My mother started work on our family history back in the 70s, when I was growing up. While we were in school, she would visit libraries, Family History Centers, and the National Archives-Great Lakes. More research was done through correspondence via what we now consider â€œsnail-mail.â€
Now we can sit at home in our jammies and fuzzy slippers in front of our computers and with the click of a mouse, locate and view images of census records, military records, passenger arrival records, and so much more. With this convenience though, there is sometimes a cost. We may be so focused on whatâ€™s available online, that we may be overlooking a treasure-trove of resources that reside in the physical world–in libraries, archives, courthouses, and with historical and genealogical organizations.
It can be intimidating to venture out beyond the relative comfort of our computer chairs (and we may want to shed the jammies and fuzzy slippers in favor of more conventional clothing if weâ€™re planning on visiting a repository in person), but through correspondence, interlibrary loan, and library visits, we may find that the tools we need, arenâ€™t as far away as we thought.
Where to Check?
The good news is, when it comes to rooting out these offline resources, we can start our search online. Here are some places to get you started.
- Database Descriptions. If youâ€™re looking for an original record that corresponds with an entry you found in an online index, check out the database description. At Ancestry, in many cases (particularly with vital records), youâ€™ll find the necessary contact information where you can write to request the original record. To view the description, click on the database title at the top of the search results page, or locate it through the Ancestry Card Catalog.Â
- USGenWebÂ or WorldGenWeb. These volunteer-driven websites typically give links and information on ordering vital records, naturalizations, and other locally relevant records. In some cases, youâ€™ll also find free indexes and transcriptions.Â
- Local Government. Municipalities have figured out that a good online presence can greatly diminish the inquiries that eat up personnel time, so it often pays to go directly to the source of the records. For example, the Cook County, Illinois, website even has a genealogical page with detailed instructions and downloadable forms for requesting records.Â
- County Courthouses. Courthouses typically hold a number of records of value to family historians. The National Association of Counties (NACo) website gives addresses and links to county websites for the U.S. I checked out the Jefferson County, Ohio, website and they include a list of records they hold, years available, and contact information for requesting records.Â In addition, they list several other research repositories in the area that â€œhave excellent records.â€
- Archives. In Michael John Neillâ€™s 11 June article, he talked a little about religious denominational archives and how to locate them, and civil archives are a must as well. The National ArchivesÂ has a very helpful website with a genealogy guide, and regional branches also include information on holdings and research requests. The Great Lakes Region website, for example, has an overview of records available. The link to naturalization records lists what statesâ€™ records are held at that branch, and there is also a link to order the records online.
- State archives shouldnâ€™t be overlooked either. The Pennsylvania State Archives has an excellent reference section detailing holdings with guides to census records, coal miners and mining, county records, land records, military records, naturalization records, prison records, railroad records, ships’ lists, and vital records.Â The website also features several military databases for various conflicts in U.S. history.Â Â
- Family History Library Catalog (http://www.familysearch.org). I keep a print-out of vital records available at the Family History Library for my areas of interest. The catalog is also a great way to see what else is available for a particular area. Since my mother and have to travel to Salt Lake City periodically for work, as we run into records we need, I consult the catalog and grab film numbers so that when a trip comes up, we are ready with our to-do list.
- Other places to check would include libraries (particularly those with large genealogical collections like the one in Fort Wayne, Indiana–which Iâ€™ll happily be able to visit during the FGS Conference in AugustÂ and genealogical and historical societies. The Oregon State Genealogical Society website lists among its holdings, â€œMany Oregon county records, including land claims, large accumulation of Oregon cemetery records, Oregon death indexes, Eugene/Springfield city directories, [and] Metzger’s Lane County maps.â€
Organizing What You Find
So youâ€™ve checked around and now have amassed a ton of information. Print off inventories and make your own cheat sheets on record availability, listing repositories, years available, fees and restrictions, and addressesâ€”both street and online. Itâ€™s a good idea to keep a list of online databases that you have access to from home. You donâ€™t want to waste precious time searching records you could access anytime from home when youâ€™re on the road.
Create a â€œlocality fileâ€ and put it someplace near your desk for easy reference. I put mine in a binder so I can easily page through and get what I need. I used information and the outline from Red Book as my guide and I add pages from various repositories. (For more information on the records covered, see the description in todayâ€™s product specials or in the Ancestry Store.)
Already Have a Locality File?
If you already have a locality file, donâ€™t forget to check back on the websites periodically though to see if there have been website updates with more information and/or additions to the collections. Itâ€™s also a good idea to review it periodically for new possibilities that open up as a result of recent progress in your research.
These are just some of the places whose holdings you should familiarize yourself with. As mentioned, many wonâ€™t even require a visit in person, but if at all possible, it would be well worth the trip. Many of these repositories may have hidden gems that donâ€™t make it to the website and can only be accessed in person.
I am looking forward to my August excursion to the FGS Conference in Fort Wayne and hope to see many of you there as well. There are sure to be some happy dances in the Allen County Library that week!
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Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry.com newsletters for more than eight years and is author of The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book. She has written for Ancestry Magazine and wrote the “Computers and Technology” chapter in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy, rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at [email protected], but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.