microfilms in the area/county where you are researching. It will be less time consuming and sometimes be easier to read.
  • Most libraries in Virginia have “Virginia Rooms” which are rooms that have genealogy books.
  • How are books shelved/organized?

Courthouses

  • If you are unfamiliar with the resources of a courthouse or if you want to search for a lot of records and not a few specific records, go to the genealogy library in the area first. Oftentimes they are close to the courthouse.
  • While in the library make a list of what records you want to look up in the courthouse. Courthouse employees do not have as much time to help genealogists, but often librarians do.
  • Find out where they keep the records from the time period you are researching. Older records might be kept in a different location.
  • Check for dates that courthouses might be closed due to renovation, cutbacks, or holidays.
  • Hours – Several libraries have cut their hours or days that they are open due to recent budget cuts. DON’T rely on the website for current info. CALL before you go.
  • Where do you park? Is there a charge to park? Are there meters? If yes, bring coins.
  • What are you allowed to bring in? Ask before you go.
  • If it is an archive, is it kept COLD? If yes, you will need to bring a sweater or jacket
  • If you plan to be at the library all day, you will need to eat. Options include:
    • Is there a cafe in the library or courthouse or one nearby? Do they take charge cards?
    • If no restaurant closeby, is there a place to eat a bag lunch there? If not, plan to eat in your car.

Indexes

  • There might be more than one index in a book and it might not be in the back of the book. And the number listed next to the surname might NOT be a page number. It might be a case number.
  • Some sets of books have one book that is just the index – each book is not individually indexed.

Birth, Marriage, & Death Records (BMD)

  • Most often BMDs are kept at the county level. However, there are 42 U. S. cities that are NOT part of a county (called Independent Cities) and those are kept at city offices. (They include Baltimore, Md., St. Louis, Mo., Carson City, Nv., and 39 are in Virginia).
  • Some repositories have books with lists of births, marriages, and deaths. Some even have copies of original birth certificates, but usually only for 19th century or earlier. 20th century documents are usually kept at vital records’ offices.
  • Some courthouses may have copies of original marriage bonds. They will probably be indexed.
  • State archive/libraries may have microfilm records of marriage banns, bonds, licenses, registers, records or minister returns, and might also have the original document on film.
  • 20th century BMDs are usually kept in a health department or vital records office of a county.

Wills, Deeds, Indentures, Estate Records

Valuable genealogical information can be found and might list names of wives, children, etc. and may include maiden names of wives. Many deeds and wills have been abstracted or transcribed and are in books in archives, courthouses, or libraries.

Info on Apprenticeship and Indenture Records can be found at http://www.barbsnow.net/apprentice.htm

Making Copies

  • Can you make photocopies of books?
  • Can you take macro photos of books/documents? Some will require that you turn OFF your flash. Use the “flower” setting on your camera.
  • How much do copies cost?
  • Do you need coins or can you purchase a copy card? Even though some copiers take cash, if you have a lot of copies to make, some libraries will allow you to purchase a copy card or use theirs and reimburse them. Some use the honor system, so keep count of your copies.
  • Do they accept personal checks or credit cards (most do not accept credit cards)? If not, bring PLENTY of cash!

Taking Photos at Libraries or Courthouses

  • ASK before taking photos – Some libraries will NOT allow the use of cameras.
  • Taking photos saves time because you don’t have to take books to copier or take large deed books apart.
  • Taking photos saves money because copies cost between 25 cents and $1.00 or more.
  • Bookcases are high – ask to stand on a stool to take photos.
  • A tripod may or may not work and may or may not be allowed
  • Put your camera on a “text” setting or on Macro (usually indicated by a small tulip-like flower.)
  • Photos are easier to save to your computer and to family file.

Citing Your Sources

  • In order to be able to properly source your documentation (especially if you are gathering documentation to apply for membership in a lineage society), be sure to copy the inside cover page and the next page (which usually includes the publisher and date of publication). You also might want to copy any pages that explain the contents/explanation of the books, if it’s not obvious.
  • Make sure you record the repository where you found your documents. Write in the margin or on the back of your document, in pencil. (Some lineage groups require this.)

TIPS

  • Call the repository right before you go. Something could have happened since you made your first inquiry. Don’t rely on websites – sometimes they are out of date.
  • Allow PLENTY of time. Time seems to go by quickly when you are researching. And research is almost always going to take more time than expected.
  • Keep a list of what you’ve found/copied so you don’t unknowingly search for that document again.

Types of Resources you might find in Archives, Courthouses , and/or Libraries

  • Adoption Records
  • Atlases, Maps, & Gazetteers
  • Bastardy Bonds
  • Bible Records
  • Biographies
  • Births/Baptisms
  • Burial Records
  • Census – Local, State, Federal, Confederate, Union, & Agricultural
  • Cemetery Records & Maps
  • Church/Parish Records
  • City Directories
  • Coroner Reports
  • County/Local Histories
  • Court Orders
  • Death Records
  • Diaries
  • Divorce Records
  • Deeds
  • Ethnic Organizations
  • Family Histories/Genealogies
  • Funeral Home Records
  • Genealogical Society Newsletters & Periodicals (those have articles written on families)
  • Insurance Policies
  • Land Grants/Records
  • Letters & other correspondence
  • Maps
  • Marriage Records – Banns, Bonds, Licenses, and Certificates
  • Military Records
  • Naturalization Records
  • Newspapers
  • Obituaries
  • Passenger Lists
  • Passport Records
  • Photographs
  • Probate Records
  • School/University Records
  • Tax Lists
  • Tombstone Inscriptions
  • Vertical Files (contain misc. surname info)
  • Voter lists/records
  • Wills/Estate Records
  • Yearbooks