The Archive Lady: Researching in Courthouses
Jerry from Nebraska asks “I have never done genealogy research in a courthouse, do you have any tips about researching in courthouses for genealogical records?”
Jerry asks a very important question about doing genealogy research in a courthouse. Many of us know that courthouses and the various other offices often found in these buildings, can house county government records. 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: staff members in a courthouse are usually not trained to work with genealogical and historical records. They are trained to help patrons with the current business of the court. Following the tips below can assist a genealogist during a research trip or contact with the courthouse and make the process as stress free and as successful as possible.
- 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, TN. Courthouse are: County Court Clerk, Register of Deeds, Assessor of that , 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 concerning hours of operation, records 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 many people arrive to participate in court actions. Arriving at the courthouse and ready to do research, you do not want to discover that there is no place to park and the only parking available is a block away or at the 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 conducting business such as getting a car title, requesting a deed for a new house, paying 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 do 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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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.
©2017, copyright Melissa Barker. All rights Reserved.