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
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
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 (www.usgenweb.org)
page, the applicable state page at Cyndi's List (www.cyndislist.com),
or by performing a search for “yourcounty” historical genealogical society
at Google (www.google.com).
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 www.rootdig.com/professional.
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 (www.cyndislist.com)
or USGenWeb (www.usgenweb.org)
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 (http://lists.rootsweb.com).
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 (www.usgenweb.org).
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.
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
USGenWeb pages also typically have links to relevant libraries and archives
in the area as well.
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
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
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
Added since the article ran...
Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness (www.raogk.com)
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 email@example.com or
visit his website at www.rootdig.com,
but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.
Copyright 2004, MyFamily.com.
--used by the author on his website with permission