How May I Help You? Getting The Answers You Need From Government Agencies, Archives & Libraries
by Ruth Lang | Apr 3, 2012
Over the years as I have researched my own family tree and those of my clients, I have learned much from correspondence with record clerks, archivists and researchers in various agencies and repositories. For ten years, I also worked as an archives assistant and researcher with my local historical society, and assisted in answering researcher inquiries. These suggestions may help you to get the answers you need to further your genealogical research.
Check Published Or Online Indexes First
Before you request a record, check to see if there is an online, microfilmed or published index to the collection. Often indexes may give the exact volume and page number, which will enable the clerk to find the record faster. When conducting California-based research, I frequently consult the California Death Records index. If I find the record I need, I use the index to locate the county where the original record is stored, as well as the death date of the deceased. I then go to the County Recorder's website to download an application for a death record and fill in the information I found in the index.
Research The Repository
Before contacting or visiting a repository such as an historical archive or library, it is helpful to read about the organization first online. Some organizations have detailed information regarding their special rules and policies, or have brochures you can download. You may learn that the repository requires an appointment to view collections, has time limits for research, restricts the number of copies you can make, charges a research fee, or has an unusually long wait time for research results. Send requests to the archive or research library's mail or email address, rather than using a general mailbox address. It is also important to check to see when the repository is open. Due to furloughs, holidays or scheduled closings, the hours might be different during the time you plan to visit.
If the organization does not have a website, call to have informational brochures sent to you, so you can plan your trip accordingly.
Calling A Repository
If you must call a repository with a request, be brief. Let them know you have a research request, so your call can be forwarded to the person or department that can help you. Do not assume the person answering the phone will have a ready answer for you, for volunteers often answer phones and are not always aware of the organization's collections. When you are discussing your request with the appropriate person, do not relate your entire family history to them, as it may be difficult for the person to take accurate notes. If the request is detailed, send an email or letter request instead.
Most county offices, large libraries, state and local historical societies have email contact or online request forms. When emailing a research request, be sure to include a concise subject line that briefly explains your request. Make sure you add your contact information in the email, including phone number and mailing address, so the researcher can follow up if they need additional information. A mailing address is important, even in an email, for it lets the researcher know if you do or do not live in the area. If you do not include a mailing address, the researcher may assume you live nearby and may suggest local resources.
Avoid typing your email request in all capital letters. Queries written in "all caps" will look like you are shouting your request, demanding attention, or that you lack in technological skills. This is not the impression you wish to make. It is best to stick with the more traditional form of upper and lower-case letters to generate a more positive outcome with your requests.
Corresponding By "Snail Mail"
Sometimes a letter to a repository is still the best way to correspond. State and local governmental offices are often too busy or unable to answer email requests. When you send your request, make sure it is detailed enough so the clerk understands the nature of your request (see below for tips on wording your request). For example, I once requested a death record for a "Virgina Records". The clerk did not understand that "Records" was a last name, and thought I was requesting "records" for a Virginia. She than called me to ask what Virginia's last name was! I should have included a note with the application, explaining that "Records" was the surname.
As with email requests, make sure you have your contact information in the letter, including phone number, mailing address and email address, so the researcher can follow up with any questions. If you are sending enclosures, such a photocopy of a document, be sure to note that in your letter. Always include an S.A.S.E (Self Addressed Stamped Envelope) with your request.
Include a check with a small amount as a donation for their services, and indicate that you will cover any additional costs. Even small donations are appreciated, as they help organizations to continue to provide valuable services to the genealogy community.
How To Word Your Email Or Written Request
With a written or emailed request, it is advisable not to begin with "Dear Sirs". An office or repository may only have female employees or volunteers, and may be offended by this! If you know the name of the researcher, clerk or archivist, use it to begin your request. If you do not have a name, you may want to use "Research department" or "Archives staff" instead.
