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A Genealogist In The Archives: Researching from a Distance

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Researching from a Distance

I hear it all the time from genealogists, "I am not able to travel to do research" and "I can't go any further with my research until I can travel to the archives in a different state".

It has been said that only about 5% of the world's genealogical records are online, the rest are sitting in archives waiting for genealogists to find them. Most of our archives just don't have the budgets to digitize all of their records and put them online. This process takes money and staff to accomplish. Here is a great visual from the California Genealogical Society showing the ratio of what is online and what is not.

Not being able to jump in the car or on a plane and travel to the place where your ancestor's records are located is tough. I know this because my ancestors are from Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania and other states. I haven't been able to travel for research these past 26 years I have been doing genealogy research. In spite of that fact, I have done pretty well gathering records that are not online from right here in Tennessee.

How did I do it?

I used my computer, my telephone, my email account and the old fashioned way of writing letters. I found what specific archives, historical society, genealogical society, university archives and libraries and museums that were in the area where specific records could be located. I checked to see if they had a website with a list of records and contact information. I would then contact them by phone, email or writing a letter and make a records request. Usually, if the records were found, copies would be mailed to me. But here recently, I have started receiving more and more scanned records sent by email.

Dickson County, TN. Archives, Shelves of Records Not Online

If the repository does not have their records listed on a website, it will take a little more communication with the facility to find out what they have and make your request.

A couple of places online where you can find listings of repositories are:

Cyndi's List

FamilySearch Wiki

Both of these sites have the repositories organized by state and then by county. There should be links to websites or contact information like a phone number where you can get in touch with the facility.

I always encourage genealogists to not give up just because you can't travel to where your ancestors records are being kept. It might take a little more work to get records this way instead of just being able to click on a link and get a document but I assure you, it is well worth it.

As an archivist, I love to hear from genealogists when they email me, call me or send me requests through the postal mail. My job and my passion is to help others find the records about their ancestors.



Need some more tips on how to contact a library or archives for records?

Get my Legacy Family Tree Webinar

It's Not All Online: Researching in Archives


  1. I explain this to people all the time Melissa. It's a tough sell sometimes in our current instant gratification society. I cannot tell you how many phone calls I've made over the years to cemetery offices, historical societies, funeral homes and newspaper offices. One thing I always tell researchers is to remember to send a thank you note if someone helps them. I also send Starbucks gift cards in small amounts like $5 or $10, along with my handwritten thank you note.
    Thank you for your insightful posts.

  2. Diane, you are so right, it's a hard to convince researchers that it's not all online. I have written so many letters and sent them to funeral homes with a SASE that I can't count them all. One phenomenon that is happening in our libraries and archives is that researchers are visiting less and less which means the "powers that be" think they are not needed and budgets are being cut or they are being closed all together. I am an archivist and work in a county archives everyday, I have seen the decline in researchers using our facility because they think it's all online. That is why I have this blog, to hopefully educate genealogists. Thanks for reading!

  3. What information can funeral homes provide?

    1. Bianca, funeral homes have records that they fill out when making all the arrangements. When I have requested funeral home records I have gotten different things but most of the time it is a form with all the pertinent information about the deceased, the deceased parents, siblings, children, those that are living and those that have passed. Sometimes I have gotten a copy of the death certificate and sometimes a copy of the obituary. I highly encourage all genealogists to seek out and request funeral home records.

  4. What information can funeral homes provide?

  5. Check what your local family history society may have indexed or hold in microfilm., and always, always check what family search still has in microfilm for your ancestral as chips and easy to order into a family history library near you. I've done so much of my research this way and then when I visit the places there's more time to track down their homes etc.

  6. I think for a lot of us, it's a matter of time...and not even thinking of writing letters. I have to remember to do this. I have also contacted churches by email to ask if they hold certain records and have received responses. I swear I need a two week vacation I can devote JUST to FH research *g*...just have to convince my husband that this is a good thing :)

  7. Teresa, contacting churches is a great idea, thanks for sharing! I don't know if two weeks will do it for me, LOL!

  8. I send Thank You cards for anyone who helps me with anything concerning my genealogy. I sent a monetary donation to a Catholic Church in Germany when they sent me ALL of my families baptismal records that were recorded at that particular Church.

  9. Julie, that was so nice of you. Thank You for your kindness.