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from the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 6/2/2004

From a Distance

As humans are mobile creatures, it is the rare genealogist who can trace his or her family using records within shouting distance. And while more digital copies of records are becoming available every day, there are vast quantities of records that can only be located in the area in which they were created. This week we look at some ways that records can be accessed from a distance. These suggestions are not necessarily complete, but are rather intended as a starting point to provide the reader with some options when materials cannot be easily reached.

RootsWeb Mailing Lists
RootsWeb ( ) hosts thousands of genealogical mailing lists for virtually every area of the planet, including specific counties in the United States. These lists are a potential way to connect with others researching families in the same geographic area. It may be possible to connect with individuals who are able to perform specific lookups in local records. Queries can be posted requesting such lookups, but bear in mind that you may not always get the desired response, and that some genealogy problems cannot be solved by a ten-minute lookup. If someone is kind enough to offer you their services, remember to keep the request reasonable, both in terms of the amount of information you request and in how quickly you expect a response. We've discussed posting to message lists before in previous columns:

Before You Post
After You Post

If requests for free help fall on deaf ears (and they often do), you may wish to solicit suggestions on how to handle your problem from a distance. There may be other list members who are aware of unique sources or finding aids that may make researching from a distance easier.

Local Historical or Genealogical Society
Many county historical or genealogical societies maintain a collection of local materials, either in their own separate facility or in nearby library. Some of these societies will perform searches of their records at a nominal fee. Society members familiar with local records typically perform these services as a way for the society to provide a service to the genealogical public and raise a little money in the process. Societies can use the extra money to assist in their records preservation activities.

Locating these societies can be done through the appropriate USGenWeb ( page, the applicable state page at Cyndi's List (, or by performing a search for “yourcounty” historical genealogical society at Google (

Hiring a Professional
Depending upon the problem and your finances, hiring a professional researcher may be an option. In some cases, a consultation on your problem may be sufficient, where someone familiar with local sources reads through your problem and indicates how the research should progress. If a larger project is necessary, it may be possible to break it into smaller pieces or find other family members willing to share the cost. Organizing your information for someone to read may even help you see where to go next without your ever actually having to hire the professional. A previous five-part series of columns discussed my hiring of a professional, from start to finish, and you can read these columns at

State Archives
Several state archives have significant collections of local county records in addition to state records. These records may be in either manuscript or in microtext format. Some of these facilities will perform specific searches of their materials via e-mail or U.S. mail. These services are a boon to genealogists who live a distance from the archives.

Locating the website of a state archives is relatively easy. The appropriate page of Cyndi's List ( or USGenWeb ( usually contains links to state archives pages. If you have viewed the state archives site and have not learned about their services, considering posting a query to the appropriate state genealogy mailing list (

County Courthouse
Many local records are available only in their original form in the original repository: the county courthouse. Some county record offices are able to respond to queries via mail and some are not. Contact information for county offices can be located in many places, including Ancestry's Red Book (currently being revised and updated) and the county page on USGenWeb ( If the county offices have a website, the county USGenWeb page will probably have a link to that site. The Family History Library's Research Guide for the state of interest will also provide a summary of county records typically available.

Local Library
The library in the county seat (or a large town nearby) may have materials in its collection helpful to your search. Some libraries may respond to mail requests for specific searches. If such services are offered, they are usually noted on the library's website, typically on a genealogy, special services, or special collections page. Many libraries have cut hours or staff and consequently may not be able to offer such services, especially to individuals outside the local area. To find the name of libraries near where your ancestors lived, visit LibWeb, hosted by the Berkeley Digital Library SunSITE ( USGenWeb pages also typically have links to relevant libraries and archives in the area as well.

Interlibrary Loan
Some print materials may be available through interlibrary loan. Keep in mind that a significant number of printed genealogical materials are in restricted collections that are not allowed to circulate outside the library, but it may be worth a try. If the material does not circulate, it may be possible to request a copy of the index page for a certain surname and then subsequently request specific pages once the index page has been received.

Family History Library
The Family History Library has microfilmed records from thousands of localities around the world and in many cases will have at least some materials for the desired locality. A search of the Library's online catalog ( may indicate that the library holds significant microtext materials for the area where your ancestor lived. Materials on microfilm or microfiche can be borrowed at a nominal fee from a local center of the Family History Library. Anyone with an interest in genealogy is welcome to use their local Family History Center and can search for the nearest center at the Library's website.

Wrapping It Up
There is no doubt that research from a distance is not as easy as onsite research. But it can be done. Just this week I received a probate record from Missouri and court records from Tennessee. It is not as fast as onsite research, but it does make one anticipate the mailperson more than ever.

Added since the article ran...

Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness ( has links to thousands of lookups at very reasonable costs.

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at or visit his website at, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2004, --used by the author on his website with permission