Geni Podcast: How Do I Find and Use Records?

Posted May 4, 2011 by Geni | No Comment

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Show Notes

Genealogy Records

  • Where can I go to find records for my genealogy research?

First, start with online databases and repositories to see if you can get access to copies of vital records (birth, marriage and death certificates) or other records. This is the easiest and most economical way to access records.

In most cases, these online sites allow you to not only download and print the image but sometimes you can even share the image of the record with others via social media and email.

Second, realize that not everything can be found online! For many records, you need to first determine the repository or archive holding the record.  I recommend using The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy edited by Lou Szucs and the late Sandra Luebking. This amazing resource helps you understand where certain types of records are kept and how to access those records. The latest edition of The Source can be purchased online at or it can be accessed online for free at the wiki at

  • How do I request records from governments, archives, and churches?

As with genealogy books or records, you can request copies of records using online resources, contacting the repository by mail or phone, or even visiting the repository.

Online: For online access, a word of caution. Some websites will arrange to get you the records at a very inflated fee compared to your contacting the repository yourself.  It is in your best interest to first use a resource like The Source and locate the contact information for the repository itself and determine their prices for providing the record to you.  Then see if it really is worth it to use a service to get the record for you.

A few governmental entities, like Cook County in Illinois (, actually have great online ways to get records at a reasonable price. Also, look at ( which can help you locate and acquire certain types of records.

Email, Phone or In Writing: Your best bet is to again, use The Source to get the correct contact information and learn what you must provide in order to get the records you need.  Some entities charge an hourly fee and the more precise information you provide, the more efficient the search and the lower your costs.

In Person: you can visit a courthouse or archive and often make copies or have copies made for you.  IMPORTANT: even if you use The Source or look up the repository’s website for location and hours, you should call ahead to confirm the information.  Many state and local governments now have “furlough days” due to budget cuts and you could make a trip to a repository and find it closed. Also, make sure to ask about the procedure for getting copies of records – these procedures may have changed as well.

Other Providers: don’t forget services like Genlighten ( which have contractors located in different places willing to go and get the records for you. In addition, don’t be shy about putting a query out on Facebook or via social media asking if someone is willing to get a record for you!

  • What if there is a language barrier?

If you require records in another language and from a repository that is outside your native country, you have two choices: contact the repository in writing or hire a researcher who specializes in that locale and language.

If you want to write your own letters, FamilySearch has a series of letter-writing guides on their website at

If you want to hire a professional researcher, check Cyndi’s List at or send out a request to your network via social media or email.  Just make sure that you do your research on the person you are hiring, get recommendations etc. before you sign a contract.

  • What do I do with records once I have them?

Once you have a copy of the record you requested, here are some ways to use the record in your genealogy research:

    • Scan the document and place the original in your files for safe keeping.
    • Use the document as evidence in your genealogy research to prove relationships and other theories. Learn the basics of source citations so you can properly cite the record in your research.
    • Use the digital image in your genealogy database software or even upload it to collaborative family history sites like to share with family and other researchers.
    • Post the record image at your blog or website. Try to explain the document, the meaning of the data and how it relates to your family.  Visitors to your site always love hearing the “back story!”

Before you share the record or the image of the record, make sure you’ve considered these issues:

    • Is the record in the public domain? Most governmental records are automatically considered to be in the public domain, but a record like an obituary may still have a copyright. Check out the Is It Protected By Copyright? Site at to quickly determine if an item is still copyright protected.
    • Would I be violating someone’s privacy? If you have a birth certificate for a living individual, you should not be posting the record online since you are providing private data to those who could use it for identity theft purposes.

More About Thomas MacEntee

  • Webinars: Thomas will be presenting a FREE webinar for the Federation of Genealogical Societies entitled Social Networking for Genealogy Societies on Saturday, April 30, 2011 at 3:00 pm Central. If you belong to a genealogy society and want to learn new ways to attract new members and increase your society offerings, click here to register!
  • GeneaBloggers Radio: Every Friday evening from 9-11pm Central time, Thomas MacEntee hosts an Internet radio show – GeneaBloggers Radio ( Via your computer, you can listen to interviews with interesting genealogist and companies involved in the genealogy industry.


Grant Brunner: Welcome to the Geni podcast. I’m Grant Brunner and with me today is Thomas MacEntee. How are you Thomas?

Thomas MacEntee: Hey Grant. How are you doing?

Grant: I am doing very, very well. I just continue to love this sunny weather. I’m tired of the cold and the sun is really, really making it a lot better and I can go out and do genealogy stuff and that’s cool.

Thomas: Great.

Grant: I want to talk about things to do with your genealogy research, the problems you can come across and all of the cool things that you can go and do in real life. First of all, start off as we always do, we go with the very basics, where do you go to find records and the sources that you need for your genealogy resource?

