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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Keep It Short and Sweet
by Rhonda R. McClure

January 13, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Sometime last year, I wrote an article that discussed effective ways to contact repositories and courthouses when requesting records. The main theme of this article was to keep your letters short and to the point. Many times I think that we, as genealogists, think that such how-to articles apply to everyone but us. How often have you attended a genealogy meeting and found yourself cornered as someone regales you with the information on their latest search? How often do you find yourself pressing the delete key on your computer as you see that a researcher's post goes on for many more paragraphs? Somehow it is only our own genealogy that is most important.

Now imagine that you are the county clerk or the librarian who receives your letter. Your mail is full of requests from genealogists. These letters run the gamut. Some are short, in fact too short. And others ramble on until you are not sure exactly what the researcher is looking for.

When corresponding with repositories and family, remember that not everyone is as enthralled with that lineage as you are.

Writing to Courthouses

When contacting a courthouse, or town hall, it is essential that your letter be short and to the point. The clerks do not have the time to wade through your entire family history in search of the question or request that you have sent them. If you are requesting a vital record, state it plain and clear. If you are in need of a land record, then you need to have the pertinent information easily recognizable so that the clerk can read your letter, get the deed you are requesting and get it back to you.

One of the most important things to keep in mind when writing to a courthouse is that it is quite possible that the clerk has no interest in genealogy. As a result, writing to them to request help with your research problem may result in no response whatsoever.

Whenever I have written to a courthouse requesting the copy of a record, I have always received a response. It may not always be what I wanted to hear, especially when they tell me they haven't been able to find anything based on the information I supplied, but I do get some type of response.

Write to Libraries

I often wonder how librarians do it. They receive so many requests, many of them long winded and in the abstract at best. This is especially true if the library in question has a genealogy department. After all, if they have a genealogy department, then they must have librarians that are as interested in genealogy as we are, right?

Very often they are. They enjoy hunting for their own family history when they are not working. Unfortunately, your letter is something they must deal with while on the clock. Your letter and the twenty or thirty others that have come in that day. As a result, very often, they cannot devote the time they would take if it was their own personal research. Many libraries, especially those that rely on funding from local tax funds, are understaffed and over worked. I'm sure you understand that scenario.

As a result, if they can not quickly determine the exact question or nature of the letter, it may be filed in the circular file. So, think about what it is that you need, and then write a succinct letter that makes helping you easy for the librarian.

Thoughts From One Who Knows

All that I have said isn't really true, right? These clerks and librarians have plenty of time to respond to our letters. After all, there aren't that many genealogists out there writing them, right? Wrong. In response to that other article, I received a letter from someone who works in just the type of repository we have been discussing. And here is an excerpt from that e-mail:

"I am the researcher for the local genealogical society, and all requests for research to the local society come to me. I also get requests forwarded from the county Auditors office, where the marriage records for our county are housed. The Auditor says they do not have the staff time to deal with genealogists. Death Certificate come from the state so I do not do them, but occasionally I get birth requests. Our state did not start recording births till 1907, but our county has certificates starting in 1892. They will handle request by mail though. I do thank you for trying to make the request for research to the point. Some I get I hardly have a clue what they are seeking, and those that request send all you have on my surname are really terrible."

In Conclusion

Please don't take this as an attempt to dull your enthusiasm for the search. It is shared only to help you get the records and research you are searching for and to get the answers that you want. Those reading your letters need to understand what you need and they need to be able to read your letter quickly. Until someone comes up with a 36-hour day, we all have major limits to how much time can be devoted to this hobby. And that is more true of those who work in repositories that we rely on than it does to us. Those individuals are helping us and many others like us, along with all the other people who have need of their information and services.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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