Where Are the Records? by Juliana Smith

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 “snail-mail.”

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 what’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 we’re planning on visiting a repository in person), but through correspondence, interlibrary loan, and library visits, we may find that the tools we need, aren’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 you’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), you’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. 
  • USGenWeb or WorldGenWeb. These volunteer-driven websites typically give links and information on ordering vital records, naturalizations, and other locally relevant records. In some cases, you’ll also find free indexes and transcriptions. 
  • 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. 
  • 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. In addition, they list several other research repositories in the area that “have excellent records.”
  • Archives. In Michael John Neill’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 Archives 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 states’ records are held at that branch, and there is also a link to order the records online.
  • State archives shouldn’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. The website also features several military databases for various conflicts in U.S. history.  
  • 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 I’ll happily be able to visit during the FGS Conference in August and genealogical and historical societies. The Oregon State Genealogical Society website lists among its holdings, “Many 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.”

Organizing What You Find
So you’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 addresses—both street and online. It’s a good idea to keep a list of online databases that you have access to from home. You don’t want to waste precious time searching records you could access anytime from home when you’re on the road.

Create a “locality file” 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 today’s product specials or in the Ancestry Store.)

Already Have a Locality File?
If you already have a locality file, don’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. It’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 won’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 don’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.

8 thoughts on “Where Are the Records? by Juliana Smith

  1. Why even check new genealogy websites,Ancestry.com has their fingers in them and most average people like me can’t afford the $200 a year.

  2. Excellent post, Juliana. I agree completely with your assessment and concern.

    I posted about the types of records likely to be digitized in the near future on my blog at http://randysmusings.blogspot.com/2007/06/cystal-ball-part-2-digitizing-records.html.

    While Ancestry.com has a lot of information, it doesn’t have ALL genealogy information, and it never will. 2007 has seen the creation of competitors like WorldVitalRecords, Footnote, GenealogyBank and others. FamilySearch is digitizing millions of films and fiches. The industry is healthy, indeed. Competition among providers is good for the individual researcher – the content providers have to search for and digitize new records and the researcher benfits.

    Off my soapbox…

  3. Pingback: Moore - Wilson Family History » Blog Archive » Where Are the Records? by Juliana Smith

  4. I love checking what’s new on ANCESTRY– & checking the libraries. But sometimes they are in other states, & I don’t have the time to drive there . It gets expensive to order some files. But I love it when you give more ideas of where to turn THANK YOU

  5. What suggestions do you have for Southern researchers, other than the census? Thanks to Generals Sherman, Grant, et al, many Southern courthouses and their contents were burned to the ground. It is very difficult to find records prior to 1865 unless you have access to family records, and many of them were also burned.

  6. So true! I recently had a nice bit of serendipity occur from using this advice!

    I had ordered a will for a possible Henry Smith from my family, but had to set it aside because I wasn’t sure if it was the correct guy.

    Several months later, I checked back into the Tompkins County, New York site and they had updated their cemetery records to include those of the town historian! Not only was I related to half the denizens of the Sebring Settlement Cemetery, but Henry’s will left much of his estate to his daughter Kate, whom I’d been trying to find, and her son. This will, combined with the updated records helped me find almost all the members of my GGgrandfather’s brothers’ and sisters’ branches of the family, which remained in New York after he departed for Wisconsin.

  7. Wonderful article, I have printed it out and will be consulting it over and over again.
    Thanks to all.
    Bob G.


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