Thomas: Yeah. Well, let’s focus on records and first what you really have to do, and you should do this work at home, is start with online databases and repositories, go to them and see if you can get access to those vital records. The birth records, the marriage records, the death certificates, and other records, this is the easiest and most economical way for you to access those records. You should do your homework at home first. Now in most cases the online sites allow you to not only download and print the image, but sometimes you can share that image of the record with others via social media and email. So, that’s one of the benefits of doing your homework first. Also though I want people to realize that not everything can be found online. This is sort of a mantra of mine lately.

We get too many people that said, “You know, I went to Ancestry and I’m done because they couldn’t delete and check any more for me and that’s it. That’s my genealogy.” Not true. First determine the repository or archive holding that record. So how are you going to do that?

What I recommend is a book called “The Source: A guidebook to American Genealogy,” it’s in it’s third edition. It’s like a bible of records or repositories [indecipherable 02:03] by Lou Szuchs and the late Sandra Luebking, it’s a resource that really helps you understand where certain types of records are kept and how to access those records. The nice thing is the latest edition of “The Source” you can buy it online at Amazon because there’s some people that like those reference books on their desk, but what’s really neat is you can access it online for free at wiki which is at, [spells]

Grant: Now obviously, that’s good. Online is always good and that’s a quaint way for people to get started. But how do you go about requesting records from the government or archives or churches or the family archive in Utah or something like that.

Thomas: Right. Well, with most genealogy folks and records you can request a copies of records using online resources contacting a repository by mail or phone or visit. So, we got three ways of doing it, online, mail or phone, or visiting your repository in person. Let’s first talk about online. What I want to warn people is I want to give them a word of caution about doing online, ordering records online. There are some websites out there that it will arrange to get you the records, but the fee is very, very inflated. Sometimes three or four times what you would actually pay if you did yourself through the mail, or through the phone, or in person. So, when some people love this access it’s worth paying for but you really should know it’s in your first interest to first look at the source, remember the book I just mentioned, locate the contact information for the repository and then you may actually see the prices listed in the source itself in terms of what the records are.

Then you can determine if they’re really worth it for me to use these online resources. Now, that said, there are a few governmental entities and one that I love is right here in where I live in Chicago, Cook county, in Illinois. They’re at They actually have a stellar, stellar website in terms of ordering the records at $15.00 each for birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates. Also look at They can help you locate and also order certain types of records.

So, let’s talk about email, phone or in writing. Your best bet again is to go to the source. The Source not only lists those repositories, they have the addresses for you to mail too. They have the email addresses, they have the phone numbers, they also tell you what kind of setup they have at their repository.

Realize that some of these places charge by the hour, so you need to really know what you’re looking for, why send them on a wild goose chase? So, the Source is really the place to go if you want email, phone, or right away for those records. Finally in person, you can visit a court house or an archive and make copies depends on the policy. Now this Grant, I want to say is very, very important. Even if you use a Source to look up their repos… website or look up their location hours you must give them a call ahead of time to confirm that information.

These days a lot of state and local governments have what they call furlough days, where due to budget cuts they might be closed, they might have reduced services, they might have reduced hours, so you could actually make a trip several hundred miles to this repository and find that it’s closed, very frustrating. Also make sure you ask about the procedure for getting copies. If you show up there and they don’t have a copy machine or the copy machine is broken, bring your digital camera, et cetera.

Make sure you’re prepared. One little note too is there’s a growing industry, in the sub industry in the genealogy world of providers that will actually hook you up with people that will go look for records for you. One of them is called [spells] . They have contractors located all over the world and what they do is they’ll charge you the fee whatever costs to get the record plus they’ll charge you a fee on top of that. That is what they make and they get paid for. So, that’s an option.

Also, don’t be shy about putting a query out on Facebook or social media. I’ve actually gotten that before, before saying “If someone has access to the Chicago obituaries can you look this up for me.” You never know what you’re going to encounter.

Grant: The problem, the big problem that I find especially when you start hitting the brick walls in genealogy; it often has to do with a language barrier. How do you go about getting the records if there’s a language barrier in your way?

Thomas: Well, if you need records in another language or from a repository that’s outside your native country you really basically have two choices. You can contact the repository in writing or you can hire a researcher who specializes in that locale and that language. Now if you want to write your own letters, I found a neat…there’s something really neat on Family Search and look at the episode notes. I would say for people to go to the podcast page. It’s a rather long URL, but they have actually a series of letter writing guides for French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and these letters are already written up. All you have to do is basically copy and paste that text into a letter and send it off. And that’s at And you would basically look for “Letter Writing Guide” or look at the podcast notes.

Grant: Yeah.

Thomas: Now if you want to hire a professional researcher, first thing is I recommend you could go to a Association for Professional Genealogists at The other one is Cyndi’s List which is a very complete list of language professional is what she calls them in terms of people that are researchers for foreign languages. They’ll translate et cetera. And this way you could hire someone not only…they’re likely to know where the records are a lot faster than you would figure it out. But also they offer translation services, which is neat. You could also send out a request through your social media network or maybe LinkedIn and just put it out there.

