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That pesky GPS thing again

There is one essential truism in genealogy that every single genealogist — The Legal Genealogist included — has encountered at one point or another to our dismay:

It’s not all online.

As a matter of fact, it’s estimated that what’s digitized and available online is only a tiny fraction of the genealogically relevant information that’s available in all the libraries and archives and repositories of the world.

not found

But… but… but… the very first element of the Genealogical Proof Standard requires us to engage in “(r)easonably exhaustive research—emphasizing original records providing participants’ information—for all evidence that might answer a genealogist’s question about an identity, relationship, event, or situation.”1 And we do this because: “Reasonably exhaustive research ensures examination of all potentially relevant sources. It minimizes the risk that undiscovered evidence will overturn a too-hasty conclusion.”2

So, reader Marilyn asks, “What do you do if you cannot travel to locations that probably have information (records) you need, and you cannot find them online?”

This is pretty much a “where there’s a will, there’s a way” situation. If we’re really committed to our family history research, we’ll use one of several options for getting our hands on those records even if we ourselves can’t travel to where the records are. In order from least expensive (potentially) to most expensive (potentially), some of the options we have are:

• Connect with cousins from that area. One of the best ways to advance our family history is to connect with cousins and particularly cousins who still live in the area where we need research. If my people were from, say, northeastern Alabama, and I need documents from Etowah or St. Clair County that aren’t online, connecting with a cousin who still lives in Gadsden and offering to share information that I have in return for a courthouse trip is about the best way there is. Not only does each side get good genealogical information, that connection may also turn out in the long run to be someone who becomes a dear friend.

• Swap research services with another genealogist. If we don’t have cousins who still live in the area, we can certainly try to connect with other genealogists who do live there and who need research done in the areas where we live. Swapping a trip to retrieve their documents from the courthouse where you live for their trip to retrieve your documents from the courthouse where they live works for both sides as well.

• Check services like Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness. There are groups of volunteers who are willing to do lookups and record retrievals in their local areas. Some of these can be found in Facebook groups like Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness – RAOGK USA or Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness – RAOGK International. Keep in mind that it’s only fair: if we’re asking for help from volunteers where they live, we should be willing to offer help as a volunteer where we live. And of course we need to follow the rules of the group (no requests to find living people, for example). And remember: we can’t ethically ask someone who subscribes to a paid service like Ancestry or Find My Past to use that subscription to get us a document rather than pay for our own subscription. That violates the rules of those websites.

• Check out interlibrary loan. One thing we don’t use enough is interlibrary loan. If we’re researching in Virginia, for example, we should know that much of the amazing collection of early records held on microfilm and microfiche by the Library of Virginia — the state archives and library of the Old Dominion — can be loaned to our local libraries via interlibrary loan. It’s not free, and our local libraries have to work with us to do it, but it’s an option for some records we might not otherwise be able to access.

• See if there’s a local research service through the public library or local genealogical society. More than a few public libraries and local genealogical or historical societies offer research services either free or for a fee. If we need a particular clipping from a small town newspaper where the only copy on microfilm is held locally, this can be a quick and reasonable way to get our hands on that clipping.

• See if the record can be ordered from the repository. Sometimes the repository that holds the record will allow us to order a copy by mail or email. Many of the records of the U.S. National Archives can be ordered this way — land records, military records and more can be ordered for a fee.

• Hire a professional. When our research needs are complicated or we’d like more than a simple lookup or record retrieval, our best bet is to hire a professional who’s an expert in the records of the area. We can find professional researchers who hold credentials from the Board for Certification of Genealogists in the directory at the BCG website; those who are accredited by the International Commission for the Accreditation for Professional Genealogists at the ICAPGen website, and those who are members of the Association of Professional Genealogists in the APG member diretory.

What we can’t do, of course, is just give up. Our ancestors are calling… we have to answer.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “When it’s not online,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 4 Nov 2019).


  1. Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards (Nashville, Tenn. : Ancestry, 2019), 1.
  2. Ibid., 2.
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