Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, shares her tips for getting the most out of courthouse research!
Anthony from Utah asks “I am planning my first trip to a courthouse to do genealogy research. I am a new genealogist. Do you have any advice for doing research in courthouses?”
Anthony asks a very important question about doing genealogy research in a courthouse. Many of us know that courthouses and the different offices that can be found in these buildings house current county government records and they can also have many of the older records that genealogist are seeking.
How a genealogist approaches research in a courthouse should be different than their approach to research in a library or archives. The reason the approach is different is because the staff in a courthouse are not usually trained in working with genealogical and historical records. They are trained to help patrons with the current business that they are conducting today. Using these tips will help Anthony or any genealogist achieve success when they make that trip to the courthouse.
Houston County, Tennessee Courthouse
- Call Ahead: 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. For instance, contained in the Houston County, Tennessee Courthouse are the: County Court Clerk, Register of Deeds, Assessor of Property, County Trustee, Chancery Court, Circuit Court, General Sessions Court, Juvenile Court, County Mayor’s Office and the Houston County Archives. Each office has their own phone number and can be contacted to find out when they are open, what records are available, copying fees, etc. Also, ask what days and times are best for a genealogist to visit their office to do research. Some offices have times when they are busier than others, especially the offices that conduct court business.
- Parking: When you are on the phone or contacting the offices in the courthouse by email always ask about parking. Many of our courthouse campuses have very limited parking for patrons. This problem is often made worse on days when court is in session and so many people have come to participate in the court actions. Arriving at the courthouse, ready to do research, you do not want to find that there is no place to park and the only parking available is a block away or at a distant parking garage. This is especially important to remember if walking long distances is difficult for you.
- Record Availability: It might be a no brainer that the deed records will be found in the Register of Deeds office at the courthouse. But, are the old deed books there? Many times courthouse offices run out of room for records and will transfer their older records to the county archives which may not be located in the courthouse. As an archivist, I receive between 30-50 boxes of older records from various county government offices in the courthouse on a yearly basis. 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.
- 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. The truth is, many of the staff in records offices at the courthouse have a lot they are required to do on a daily basis. Many of these tasks involve people who are getting records for today such as car titles, filing a deed for their new house, paying their property taxes, etc. 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. Most of the staff in these offices are doing the best they can and will help you just as soon as possible.
The records that can be found in county offices in courthouses are essential to our genealogy research. Implementing these tips will hopefully help you be more successful when doing research at the local courthouse.
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It’s Not All Online: Researching in Libraries and Archives
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Melissa Barker lives in Tennessee Ridge, Tennessee. She is the Houston County (TN) Archivist and a Professional Genealogist. She writes the blog, A Genealogist in the Archives, and has been researching her own family for over 26 years. She lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation.
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