It’s not always possible to do research yourself at an archive. Most archives have a process to request research through mail or email for a small fee. How do you make the most of that request?
Here’s how to request research by mail in three steps:
1. Review Your Research Question
As a genealogist, you have questions like this you are trying to answer:
- Was Mary Jones the daughter of Elizabeth Jones?
- Is Mary Jones the wife of John Smith?
- Who are the parents of John Smith?
Question like these require a lot of research! Take a look at your question and note the time and place of the people in the question. You want to make sure you distinguish your Mary Jones from other Mary Jones alive at the same time. If you don’t have exact dates be sure to include years in a range. If you don’t have an exact place, you will need to focus in on one county in Pennsylvania. Most early PA records were created at the county level.
A request to any archive, genealogical or historical society, or library, is a request for someone there to look at their on-site records, and make a copy of records and send you that copy. They are not staffed to do anything other than pull records and make copies. If you give them your big research question, you will end up disappointed at what you receive back. So what do you do?
2. Refine Your Research Question
When you sending in a request to an archive to “research by mail,” you are really sending in a request for a “record pull and send a copy by mail.” Take a look at your big research question you are working to answer, and break down what records would help answer that question. Remember: records are created in time and place. The records available for 1920 Forest County, Pennsylvania are not the same kind of records as 1750 Philadelphia. You need to think and communicate in the time and place of your ancestors.
Here’s some ways to turn the research questions above into specific records requests:
- Baptismal record for Mary Jones born between 1800-1810 in Exeter Township, Berks County, PA.
- Church record of a marriage between Mary Jones and John Smith in a Methodist church or Episcopal church, between 1815 – 1850.
- Copy of the 5 generation family trees on the Smith family of Berks County.
Now you have some specific records that you want. What’s next?
3. Check the Repository
Every archive, genealogical or historical society, or library has a website. Examine the catalog, finding aids, and listing of materials to determine if they have the records you need. Do they have the type of records you want? For the right time period? In the right place?
If you’ve already done the work above in thinking in terms of time and place of your ancestors, then your work here is to match your needs to what the repository has. If you aren’t finding what you want, contact other genealogy researchers to ask advice or email the local genealogical society.
As you complete the research request form, make sure to list these specific record sets you want searched. Pro tip: Send the spelling variations you are using for your research. Even a surname with only four letters can be spelled in a variety of ways. Foch, Fuch, and then the spelling I won’t put here but ends with a ‘k’. The person pulling the records for you might not know of the spelling variations you are using, and found successful.
Lastly, keep in mind that every repository is receiving more requests now due to the coronavirus pandemic. Many places were closed for months while research requests continued to come in my mail and email. Specific, focused requests will be answered faster and free up the time of staff to respond to more researchers.
Many discoveries await you in Pennsylvania’s various record repositories.
Copyright ©2020, Denys Allen and PA Ancestors. All Rights Reserved.
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