5 Ways to Prepare for Your Courthouse Research Trip

5 Ways to Prepare for Your Genealogy Courthouse Research TripEven with all of the fantastic resources that are available online, there are still times when we need to go to the courthouse to research our family history. Since these trips usually don’t happen every day, we want to make the most out of our time there. Here are 5 tips to help you prepare for your genealogy trip to the courthouse.

1. Review Your Research

Which ancestors were in this county? Make a list of them, along with the time period they were in the area. (Many genealogy software programs have the ability to run a report based on place of birth, death, marriage, or residence.) Also, get familiar with what records were created for that area and when they started. You don’t want to go in thinking you’ll find an 1824 death record if they didn’t start keeping them until 1882. (Thanks, Indiana.) The FamilySearch Wiki is a good place to find this information.

2. Set Some Goals and Prioritize

What is it you’re trying to solve? You likely won’t be able to review all of the types of records that the courthouse has, start with the ones that are most likely to answer your question. If you’re trying to find who John’s parents were, start with the vital records (if applicable), then move to the probate records. I wouldn’t start with the tax records, as they are less likely to have the answer to that question.

3. See What’s Online Before You Go

The last thing you want to do — ok, among the last things you want to do — is go to a distant courthouse and spend time looking at records that you could have looked at online. See what’s been digitized (and research those before you go). Besides the big sites like Ancestry and FamilySearch, check the website of the different county offices, like the County Recorder. Also check the local public library’s website. BTW, when I say “online,” I mean the actual records, not just an index or an abstract.

That being said, be careful with those digitized images. If it’s something like a probate packet (loose papers), it’s possible something was missed. Although time probably won’t allow you to look up everything, you might want to look at the originals of things that could be a Really Big Deal with your research.

Also, look at what all is included in those digitized collections. For example, those probate records on Ancestry — did they just get the will books for that county or does it include the probate packets? Fill in the gaps when you go to the courthouse.

4. Ask for Advice

Each courthouse is different. Ask the local genealogy society for their advice in researching there. Some have research guides on their website. If not, contact them via email or on their Facebook page. Also look for Facebook groups for that area. People in the group might have suggestions for how to make the most out of researching there. Be sure to ask about parking! Ask if there is enough room to use your laptop and if there are outlets that you can use. Find out if you can use your camera to “copy” documents. If not, now much are copies?

5. Don’t Skimp on Copies

Don’t skimp on making copies, whether photocopies or digital images (if the courthouse allows those). There’s a law of genealogy: The farther away the repository, the more likely you’ll need a copy of the document that you opted not to copy while you were there. If you can take photos of the documents, do it! If you can’t, then bring cash, as some courthouses won’t accept credit cards for copies.

What’s your favorite way to prepare for a courthouse research trip?

5 Ways to Prepare Courthouse Research Trip

Posted: April 7, 2016.

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  • Thank you for the great tips! I have never visited a Courthouse. Most of the lines I am researching are outside of the US. I have recently, however, started working on a few US lines. These tips may come in handy soon enough.

  • My Society President is the Local Historian and he gave me pretty good tips about the Courthouse. We keep in touch in case he needs to go get something for me. They are still snail mailing and not up to technology. So it helped when I first got to actually go there for myself. We did a lot of writing back and forth but it prepared me. Small Towns can be like this. Established relationships.

  • Dear Cousin Amy, it can never be a too-often reminder that preparation will help get the most out of what records are available.

    A regional map showing towns/townships is really helpful. In one of my cousin-family groups, a really extensive estate record involved court records in the County where a person died, guardianships for heirs in that and a next-door county in the same State, and estate records, deeds and guardianships in a next-door County in a different State.

    So if one is researching far from home, being prepared to travel to the next-door State for what might be the most crucial records could be a boon. A bit of brain-flexibility is so often required to understand the whole picture 🙂

  • Know the hours that they are open, and don’t show up late in their day and expect that they will accommodate you. Be polite, thank folks for their help. Making a donation to the local Genealogy Department or organization. Know what you need. Stick to your task. Return often.

  • You might wish to check for the actual location of the records you wish to search. In the county where I live and conduct research, the records are available at the Courthouse Annex, not at the main Courthouse. These two buildings are located more than a mile from each other. Parking is free at the Annex but not at the main Courthouse. This is not readily apparent unless you read the very small print at the bottom of their web page that lists the addresses.

  • Don’t skip on copies is something I wish I had known when I started. Spending lots on airfares and saving pennies on paper copies is a great tip for any archive visit. Luckily I figured this out fast.