Tips From My First Courthouse Research

Tips From My First Courthouse Research

This post would be more exciting if my courthouse research last week (right before I womanned our Family Tree Magazine booth at the Ohio Genealogical Society conference in Cleveland) had panned out. But it was kind of a bust, genealogically speaking—no new information and some red tape. I did learn...

This post would be more exciting if my courthouse research last week (right before I womanned our Family Tree Magazine booth at the Ohio Genealogical Society conference in Cleveland) had panned out.

But it was kind of a bust, genealogically speaking—no new information and some red tape.

I did learn a few things about courthouse research, though. If that’s what’s on your genealogy to-do list, these tips might help:

1. Ask a local. Cleveland genealogist and Family Tree University instructor Diana Crisman Smith gave me the lowdown on the Cuyahoga County courthouse, parking and other details. If you don’t know someone knowledgeable about the place you’re headed, see if the local genealogical society has an online message board.

2. Have backup parking plans. The parking garage was full, so I drove around downtown and finally snagged the last space in a surface lot. Smaller towns might not have the same issues.

3. Be as prepared as possible. The Cuyahoga County probate court has an online docket you can search to find the case file numbers you need.

Other ways to be prepared: Call ahead and make sure there isn’t a furlough day or special holiday on the day you plan to go. See if there are any restrictions on what you can bring (such as pens or backpacks). Bring cash for parking, copy fees and other expenses.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask. I’m sure things work differently in every courthouse, but there was a procedure here. And there was no hand-holding, so I had to ask. I was told to write the case number on a request card for a clerk to retrieve the file. But for my relatively recent probate files (1980s and 90s), I was to use the computers to get microfilm numbers, then pull the film.

I thought all the microfilm readers were equally bad, but I should have asked about that too—a clerk walked by and showed me a better reader. Because the computerized docket didn’t extend back as far as my great-grandfather’s death, I had to ask about any earlier files, too (and unfortunately, I found out the court didn’t have anything for him).

4. Keep a smile on your face. Even if you think you’re bugging someone with your questions, a smile increases your chances of getting the help you need (as does a succinctly worded question).

5. Bring a camera. There was no place to photocopy the microfilmed records, so I photographed the reader’s screen with my cell phone.

I don’t have a tip for this situation: The file I most wanted to look for, a 1924 commitment hearing for my great-grandmother to the Cleveland State Hospital, was confidential—if it exists. Disappointing.

I politely asked enough questions (is it possible to request a search just to see if there’s a file? how long are the records closed? what’s the law declaring them closed? what’s the procedure for having a file opened?) that I got to speak with a magistrate. He complimented my interest in genealogy, asked about my family history, and said that if the record exists—and chances are slim—the only way to have it opened would be a change in the law.

In the excellent book Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret, journalist Steve Luxenberg describes his quest to uncover 1940s-era institutional records in Michigan for an aunt he’d only recently learned he had. I don’t think I want to let this drop quite yet, but I’m also not sure I’m ready for a struggle like Luxenberg’s. I’ll dig a little and maybe be able to offer tips in the future.

Get Family Tree Magazine‘s guide to courthouse research, a $4 download, from Family Tree Shop.

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  1. Interesting, I made my first research trip to a courthouse last week also. Among other things, I found the conservatorship case file for a 3rd great-grandmother recording her commitment to the Illinois State Asylum and Hospital for the Insane in 1862, which I was not expecting. Now I’d love to get her case file from that hospital. We’ll see how it goes!

  2. What I know from many courthouse trips, to various courthouses in my area. Dress professionally, carry a briefcase, ask for land records first. After that marriage, birth, death etc. Whatever it is you are trying to learn.

    Of course, act professionally, as though you are doing research for an attorney. No shrieking of &quot;I found him&quot;&quot; for example ? Respect the rules. Have white cotton gloves in your briefcase if you expect to be allowed to handle the older books.

    For copying, there are photocopy products on the market which fit nicely into a briefcase. Be sure it is okay to photocopy before hand.

    And, to the first commenter, we have asylum, mental hospital records in our county archives. We are not allowed to view them ourselves – privacy issues even way back, but here, at least, the clerk in the office will read it for you and give you all genealogical data found. It may not apply in your situation.

  3. Thank you for sharing your experiences! A reader named Angie sent these comments by email:

    The courthouse in my county does not permit cell phones, cameras, scanners, or very much of anything else. I generally take an empty purse to transfer my wallet, check book, pencil/pen, and keys. They are very strict. Fortunately, they have digitized their deeds, wills, etc. You turn in your keys for a printing permit. When you ask for your keys, they let you know how much you owe for copies. I’m still learning the ropes.


  4. I work in a county archives in Tennessee and having traveled to other local, national and international repositories, I advise to check with the agency in question before you depart to determine their rules. Rules really do vary from location to location. Also, it is best to check their schedule. You’d hate to make a special research trip only to find the facility closed. I was making a trip to England several years ago and decided to visit a county General Register’s Office while in the country. It was scheduled to be closed for a special holiday when I was hoping to visit it but discovering this in advance, I was able to rearrange my schedule for a visit when the facility was open.

    The Archives I work at does NOT allow scanners or cameras in the respository but we will make copies for a fee. Computers/laptops are acceptable here but not everyplace. Some agencies will not allow you access without proper i.d. No i.d. means no admission at these facilities and some places also require appointments.

    Speaking of fee, come prepared to pay for copies, etc… with cash or check. Many local agencies do not take credit or debit cards for payment.

    Finally, the gloves idea listed above is a good suggestion though our facility will provide you gloves if you need to look at an old record that hasn’t been microfilmed yet. It is my experience that almost nobody travels with gloves.

    Finally, don’t hesitate to ask someone at the facility if you have a question. You’ll often find people who are more than willing to assist you but won’t bother unless you speak up first.

    Eric Head
    Knoxville, Tenn