Tips from the Pros: Preparing for Courthouse Visits, by Jana Sloan Broglin, CG

Summertime means vacations and research trips. Are you one of the many hitting the courthouses this year? If so, there are a few things to remember before loading all your research into the car or van.

First: Exactly what courthouse do you need? Check books such as the Red Book, Everton’s Handy Book for Genealogists, or Family Tree’s Resource Book for Genealogists to find out if your courthouse even existed during your research timeframe. Yep, counties had parents too, so you may need to go to the parent courthouse. As an example, I was on a research trip to southern Ohio. Knowing that Ross County was formed before Madison and Franklin counties, helped me plan my trip as I wanted to go to the oldest of the counties first.

Second: What are the courthouse hours? Small counties may actually have restricted hours, so it’s wise to call ahead. Also find out if all the records are stored “onsite” or “offsite.” If the early records you need are stored “offsite” in an area closed to the public, you may need to request the items prior to the courthouse visit. It’s also a good idea to find out the photocopy costs.

Third: Plan your research. What records do you need to use? List the items you need to find in the courthouse. Don’t forget to allow time to visit the local genealogical society or historical society, as well as the library.

Fourth: Dress for the occasion. Whites are a no-no. Those early records aren’t dusted and you can become rather dirty just moving those old volumes. Dress nicely–no vacation clothes and flip-flops. Skirts and dress shoes aren’t needed as they can present a problem going up and down ladders.

Fifth: Don’t cart all you have in your research into the courthouse. Just take the needed items, preferably a list of items needed (along with the family names in the county). The courthouse staff is busy with the day-to-day running of the offices, so don’t go into major detail about your family. As Sgt. Joe Friday on Dragnet used to say, “Just the facts, ma’am.” Keep your questions brief, asking where the records for a specific timeframe are held.

It may seem like a lot, but now you are ready to get out there and research at the local courthouse. Have fun!

Share your courthouse stories and tips in the comments section below.

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14 thoughts on “Tips from the Pros: Preparing for Courthouse Visits, by Jana Sloan Broglin, CG

  1. In the rural areas, where the offices in the courthouse may be staffed by only one or two people, it is always a good idea to call and ask for a time to stop in at THEIR convenience. Common courtesy is a must! You might also ask if any “credentials’ are necessary to view items such as marriages and deaths as they are in South Dakota.

  2. Monday mornings and Friday afternoon are generally not good times. Please and thank you go a long way with the dtaff. A small gift (boxed candy etc) the staff will really appreciate.

  3. Years ago I was at Ms. Broglin’s “home” courthouse. The Recorders Office was a very crowded and small space. The staff wasn’t happy with me being there until I told them I was on a paid job. I tried to stay out of every one’s way and used the top of a radiator in a corner as my desk. Suddenly one of the journels slipped and hit my foot on the way to the floor. I quickly checked around to see if anyone else had noticed and were on the verge of kicking me out. About then, my toe started throbbing and kept getting worse. Finally I had to give up and leave. The moral of the story is that genealogy can be hazardous to your health. I had broken my big toe splitting the bone completely through. I ended up on crutches for 3 mos. Why that long? Later I stumbled and broke two toes on the other foot!

  4. I recently visited a courthouse (should I say where?) and was confronted there up on the top floor with an armed policeman who needed to inspect my purse, confiscate my camera, etc. just to get into the archives room. Inside I was told that the staff would retrieve various items, but I needed to pay EXACT CHANGE for copies to be made. I happened to have $1.00 in coins and a $20 bill. That meant at 25 cents per copy I could only get 4 copies!

  5. I just returned from a much less fruitful trip to Minneapolis than i would have liked.

    I found something online several weeks ago online saying that if visiting the Hennepin Co. courthouse, I should call ahead to reserve the microfilm reader. I always try to do as much legwork as possible beforehand so my trips are as efficient as I can make them. I needed to do a decent amount of searching for two branches of the family there. One of whom had a decent number of divorces. So I had to check with the family court office as well as vital records.


    I was informed by both offices that their microfilm readers have gone the way of the dodo and are not being replaced (except for the one in the back that they use to do mail orders). Supposedly, there is no other way to view the records. When I asked what happened to the original record books, I was told that microfilm was all they had.

