Courthouse research tips for genealogists

Got a research trip coming up soon? These courthouse research tips for genealogists from The Archive Lady, Melissa Barker, will help you get organized before you hit the road. That way, you’ll be prepared to use your time well at your ancestor’s courthouse–to explore all those original records that may reveal your family history.

3 courthouse research tips for genealogists

Courthouses are one of my favorite places to conduct my genealogy research. Many of our courthouses have  a wealth of genealogical records and information.

Courthouses may not have the word “archive” on the building but they are a type of archive. Here are some tips that will help you be successful the next time you are doing genealogy research at a local courthouse.

1. Scout the logistics

Call ahead to find out the days and hours of operation. This is the most important tip I can give anyone about researching in courthouses. In most courthouses, there are different offices for different types of records. Each office has their own phone number and can be contacted concerning hours of operation. Also, ask what days and times are best for a genealogist to visit their office to do research.

Ask about the availability of parking at the courthouse. Many of our courthouse campuses have limited parking for patrons. This problem is often made worse on days when court is in session and many people arrive to participate in court actions. Arriving at the courthouse and ready to do research, you do not want to discover that the only place to park is a block away or at the distant parking garage.

2. Locate records ahead of time

Ask about the availability and location of records. It might be a no-brainer that the deed records will be found in the Register of Deeds office. But are the oldest deed books there–the ones you need? Many times, courthouse offices run out of room for the old records and will transfer them to the county archives, which may not be located in the courthouse. It is important to know what records are available in the office where you wish to do genealogy research. If the older records have been sent to the archives or some other facility, you want to know that before you get to the courthouse.

3. Be patient

Whether you are visiting the courthouse or working with them through phone calls and emails, patience is a key element. As a genealogist, I know the urgency we all feel in trying to locate our ancestor’s records. Many times, we are experiencing great momentum in our genealogy research and we do not want to be hindered in our quest for that one piece of information we are seeking. If you walk into an office and they are very busy, please be patient if the staff member asks you to wait before they can get those old dusty books from the back room. If you have emailed or telephoned an office and they have told you they will get back with you, be patient and wait for that response.

The records that can be found in courthouses can be essential to our genealogy research. Implementing these tips will help you be more successful when doing research at the local courthouse.

Ready to get serious about courthouse research?

Check out this excellent article on researching wills and probate records by Margaret Linford. Her tips will help you understand what’s in these courthouse essentials, where to find them–and what to do with your bored non-researching travel companions!

About the Author: Melissa Barker is a Certified Archives Records Manager, the Houston County, Tennessee Archivist and author of the popular blog A Genealogist in the Archives and an advice columnist. She has been researching her own family history for the past 27 years.

“Archivist in a Backpack:” Create a Portable Archiving Kit

A new “Archivist in a Backpack” project to support community archiving offers genealogists a great idea: a portable archiving kit for on-the-go genealogy research and preservation projects. The Archive Lady Melissa Barker explains the initiative and offers her ideas for archiving supplies that you can stuff into your own backpack.

Archivist in a Backpack Project

A new prototype project from the Southern Historical Collection at the Wilson Special Collections Library aims to promote community-driven archiving efforts. The project, “Archivist in a Backpack,” is part of a three-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Through this grant, the Southern Historical Collections will provide training, technical know-how, supplies and equipment to help local communities record and preserve their own history. Currently, the SHC is partnering with four community archiving projects: The Appalachian Student Health Coalition, Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project, The Historic Black Towns & Settlements Association and the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum.

Using rolling suitcases that contain items to help community-based historians begin building a local archive, the archivists hope to teach archival skills to those who are building an archive in their community. Included in the archiving kits are items like portable scanners, gloves, archival sleeves, archival file folders, soft #2 pencils and instructions on how to use these items when working with historical and genealogical records.

Josephine McRobbie, community archivist at the Southern Historical Collection at the Wilson Special Collections Library, says in this press release, “When community members learn these skills and gain familiarity with common tools and equipment like acid-free folders to portable audio recorders, it is empowering and builds their sense of identity as historians and community archivists.” McRobbie and her colleagues want people to know that “telling the stories of their lives in their own community are well within reach and that the rewards can be tremendous. Simply making good records of what is gathered, and keeping everything in a cool, dry place, will go a long way toward preserving stories for future generations.”

The project is only in its first year and in the second and third year they are planning on refining the program. They will assess the work done to date and create new kits based on user feedback. They will also share their experience with additional community partners and with the archival profession. Keep an eye out for the “Archivist in a Backpack” project in your area! 