Say, “Does anyone know a researcher in Bavaria that could help me get birth certificates?” Just make sure that you do your research about that person before you hire, before you sign on the dotted line. Get recommendations, ask for references, look at their passport to make sure that they’re legit.

Grant: Yeah, absolutely. And there are a ton of great resources. And I really have to say, something that you said really strikes a core with me, asking around. Recommendations is a big, big deal. I mean the genealogy community is very open. You have pretty much access to anybody in the genealogy community. You can talk to them on their blog. You leave a comment, email them, tweet them, Facebook them, whatever, but you’re asking the people, and maybe they can lead you in a really great direction to find records of your family history.

So [laughs] I guess really all these questions lead up to this one big question, “What do you do with the records once you have them? [laughs] “

Thomas: Right. Well, once you have them, a lot of people, they’ll throw them in a box or whatever, but I mean, you’ve gone through all this trouble, you’ve paid money, you’ve gone…you know sometimes go halfway around the world for these. Really a shame for them to sit in a box. So here’s some ways that you can really use those records. One thing I would do write away is scan the document, get a digital image, and also put the original in your files for safekeeping because you would not want to have to go through the process of getting that document, that record again.

Next thing I do is I use a document as evidence in my genealogy research to prove relationships, other theories that I want to prove about my family history. Also you should learn the basics of source citations so you can properly site that particular record. Every record has a different format for citing…for being cited as a source. So that’s important.

Now that you’ve got the digital image, another thing you can do is include it with your genealogy database software or even upload it to a collaborative site like It’s nice to see the images of the documents along with just the family trees. I really enjoy seeing that, the supplemental information, and you can share it with family and friends on

Another thing you can do is post it over to your blog or website. And just don’t put it up there like a wordless Wednesday post. What I would do is, I would explain the document. Very often I’ve got family members that are not up on genealogy as I am, and they don’t know what a death certificate really conveys in terms of the data.

So you want to explain it, explain how it relates to your family history. I find the visitors to my blog always love hearing the back story about a certain person or a certain situation.

Now one thing that I do want to throw out there, another warning is before you share the record or the image of the record that you have to consider two things. Is the record in the public domain? Most governmental records are automatically, because they’re generated by the government, considered to be in the public domain. But something like an obituary, which is a narrative, may still have a copyright.

So there’s a neat site that I just found this week actually called, “Is It Protected By Copyright,” and it’s at It lets you have a little slide where you basically say, OK, this is the year. It’s between these years. It does have a copyright statement. It doesn’t have copyright statement. They’ll help you determine whether something is copyright protected or not. So you’ve got that issue.

The other one is also would you be violating someone’s’ privacy if you were to post that image? You have a birth certificate of someone who’s still alive, but you know usually when you put that out…I would not put up a birth certificate of a living person because it could be used for identity theft purposes. So that’s another consideration.

If you can redact it, meaning can you block things out, that might be it, too. But also it might be common courtesy to just ask the person if they’re still alive and before you even put up a partial record with information blocked out.

Grant: Right. And, of course, if you’re sharing things on, the only people that will ever be able to see it private profile, so that means people within four generations up from you, anybody within your family group and who’s still alive. There’s…nobody’s going to be public. The only people that are public they are historical profiles and as well as prominent profiles, people like Barack Obama, all the presidents that are like, those are the people who are public.So if you are working on something, and you have a birth certificate for your mom, and she’s still alive, and you share it on Geni, the only people that are going to be able to see that are people that are actually within your family group.

So I think that’s a good place to stop for today. So why don’t we to learn more about you, Thomas. Where can people find you on the net?

Thomas: Well, I’ve got some fun stuff coming up actually this Saturday, April 30th. I’ve been working with the Federation of Genealogical Society. I sit on their board of directors. And we’re doing our first webinar. This is a free webinar, and we have room for a 1,000 people. It’s called, “Social Networking for Genealogy Societies,” and it’s at three o’clock Central, Saturday, April 30th. I really want people to watch this webinar to see what other societies are doing in terms of social media, and how they’re having these successes with social medial and making it work for them.This is great if you really want to shake things up at your own genealogy society, you should pass this information on to society leaders. So it’s going to be a fun webinar.

Also, we’ve got a great GeneaBloggers radio show. This week with the royal wedding we are going to do a British genealogy feature, and we’re actually having Audrey Collins, who’s with the National Archives UK call in.

Poor Audrey, I’m waking her up at three in the morning, but I want her to call in and explain how to do research if you have British ancestors. Where do you start? What are the issues involved? What makes it unique from other types of genealogy? So that’s at geneabloggersradio is at

Grant: Thank you very much for your time, Thomas. So for the Geni podcast, I’m Grant Brunner. Thanks for listening and have a good one.