    The person in the family court even went so far as to tell me that I could go to the Historical Center in St. Paul, and that they had the divorce records up til 1934. This is a lie. The woman at the Historical Society told me that the courthouse staff have been told multiple times to stop sending people there because they don’t have the records.

    So, make yourself aware of situations like this before you travel so you can make alternate arrangements and not be quite as tempted to punch someone because you have no backup plan.

  6. About four years ago our county had a budget cut due to a new city being formed, while a lot of the county services lost about a third of their work and a third of their budget the Auditors office did not loose any work. So the auditor came to the local genealogical society looking for a genealogist volunteer to do lookups for other genealogists, so I have been doing those lookups and am very familiar with the courthouse records, so I am glad you said to check with the local genealogical society as I can help others find the records quickly. Our state archives has most all of the original records from the courthouse now, and the courthouse just has microfilm. They recently bought a new microfilm reader printer, but only for staff (and me :)). The state archives is putting a lot of the courthouse records online, so check to see if the record you are looking for is online.


  7. When you call the courthouses, you might also ask if there is seating. I’ve had to stand at a counter and look at books. In one county we sat on the vault floor, which was better then standing but really hard on old stiff joints. I had one county in Iowa that wanted the exact date of the event I was looking for.. birth ,death , marriage.

    I also want to say that the new Midwest Genealogy Center here in the K.C. area has just opened, and I can’t wait to get to it. I think my first couple of visits would be best spent seeing what they have. It’s supposed to be huge. It’s listed as one of the “Nines libraries to visit before you die”. I’ll let you know.

  8. Jana,

    Those are excellent tips. I see others have offered additional valuable perspectives. I’m not one to bribe public officials, but I find that there are 3 additional things to bring to a courthouse:
    1 – a warm smile
    2 – a courteous attitude
    3 – a box of fresh donuts, if you arrive in the morning.
    Or, as me Mum used to say, “A little kindness goes a long way.”

    Happy Dae.
    http://www.ShoeStringGenealogy. com

  9. Just wanted to say thanks to the Hennelpin County posters. I am headed that direction and you have saved me!

  10. Before planning to visit a courthouse, check to see if the records you are needing haven’t been microfilmed, sent to the state archives, and/or posted online. It would be better to focus your travel efforts on records you are unable to get from other sources. And that shou.d help the congestion at the courthouses.

    The members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints have microfilmed a large number of county records. The last I checked, these are available from the Family History Centers and the main library in Salt Lake City, Utah.

    In Texas, the state library has microfilm of each the county records. A listing of their holdings can be found in their online catalog on their website. Again, the last time I checked, these were available for Interlibrary loan to your local Texas library. I suspect they will lend to libraries out of state as well, however there may be fees.

    And don’t overlook the local libraries. Many have added their county and sometimes State records to their microfilm holdings. (Those are typically not available for loan.)

    I have also found that the wonderful volunteers on USGenWeb, other groups, and/or individuals have been adding records to their websites. In Memphis, Tennessee, the Shelby County Court Clerk’s office is putting their records online, including a 1865 Memphis census and the local historical society’s journal.

    I only go to the courthouse when all of these other sources fail, or if I suspect the records I have found are incomplete or wrong.

  11. So many courthouses have burned, check before you go. They may not have records for the years you desire.
    Roy Howard, Chattanooga.

  12. I just want to add that (and it may have already been posted) that in Texas records are not always at the courthouse per se. In some counties, the County Clerk is located in another building, sometimes not even close to the courthouse but in another part of the town. It is good to call ahead of time to ask pertinent questions.

  13. While visiting courthouses I have had to leave my camera in my car (but was able to take in my cellphone), puffed with air (to sniff for drugs), and at one, had to remove my belt and shoes before going through the metal detector. Sometimes records were paper, sometimes film, sometimes out in the open, sometimes I had to give them a form to request them, sometimes they weren’t there at all. Some allowed me to take photos, some didn’t. Some made change, some didn’t, prices ranged from 10 cents a copy to $6. No two courthouses have been the same. Dress simply, take lots of money, take change, have plenty of patience, and if you can call first, do so. I always smiled, greeted them courteously, thanked them for their help, and got much more than I paid for. Some of the conditions were less than ideal, but the people were always wonderful.

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