Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, has smart advice on accessing genealogy records that are far-away and out of reach!
Martha from Hawaii asks: “I don’t live anywhere near where my ancestor’s records are archived. Can you give me any advice on how I can still do genealogy research on my ancestors even though I am not able to travel to the places where their records are located?”
Martha asks an important question that genealogists wrestle with when it comes to researching their ancestors from a distance. I have been researching my ancestors for the last 30 years and my travel abilities have been limited and I do not get to go to the places where my ancestor’s records are located. But I have been successful in obtaining records from archives, libraries, courthouse, and even funeral homes. After we have combed the online options, there comes a time when we will have to access records at an archive. If you are like Martha and are not able to travel to those facilities, there is hope in distance research.
So, what is the secret to doing research from a distance? Patience!
We live in a world of instant everything. When it comes to researching our ancestors from a distance, we will need to have patience. We are used to walking into an archive and going right to that microfilm machine and get that obituary we need. When we research our ancestors from a distance, we will need to be patient as our request is filled by the archive.
Here are the avenues I use to do my genealogy research from a distance:
Most of my requests for records are done by email these days. I can remember a time when I only sent actual written or typed requests to the archive. Most of the places that have genealogical records are incredibly good at using email and it is a great way to communicate with the archive. Tips for emailing an archive:
- Be as specific as you can with your request. Asking for “everything for our Smith family” will fall on deaf ears.
- Give the archive as much direction as you can about the records you want searched like deeds, newspapers, manuscript collections, etc. Give specific names and dates as well.
- Give the archive time to complete your request. They are answering tons of email, working with researchers that have walked into their facility and they need time to do the research for your request.
Maybe you are not comfortable using email for your genealogical requests. There is still the telephone to communicate with the archive. The archive phone number should be listed on their website or social media page. This is a great way to reach out to the archive to make your request, here are some tips:
- Check the archive website to check their hours of operation so you do not call when they are closed or out to lunch.
- State your records request clearly and as specifically as possible. The archivists and librarians are terribly busy, so keep your phone conversation short and to the point.
- Get the name of the person you are speaking with in case you need to call again about your request. You will have a contact person to ask to speak to in the future.
Use the “Ask The Archivist” or “Ask the Librarian” Button on Their Website
Many archives and libraries have great websites. When you visit the website there might be an “Ask the Archivist” or “Ask the Librarian” button that you can click and ask your question or make your request right there on the spot. Use this avenue to request the records you need or to ask the librarian or archivist about the record they hold. Many places are very quick to answer and I have even carried on a lengthy genealogy conversation with several of my favorite archives. This is your chance to chat directly with the librarian at the library you need information or the archivist who could help you find that photograph you are looking for.
Write a Letter with a S.A.S.E.
One of the more archaic ways to contact an archive is to write an old-fashioned letter and drop it in the mail. Believe it or not, this type of communication to request records is still successful for me and my research. Write or type up a brief letter requesting the specific record you are wanting, or you can use this form of correspondence to ask about what records the archive have at their facility. Here are some tips to getting results when you write a letter:
- Be Brief! Do not write pages and pages of information. I usually keep my letters to one-page and keep my request brief and specific.
- Include an S.A.S.E. (self-address stamped envelope) with your request letter. This has been my key to receiving a response. Seems when you include an S.A.S.E, the archives may feel more obligated to respond. I have had great success when I include an S.A.S.E.
- Thank the archivist or librarian in advance in your letter for any help they can give you. Recognizing in advance the work it takes to pull records and search for records will be very much appreciated by whomever is handling your request.
Just because we do not live in the area where our ancestor’s records are located does not mean we can’t be successful with our research. Using these tips and techniques to research our ancestors from a distance will make all the difference.
Using Voting and Election Records to Find Your Ancestors
Our ancestors voted in local, state and federal government elections. Many of our local, state and national archives, libraries and genealogical societies have election and voting records that could help genealogists find their ancestors. These records could include the polling places where your ancestor voted and even your ancestor’s signature.
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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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