Researching at the Archives or Courthouse…

before the trip…

I get emails all the time asking for advice before heading to the archives or courthouse for a research trip. So here are some of my suggestions for what to do if you are headed to TN to research. The suggestions will work for any state, that’s just where I head. 🙂
Call before hand and ask…

  • Can I bring a scanner, computer, camera, etc.-some archives do not even allow ink pens. Be sure to ask, since you don’t want to take expensive equipment only to have it locked in your hot car all day.
  • How many plugs do you have for my use? The Williamson County, TN Archives only allows one (the last time I was there was about 15 years ago. That may have changed.)
  • Are your records all stored in the same place? Sometimes older records are in one place, newer ones in another.
  • How much are photocopies? You’d be surprised at the cost. The Fayetteville Library doesn’t (or at least when I was there 10 years ago) allow patrons to make their own copies and charged for a librarian to do them. Also take change, few librarians can give you change for a $20.
  • You might also want to give them the names you are researching and the dates you are going to be at the courthouse (doesn’t work as well for state archives, they are just too big). They may be able to set up appointments with some of the researchers of those lines in the area for you to work with. The smaller the county, the more likely this is.
  • It’s still warm here, so if you are going cemeterying, wear hiking boots, long pants, a long sleeve shirt, bug spray and take a cell phone. Remember not all areas have reception though. Don’t go into over grown areas unless you don’t mind snake bites. And yes, be prepared to see them, and some in TN are poisonous. Take LOTS of water and drink often.

Wear old clothes if you are going to be in the cemetery. Dress nicely, yet in clothes that can get dirty for the archives. Not all documents are microfilmed. Old deed registers stored in dusty archives are dirty. Take allergy medicine if you are allergic to dust. Cameras are best for these documents, but ask permission first.

Government workers can’t accept bribes, but they can accept compliments and lots of them. Don’t hesitate to pass them out freely. They don’t cost you anything. Neither does thank you and please. Occasionally they can accept tips. Don’t hesitate to give them one.

Purchase a good map of the area you are going to be traveling in, and pack lots of water and snacks. You don’t want to be at the cemetery and have a low blood sugar attack. Make sure you have plenty of gas, and yes, I know it’s expensive these days. It ain’t getting cheaper if you have to walk to get it.

If you are going cemeterying, introduce yourself to the locals. People in TN (and most of the south) own big dogs, guns, and aren’t afraid to use either if they see you messing with grandpa’s grave. A simple introduction to the farmer who lives next to the cemetery can save you from an emergency room visit, and they ain’t cheap when you are out of state either. Plus the emergency room personnel, don’t take kindly to grave robbers either. Explaining beforehand that you are a visiting cousin will save you the hassle.

Go online to the archives website and see what records they have. Create a List of Things to look for in those records while you are at home. Doing so will save you tons of time once you are there.
Make sure you know the hours of operation. If they close for an hour for lunch, be ready to leave the archives ten minutes before the hour. Believe me, it will be greatly appreciated when you get back after lunch and appreciation is usually well rewarded. HINT HINT.

Understand that southerners move slowly. We have all day. We don’t care that you have GOT to find grandpas will before you leave and you only have an hour. The more we are rushed, the slower we move. Moving slowly does not mean we are stupid. It means we have been here for generations, plan on being here for generations, and don’t see the need to hurry just because you haven’t been. Be patient, slow down a little, enjoy your time here. If you listen, the ladies at the courthouse will tell you more in one hour about your grandpa and his life in their county than you will learn in a lifetime. So if that old lady getting the will books down from the back room moves a little slow and talks too much, take advantage of it. Ask her questions, ask her if she knew grandpa. Chances are she did, or knows someone who did.

Have fun on your research trip. Don’t just go into the archives or courthouse. Walk the streets where grandpa lived. Visit his church, cemetery, where he might have worked. Talk to the locals. Take tons of pictures. With gas this expensive, who knows when you will be able to come back.


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