Genealogy Correspondence 101

How to Request Information & Documents by Postal Mail

Yes, genealogy research can be successfully conducted by mail
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You can't find the information on the Internet and don't have time or money to visit the courthouse. No problem! Using the postal service to request documents, records, and other information on your family can save hours of your time. Obituaries from the library, birth certificates from the vital records office, wills from the courthouse, and marriages from the church are just some of the many records available by mail.

What are the Research Request Policies?

The trick to acquiring information by mail is to become familiar with the records and policies of the archives and repositories in the area in which your ancestors lived. Questions that you need to ask before requesting copies by mail include:

  • Can photocopies of documents be sent by mail?
  • What records are available? For what time periods?
  • Have the records been indexed?
  • Can indexes for a particular surname be obtained by mail?
  • What are the costs for obtaining copies?
  • Is there an additional charge for requesting copies by mail over visiting in person?
  • What forms of payment are accepted?
  • Can requests be faxed or emailed?
  • Is a complete citation (exact name, date, etc.) required, or can searches be conducted?
  • What is the average turnaround time for genealogy requests?

Indexes are Key

To make it easier to request genealogy records by mail, it helps to first obtain access to any published indexes.

Indexes make it easy to locate your surname, check for other possible relatives living in the area, and explore possible spelling variations. They also allow you to easily request specific documents with a citation of volume and page or certificate number. Many facilities don't have the resources for undertaking genealogy research, but most are happy to provide copies of documents when they are provided with the specific source information obtained through the index.

Many land deeds, vital records, immigration records, and wills have been indexed and can be obtained on microfilm through your local Family History Center or online through FamilySearch. You can also write to the facility (such as a deeds office) directly and request copies of indexes for a specific surname or time frame. Not all repositories will provide this service, however.

Correspond With Confidence

Unless you plan to send out only a single request, it is useful to use a form, called a correspondence log, to help you keep track of the requests you send out, the responses you receive, and the information you've obtained. Use the correspondence log to record the date of your request, the name of the person or archives with whom you are corresponding, and the information requested. When you receive a reply, make a note of the date and the information received.

When requesting information and documents by mail, keep your requests brief and to the point. Try not to ask for more than one or two records per transaction unless you have checked in advance with the person handling your request. Some facilities require each individual request to be handled in a separate transaction, while others will gladly copy two dozen documents for you.

Include payment, if it is required, along with your letter. If payment is not required, it is always nice to offer a donation. Libraries, genealogical societies, and churches, especially, appreciate this gesture. Some repositories may send you a bill after receiving your initial request, based on the actual number of photocopies required by the documents you've requested. In most cases, you will then have to send payment prior to receiving the copies.

Tips for Ensuring a Response

For the best chances of encouraging a successful response to your requests:

  • Keep your letter short and simple. State what information you need and include only the background information that may help someone find the answer to your request.
  • Include alternate name spellings, nicknames, etc. under which any records may be found.
  • Always include a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE)
  • Include your name and address on the letter, as well as the SASE
  • Include your email address and phone number with your letter. This allows the person handling your request to contact you quickly if they have any questions.
  • Be polite and courteous. "Please" and "thank you" goes a long way.
  • Proofread your letter for grammar and spelling, making sure that your request is easy to understand and that you have included accurate names, dates and places.
  • Keep a copy of your letter, at least until you receive a reply, and make note of it in your correspondence log.

 

A lot of your genealogy research can be successfully conducted by mail as long as you do your homework, are polite and considerate in all of your correspondence, and keep good track of your results. Happy hunting!