Create your own portable archiving kit

You can create your own “archivist backpack” for whenever you have opportunities to preserve family history documents, photos, memorabilia and even memories. These opportunities can come up suddenly when visiting a relative’s house, attending a family reunion or stopping by a local historical or genealogical society. Here are some suggestions on what to include in your archiving-on-the-go kit:

  • Soft archival gloves for handling fragile items without getting them dirty;
  • Soft #2 Pencils for identifying photos and other items (Use on the backs, preferably along the edge, and if pencil markings won’t adhere to the photograph, you can use an Identi-Pen);
  • portable scanner to quickly scan photos or documents;
  • Your favorite digital camera to snap pictures or record interviews (your smartphone may be just as good or better than a digital camera and easier to carry);
  • A thumb drive with plenty of room on it to copy digital files between computers or devices;
  • Your laptop, to organize files, type notes, etc. (make sure it holds its charge well, as sometimes you’re not able to plug in while you’re working).

More great tips for the mobile genealogist

Are you an on-the-go family history researcher? Let these articles inspire your next genealogy (or other) road trip!

Ultimate genealogy playlist for your summer road trip

How to upload your ebooks to your own Google Play Books library

Great local history apps for genealogists

About the Author: Melissa Barker

About the Author: Melissa Barker

The Archive Lady

Melissa is a Certified Archives Records Manager, the Houston County, Tennessee Archivist and author of the popular blog A Genealogist in the Archives and an advice columnist. She has been researching her own family history for the past 27 years.

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Using Vertical Files in Archives

Vertical files in archives are like Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get. The Archive Lady Melissa Barker shows us the fabulous genealogy finds that may be awaiting you in an archive somewhere. The family history you may find may be even sweeter than your favorite truffles.

In the movie Forrest Gump, the character Forrest Gump says: “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.” In an archive, it can be said: “Vertical files are like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.” So, what are vertical files?

Vertical files in archives

Vertical files (or subject files as they are sometimes called) can be found in most state and local archives, historical societies, genealogical societies, libraries and even in some museum collections.

Vertical files are a collection of documents and ephemera that are put in file folders which are then put in filing cabinets and cataloged by surname or subject. These files could contain just about anything that can fit into a file folder. Most archives will create an index by the title on each folder but most of the time what is inside of each folder is not cataloged. Vertical files are sometimes seen as a “catch-all” or a “hodgepodge” for all those documents that don’t really go anywhere else but should not be discarded.

Images courtesy of Melissa Barker and Houston County, TN Archives.

Most archivists file family group sheets and genealogical information that has been donated to the archives in vertical files. Other wonderful items found in vertical files could be compiled family histories, photographs, and even receipts like the one shown here for E.E. Collison Jr’s Portrait and Landscape Photography studio.

Images courtesy of Melissa Barker and Houston County, TN Archives.

One of the most popular genealogical items to find in vertical files is newspaper clippings. These clippings could be an obituary, a marriage announcement, a birth announcement or just about anything that has been clipped from the newspaper. Above is an example: an advertisement for Skelton’s Super Market.

Accessing and using vertical files in archives

When doing genealogy research in an archive, ask the archivist if they have vertical files. These collections of records could be very valuable for genealogy research. Some archives don’t always advertise that they have a collection of vertical files, so it’s important that the researcher ask the archivist specifically about this collection. Vertical files are usually stored in back rooms of the archives but the index is available at the archivist’s front desk or they could be on the in-house computer.

Once you have found what interests you in the index, you can request the files that you would like to investigate further. The archivist will retrieve them and bring them to you, sometimes only one or two files at a time. Once you have received the files, you can look at each item and make copies of what is of interest to you and your genealogy research. When you have finished with the file, give it back to the archivist who will then bring other files you have requested.

So next time you are researching at an archive, ask if they have vertical files! Like that box of chocolates,”you never know what you are going to get.”

My motto is, “It’s not all online, contact or visit an archive today!” Read more articles about uncovering genealogy gems in original manuscript repositories–you may soon find yourself visiting one.

Found in an archive: 10 unexpected discoveries

Keeping up: How to know what’s new at your favorite archive

Top 5 questions I get asked as an archivist

About the Author: Melissa Barker

About the Author: Melissa Barker

The Archive Lady

Melissa is a Certified Archives Records Manager, the Houston County, Tennessee Archivist and author of the popular blog A Genealogist in the Archives and an advice columnist. She has been researching her own family history for the past 27 years.

