Genealogy Research at the Courthouse, Archives or Library

10 Tips for Planning Your Visit & Maximizing Your Results

Locating records in a courthouse or archive is much easier with some advanced planning!
Getty / Nikada

The process of researching your family tree will eventually lead you to a courthouse, library, archives or other repository of original documents and published sources. The day-to-day joys and hardships of your ancestors’ lives can often be found documented among the numerous original records of the local court, while the library may contain a wealth of information on their community, neighbors and friends.

Marriage certificates, family histories, land grants, military rosters and a wealth of other genealogical clues are tucked away in folders, boxes, and books just waiting to be discovered.

Before heading for the courthouse or library, however, it helps to prepare. Try these 10 tips for planning your visit and maximizing your results.

1. Scout the Location

The first, and most important, step in onsite genealogy research is learning which government most likely had jurisdiction over the area in which your ancestors lived during the time they lived there. In many places, especially in the United States, this is the county or county equivalent (e.g. parish, shire). In other areas, the records may be found housed in town halls, probate districts or other jurisdictional authorities. You'll also have to bone up on changing political and geographical boundaries to know who actually had jurisdiction over the area where your ancestor lived for the time period you're researching, and who has current possession of those records.

If your ancestors lived near the county line, you may find them documented among the records of the adjoining county. While a bit uncommon, I actually have an ancestor whose land straddled the county lines of three counties, making it necessary for me to routinely check the records of all three counties (and their parent counties!) when researching that particular family.

2. Who Has the Records?

Many of the records you'll need, from vital records to land transactions, are likely to be found at the local courthouse. In some cases, however, the older records may have been transferred to a state archives, local historical society, or other repository. Check with members of the local genealogical society, at the local library, or online through resources such as the Family History Research Wiki or GenWeb to learn where the records for your location and time period of interest might be found. Even within the courthouse, different offices usually hold different types of records, and may maintain different hours and even be located in different buildings. Some records may also be available in multiple locations, as well, in microfilm or printed form. For U.S. research, The Handybook for Genealogists, 11th edition (Everton Publishers, 2006) or Ancestry's Red Book: American State, County and Town Sources, 3rd edition (Ancestry Publishing, 2004) both include state-by-state and county-by-county lists of which offices hold which records. You may also want to explore WPA Historical Records Survey inventories, if available for your locality, to identify other potential records.

3. Are the Records Available?

You don't want to plan a trip halfway across the country only to find that the records you seek were destroyed in a courthouse fire in 1865. Or that the office stores the marriage records in an offsite location, and they need to be requested in advance of your visit. Or that some of the county record books are being repaired, microfilmed, or are otherwise temporarily unavailable. Once you've determined the repository and records you plan to research, it is definitely worth the time to call to make sure the records are available for research. If the original record you seek is no longer extant, check the Family History Library Catalog to see if the record is available on microfilm. When I was told by a North Carolina county deed office that Deed Book A had been missing for some time, I was still able to access a microfilmed copy of the book through my local Family History Center.

4. Create a Research Plan

As you enter the doors of a courthouse or library, it's tempting to want to jump into everything at once. There usually aren't enough hours in the day, however, to research all records for all of your ancestors in one short trip. Plan your research before you go, and you'll be less tempted by distractions and less likely to miss important details. Create a checklist with names, dates and details for each record you plan to research in advance of your visit, and then check them off as you go. By focusing your search on just a few ancestors or a few record types, you'll be more likely to achieve your research goals.

5. Time Your Trip

Before you visit, you should always contact the courthouse, library or archives to see if there are any access restrictions or closures which may affect your visit. Even if their website includes operating hours and holiday closures, it is still best to confirm this in person. Ask if there are any limits on the number of researchers, if you have to sign up in advance for microfilm readers, or if any courthouse offices or special library collections maintain separate hours. It also helps to ask if there are certain times which are less busy than others.

Next > 5 More Tips for Your Courthouse Visit

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6. Learn the Lay of the Land

Each genealogical repository you visit is going to be slightly different - whether it's a different layout or setup, different policies and procedures, different equipment, or a different organizational system. Check the facility's website, or with other genealogists who utilize the facility, and familiarize yourself with the research process and procedures before you go.

Check the card catalog online, if it is available, and compile a list of the records you want to research, along with their call numbers. Ask if there is a reference librarian who specializes in your specific area of interest, and learn what hours he/she will be working. If records you'll be researching use a certain type of index system, such as the Russell Index, then it helps to familiarize yourself with it before you go.

7. Prepare for Your Visit

Courthouse offices are often small and cramped, so it is best to keep your belongings to a minimum. Pack a single bag with a notepad, pencils, coins for the photocopier and parking, your research plan and checklist, a brief summary of what you already know about the family, and a camera (if allowed). If you plan to take a laptop computer, make sure that you have a charged battery, because many repositories do not provide electrical access (some do not allow laptops).

Wear comfortable, flat shoes, as many courthouses don’t offer tables and chairs, and you may spend a lot of time on your feet.

8. Be Courteous & Respectful

Staff members at archives, courthouses and libraries are generally very helpful, friendly people, but they are also very busy trying to do their job.

Respect their time and avoid pestering them with questions not specifically related to research in the facility or hold them hostage with tales about your ancestors. If you have a genealogy how-to question or trouble reading a particular word that just can't wait, it is usually better to ask another researcher (just don't pester them with multiple questions either). Archivists also greatly appreciate researchers who refrain from requesting records or copies just before closing time!

9. Take Good Notes & Make Plenty of Copies

While you may take the time to reach a few on-site conclusions about the records you find, it is usually best to take everything home with you where you have more time to examine it thoroughly for every last detail. Make photocopies of everything, if possible. If copies aren't an option, then take the time to make a transcription or abstract, including misspellings. On each photocopy, make note of the complete source for the document. If you have time, and money for copies, it can also be helpful to make copies of the complete index for your surname(s) of interest for certain records, such as marriages or deeds. One of them may later make an appearance in your research

10. Concentrate on the Unique

Unless the facility is one you can easily access on a regular basis, it is often beneficial to begin your research with the parts of its collection that aren't easily available elsewhere. Concentrate on original records that haven't been microfilmed, family papers, photograph collections, and other unique resources. At the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, for example, many researchers begin with the books as they are generally not available on loan, while the microfilms can be borrowed through your local Family History Center, or sometimes viewed online.