by Marian Pierre-Louis
The ease of accessing documents online is indisputable and a great advancement to genealogical research. I have to admit, though, that I still prefer to research in original record books. Perhaps it's my location here in New England. We are blessed with local records still kept in their original town or city.
When I research people from my local town I can access vital records online from databases on the AmericanAncestors.com website, Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org. More often than not I prefer to drive two miles up the road to my local town hall and see the records for myself.
The records held at the town (or city) level are the originals. Copies are sent to the state level and are recorded in copybooks. The data contained in the two sets of records can vary. For instance, for a birth record, the local copy may include the mother's maiden name whereas the state copy will likely leave that off.
There are challenges, however, to working in original records. The records are not indexed electronically so you can't type in a name and have the record you want suddenly appear. There are still indexes but you have to use them the old fashioned way - you need to look them up in the index book. That will give you the volume and page number you need to refer to in the original record volumes. If you have many vital records to look up it could take quite an effort finding the references in the index book(s) and then locating each book you need for the records. Of course, if you are researching in a very short time frame you may be lucky enough to find all the records you need in one book.
Another challenge is the handwriting. On the major database sites you can still view the original records and handwriting but you have the advantage of having someone else read and index the records for you ahead of time. All you have to do is verify the handwriting against what has been indexed in the record. You're on your own in a town hall. You will not likely find help or handwriting expertise from the local staff.
You have to be meticulous when researching in local records so as not to introduce typos in your notes. You could waste time if you transpose or write down the wrong volume and page number for a record. After spending considerable time looking for a record you can't find, you'll be forced back to the index to check your notes again and to discover where you made your error.
You'll also have to be very careful to copy down all the information you find in the record accurately. In addition to the handwriting, you'll want to make sure you don't introduce any errors in your transcriptions.
The last thing you'll want to be very careful about is collecting the information for your citation. Original record books may not have pages numbers so it is easy to forget that you need determine the page number and write it down. Also, the title of the book may only be on the spine. It's easy to forget to record that too!
Here's what I do to ensure a successful trip to the local town hall:
1) Photograph the actual record book (if you are allowed to do this). Pose the book at an angle so that you can see both the spine and the cover. If the inside of the book has a title page be sure to photograph that too. I actually do this whenever I do onsite research (even for modern books), at libraries and archives so that I can gather the citation information.
2) Make a chart BEFORE you go to the archives that will contain all the information you will be recording. If you are unfamiliar with the records, you may have to guess what items the records will include. For instance, if you are recording a birth record, make a chart that includes the name of the child, the father's name, the mother's name, the birth date, birth location and parent's residence. Be aware that different information will be available in different time periods. The farther back you go the less information you will find. In my Plan Your Way to Research Success webinar I referred to these as data collection sheets (Legacy members can find it in the webinar library).
What type of chart you make is up to your personal preference as well as the restriction of the town hall you will be visiting. Some places will let you bring in a computer. If that is the case you may want to keep your chart in a program like MS Word or Excel. Also consider whether there will be internet access. You might not be able to use internet or cloud resources until you get back to your home or hotel. If the town hall only lets you use paper and pencil be sure you print out a copy of your chart before you leave.
3) Create a citation template. I like to use the book Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills to determine what information I should collect. For a birth record in a vital record register (list style as opposed to individual certificates) I can find examples on page 426 of her book. I will then type out the citation using the information I already know and put XXs for the information that will be collected during the visit. I will also include columns in my data chart for volume and page number for each individual record (see image below).
If you create a chart with this information ahead of time you will be much more likely to gather the information you need so you don't have to make a second trip.
There are challenges to researching original records in a New England Town Hall but the touch of the old records books and the ambiance of actually being in the town where your ancestors lived should make it all worth it!
The form below is available for download for your personal use:
Download PDF version
Download MS Word version (editable)
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