You may achieve better results by saying "I'm researching Charles Smith" or "I'm researching early Fresno County agricultural families" instead of "I'm researching my family tree". Repositories may provide better service if they think you is a serious researcher or historian than just someone researching their family tree as a hobby. Provide alternate name spellings or nicknames of your subject(s), and make sure you include correct dates. Give as much helpful information as possible, including places of residence, maiden names, names of children and spouses. Do not say, "I want to know everything you have on my family". Ask for only one or two pieces of information at a time, such as an obituary, a family history, a newspaper article, etc. If you have multiple requests, your query may be refused or returned unanswered. Offer to pay for research time, postage, and copying costs.
Often genealogical and historical societies have volunteers do research requests. They may have good intentions and enthusiastically find more information than you want or need, and then charge a fee for the research. State very clearly in your request what you are seeking and what you have already researched. However, sometimes these helpful researchers may uncover some great finds. Just be prepared to pay for their research time and copies.
Notarized Copies Vs. "Informational Copies"
Sometimes online forms for vital records ask for a notarized sworn statement first before you order a record. This is usually only if you need a certified copy. A notarized sworn statement is not needed if ordering an informational copy. Be sure to check off or indicate on the form or in the letter that you wish an informational copy for genealogical purposes, or it will be assumed you wish a certified copy, and your application will be returned if it is not notarized.
Some vital records offices require that you send an S.A.S.E. when requesting vital records by mail. Make sure you read any instructions online or printed on the form before sending your request.
Corresponding With Professional Genealogists
If the repository has extensive materials on your ancestor, but not the staff to do the research for you, ask if they can recommend a local researcher. You can also search for a researcher through the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) and the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG) websites. Each has an online database to search for professional genealogists and researchers in your needed area.
It is helpful to read APG's "Hiring a Professional" before contacting a researcher. Check to see if the researcher has a business website. Often the website will describe their services in detail, their geographic or research specialty, and their fees. When emailing or writing to a professional genealogist, compose a detailed, but not too lengthy message outlining your goals, and inquire if they are available for research. The researcher may contact you with further questions, and you should be prepared to tell them what you have researched so far, to avoid the researcher finding duplicate information.
Waiting For An Answer
Be patient when waiting for your requests. Some clerk's offices and repositories are extremely busy, and it may take weeks or even months for someone to answer your requests. If you have not heard back from the repository in about a month, follow up with a friendly email or letter asking why you have not heard back from them. Sometimes requests can be accidently thrown away or deleted (if you sent an email).
Send a thank you email or letter to the researcher or clerk that helped you. The person may have taken much time to do research or copy documents for you, and they appreciate a heartfelt thank you, even if they did not find what you needed. In addition, the researcher will be happy to know that you received the information, if it was sent in an email or mailed to you.
If the material you receive from a repository does not include a source, ask for it (such as the title and page of the county history where a biography appeared or newspaper title, date, column and page). Make sure you have enough information so you could quickly locate the source again, if needed, and to provide credible evidence to your family history research.
If you are told a record was not found, it does not always mean it does not exist. In a column entitled "Trilogy of clerk tales offers good lessons", certified genealogist Sharon Tate Moody shares how "non-existent records" were found through her persistence. Older records can be difficult to read and may be overlooked by the inexperienced researcher. My great-grandparents had grown up in a small Midwestern town, and I assumed their marriage record would be found in the local Catholic Church records. When I wrote to the church with my request, I received a reply saying the record was not located. I later found the marriage entry searching through the LDS microfilm of the original records of the church. The marriage entry was written in Latin, and perhaps the person who searched for the record at the church was not familiar with reading Latin records.
Correspondence with clerks, archivists, librarians and other researchers are all part of family history research. With advance preparation, carefully worded requests and patience as you await the results; you may be rewarded with much-needed answers to the genealogical questions you seek.
- Crawford-Oppenheimer, Christine. Long-Distance Genealogy, Cincinnati, OH: Betterway Books, 2000.
- Martin, Irene. "Killer Queries", Family Tree Magazine (Aug 2002): 62-63.
- Yannizze Melnyk, Marcia. The Weekend Genealogist, Cincinnati, OH: Betterway Books, 2000.
- The Genealogist's Question & Answer Book, Cincinnati, OH: Betterway Books, 2002.
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