Home Archiving for the Genealogist: 5 Ways to Think Like an Archivist

You may be doing some “home archiving” without even realizing it, if you’re the keeper of any family photos, documents, heirlooms, or artifacts. Professional archivist and genealogist Melissa Barker offers these tips for the family historian and keeper of the family archive.

Home Archives

I have always said that “home archiving” is something genealogists do, perhaps without ever calling it that. So family historians can definitely benefit from learning how archivists work. Here are five ways to think like an archivist.

5 Home Archiving Tips for Family Historians

family history video documents home archiving1. Learn to preserve family artifacts.

Archivists are always educating themselves on how to preserve certain items that have come to their archives. Genealogists inherit family heirlooms all the time. Learning how to preserve them is thinking like an archivist.

Tip: Preserving an item means keeping it from further deterioration. This may mean putting it in special storage materials, keeping it out of strong light, and storing it in a place that isn’t too hot, cold, or humid. Click here to read an article on humidity and your family archive.

2. Organize your “collection.”

A very important job for archivists is keeping their records collections organized so they know what they have and can pull them efficiently. Genealogists, as home archivists, would also benefit from keeping their genealogical records organized.

Tip: Get inspired! Click here to catch some tips on organizing your digital photos from Denise Levenick, The Family Curator and author of How to Archive Family Keepsakes: Learn How to Preserve Family Photos, Memorabilia and Genealogy Records.

archival sleeve3. Store your treasures carefully.

Archivists are always careful to use special materials such as archival file folders and boxes to put records and artifacts into for preservation. Genealogists should use archival materials to preserve and store their records just like archivists do.

Tip: Click here to read my article on how to archive family history documents. It’s packed with great tips and recommended products to store your items safely.

4. Keep the stories that go with your artifacts.

Telling the stories of the people that have come before us is also something that archivist try to do with the records they have in their care. Archivists do this by sharing their records collections with the public through displays, exhibits, and open houses. Genealogists should tell their ancestor’s stories by sharing their family histories with their families and passing down their ancestor’s stories to the next generation.

Tip: Create a meaningful display of artifacts in your own home. Group together items that tell a story, preferably unique, eye-catching items. Add framed copies of documents and photos (keep originals safely tucked away). Click here for some fantastic ideas from Lisa Louise Cooke on sharing your family history with the non-genealogists in your family.

5. Archive your own mementos.

Archivists collect today for tomorrow! Many archivists collect documents and artifacts that are produced today so they can be preserved for tomorrow. They collect items such as the high school graduation program, digitizing the local newspaper, and that local diner menu.

Genealogists do the same thing in their “home archiving” by collecting and preserving a funeral card, digital photographs they took at the grandbaby’s birthday, and the marriage invitation you received for your niece’s wedding.

Home Archiving, National Archiving: It’s all in the Genealogy Gems Podcast

Did you know I’m on Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems Podcast now? I chime in frequently with that “offline” archival perspective that’s so important in our research. Click here to see the list of recent episodes. In Episode 211, publishing this week, I report on a fascinating way you can help make collections from the National Archives more accessible to everyone. Why not listen in? It’s free!

New Archival Collections: How to Know What’s New at Your Favorite Repository

New archival collections at your favorite repository may be the long-awaited key to solving your family history mysteries! But how can you keep up with what’s new at archives and libraries? Professional archivist Melissa Barker shares her favorite tips.

new archival collections

Not long ago, Lisa Louise Cooke read my article on what’s new at the Utah State Archives. She asked me how I keep up with new archival collections at my favorite repositories.

New Archival Collections May Be Just What We Need

Many of us can say that our ancestors were living in a certain area and their records should be located at certain local archives, libraries, or genealogical or historical societies. Maybe we have even done research there in the past, either by visiting the facility, contacting them by phone or email, or using their records online. Records, photographs, ephemera, and artifacts are constantly being discovered and made available in all of our wonderful archives. Many of these records may not make it to microfilm or online, but they are so rich with family information. (Don’t know where to look? Click here to learn how to find archives and libraries near your ancestor’s locale.)

But trying to keep up with all the new records that are being processed in archives, libraries, and genealogical societies can make your head spin! So how are genealogists supposed to stay current?

3 Ways to Keep Up with New Archival Collections

new archival collections uniforms1. Check the archives website. See if they have announced new records collections that are available for research (many archives do). The archives may even have a blog or newsletter that you can subscribe to, which will give you the latest news right at your fingertips. Not only will the archives announce new records that are available but they will even let their patrons know what has been recently donated to the archives and which records are currently being processed.

2. See if the archive has a social media presence. Archives like to post photos of new discoveries and records collections that are ready for the researcher. I know at the Houston County, TN. Archives I like to scan and post images of great documents or artifacts to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. (Like the post pictured here that I shared recently.)

LISA’S TIP: Remember to use Google search terms to find your favorite archive’s website and social media homes! A quick search such as National Archives Pinterest might be faster than trying to find it on the actual social media site. That search brings up tempting boards for National Archives in both the US and the UK:

3. When visiting an archive, ask: “What’s new?” Talk to archivists about records collections that have recently been processed and made available for research. This is a great way to find more information and records about your ancestors. As an archivist who processes records on a daily basis that are not online or even microfilmed, I get excited about sharing what I find with the genealogy community.

Until next time, this is The Archive Lady, remember it’s not all online, so contact or visit an archive today!

Learn More about Using Archival Collections

Listen to me on the free Genealogy Gems Podcast! This year the podcast is celebrating its 10th-year anniversary. Tune in to hear more inspiring stories and tips to help your family history research. Listen on your computer or on your mobile device through the Genealogy Gems app. Click here to learn more.

“I Found 130 Letters by My Ancestor!” Why Use Google Books for Genealogy

Betty has at least 130 good reasons to use Google Books for genealogy! She used this powerful Google tool to find her ancestor’s name in a book–which led to a treasure trove of his original letters in an archive. Here’s what happened–and how to try this with your own family history research. 

You’ve heard me say that Google Books is the tool I turn to every day. Now, you may be thinking, “But my ancestors wouldn’t be in history books!” Resist the temptation to make assumptions about sources, and about your ancestors. With over 25 million books, Google Books is more likely to have something pertinent to your genealogy research than you think. And as I often tell my audiences, those books can include source citations, providing a trail to even more treasures.

Why to Use Google Books for Genealogy: Success Story!

At the National Genealogical Society conference this past spring, Betty attended my class and then stopped by the Genealogy Gems booth to share her story. I recorded it, and here’s a transcription:

Betty: I was stuck on my Duncan Mackenzie ancestor, so I put his name in Google Books, because when you’re stuck, that’s what you do!

Lisa: Yes, I do!

Betty: So, up popped this history of Mississippi, it was sort of a specific history, and it said Duncan Mackenzie had written a letter to his brother-in-law in North Carolina from Covington County, Mississippi. And of course I already had my tax records and my census records that placed him in Covington County. This was in the 1840s. I thought, this just couldn’t be him! Why would any of my relatives be in a book? [Sound familiar?]

So, finally, weeks later, it occurred to me to go back and look at the footnotes in the book, and I found that the letters could be found in the Duncan McLarin papers at Duke University. So, I didn’t even think to even borrow the microfilm. I just told my husband, “next time you go East for work, we need to go by Duke University.” So I set up a time, and I went, and it WAS my great-great-grandfather who wrote those letters! I have now transcribed 130 letters from that collection. They let me scan them all, and I’ve been back again to scan the rest of the legal papers.

Lisa: So, an online search into Google Books not only help you find something online, but it led you to the offline gems!

Betty: And it just changed my life! Because I spend all my time on these letters. It’s distracted me from other lines! [LOL! I get that!]

How to Use Google Books for Genealogy

Are you ready to put Google Books to work in your own research and discover some genealogy gems of your own? Here, I re-create Betty’s search for you, so you can see how to get started:

1. Go to Google Books (books.google.com). Enter search terms that would pertain to your ancestor, like a name and a place.

2. Browse the search results. The first three that show up here all look promising. Click on the first one.

3. Review the text that comes up in the text screen. As you can see here, Duncan McKenzie of Covington County is mentioned–and the source note at the bottom of the page tells you that the original letter cited in the book is at Duke University.

Learn More about Using Google Books for Genealogy

Learn more by watching my free Google Books video series at the Genealogy Gems YouTube Channel. Click the video below to watch the first one. (And be sure to subscribe while you’re there, because there are more videos to come!)

Then, watch the video below for a quick preview of my full one hour video class (and downloadable handout) called Google Books: The Tool You Need Every Day!, available to all Genealogy Gems Premium Members.

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