By Carolyn L. Barkley
Addresses are essential to our genealogical research. Because all the information needed to document our work is not available on the Internet, we must frequently contact a government agency for location, contact information, service descriptions, hours of information, and forms. In such instances, what determines our efficiency and effectiveness as researchers is our ability to obtain accurate information quickly. In this increasingly digital age, many researchers turn to the Internet first for an address; others may turn to print resources first. One major caveat is that not everything on the Internet – nor everything in print – is correct and up-to-date. Information, whether published in print format or online, technically was accurate only on the day on which it was posted or published. As time goes on, unknown to us, changes may and will take place.
I frequently like to look at print directories first, and Internet listings second, as I’ve found this one-two combination to be very effective. To support my print-first preference, I lean heavily on three address compilations, placing them within easy reach of my desk: Elizabeth Petty Bentley’s The Genealogist’s Address Book (6th ed., Genealogical Publishing Co., 2009) and County Courthouse Book (3rd ed., Genealogical Publishing Co., 2009) and Thomas Jay Kemp’s International Vital Records Handbook (5th ed., Genealogical Publishing Co., 2009).
Let me illustrate my address search strategy with three examples.
Websites, such as those for government entities, were not created for genealogists. As such, they may be difficult to navigate, or may lack links to related sites or information. For example, I navigated through four pages in the Town of Palmer, Massachusetts, web site before finding historical information (although the fourth page provided a nice online collection of digital photographs from the library). I later found that the “About Our Community” tab led to four town history links, but that content was not immediately obvious from the navigation bar title. I eventually found the Town Clerk’s page through a site search, but later discovered it under the Town Departments and Divisions tab, listed about half-way down the list of agencies in the Department of Public Services. Anyone wishing to send for vital records would need to navigate through five pages to find the instructions. In contrast, by checking Bentley’s Genealogist’s Address Book under Hampden County, Massachusetts, I learned that Palmer was organized in 1752 as the Elbows Plantation and was incorporated as the Town of Palmer in 1776. The URL for the town’s website is provided and the entry notes that land records are held by the Board of Assessors and vital records by the Town Clerk. In addition, I found that there is an Elbow Plantation Historical Society and that the organization does not have a website. After reading this entry, I knew important information that could assist me in selecting the appropriate address with which to contact the correct office for the records I require. As an added benefit, I have contact information for a related historical society. Please note that the information for the Elbow Plantation Historical Society cited in Bentley’s Address Book (2009) and that provided in Genealogy Forum’s “Massachusetts Historical Societies” listing online (2008) are different and a phone call to verify correct information is recommended.
I want to be able to read through a variety of address opportunities for a specific location. For me, this scan is done most easily in a printed source. Material included in the print source can then lead me to specific websites for more in-depth information. For example, in Bentley’s County Courthouse Book under the heading for Hampden County, Massachusetts, I learned that the county was organized from Hampshire County in 1812. I also found listings for the Chicopee District Court; the Hampden County Probate and Family Court, with a note indicating that land records are held by the Registry of Deeds, and naturalization records and probate records by the Register of Probate; the Hampden County Register of Deeds; the Hampden Superior Court; the
Holyoke District Court; the Palmer District Court, with a note indicating that this court has jurisdiction over Brimfield, East Longmeadow, Hampden, Holland, Ludlow, Monson, Palmer, Wales, and Wilbraham); the Springfield District Court, with a note indicating its jurisdiction over Longmeadow, Springfield and the West Springfield; and Westfield District court, with a note indicating its jurisdiction over Agawam, Blandford, Chester, Granville, Montgomery, Russell, Southwick, Tolland, and Westfield. If I were interested in a district court case about an individual from East Longmeadow, by reading through the notes in Bentley’s book I would know to contact the Palmer District Court, rather than the Springfield District Court. (Ordinarily, one would have expected the latter, given the relative geographic locations of the Town of East Longmeadow, the City of Springfield, and the Town of Palmer.)This knowledge alone could save weeks in waiting for a record copy requested from the wrong jurisdiction. In addition, if I were interested in a deed for property in East Longmeadow, I would know to contact the Hampden County Register of Deeds.
I want to find an appropriate form easily and be able to have additional copies available. Despite its title, Kemp’s International Vital Records Handbook is essential for U.S. birth, marriage and death record searches because it provides application forms and ordering information necessary for driver’s licenses, passports, job applications, social security, proof of identity, and more. For each state, an overview of vital records holdings is provided. For example, in Massachusetts, pre-1841 records are found in the city or town where the event occurred, while records from 1841 to 1915 can be accessed at the Massachusetts State Archives in Boston. The Registry of Vital Records and Statistics in Dorchester holds birth, marriage and death records from 1916 to the present. A list of costs for certificates and an address for adoption record information is included. URLs are provided for the Registry, the State Archives, and the New England Historic Genealogical Society which maintains online databases of the Commonwealth’s vital records from 1841-1910. Following this brief introduction is an Application for Vital Record (beginning in 1916) from the Registry of Vital Records and Statistics which can be copied and mailed in with your payment. While this form is the only one provided for Massachusetts, the Michigan section provides copies of many state forms including Application for a Certified Copy of Birth Record, a Request for Verification of a Michigan Birth Record, an Application for a Michigan Marriage Record, a Request for Verification of a Michigan Marriage Record, an Application for a Michigan Divorce or Annulment Record, a Michigan Death Record, and a Request by Adult Adoptee for Identifying Information. Check the section for your state for available forms. Please note that it will always be important to verify the printed information concerning prices by visiting the web sites indicated for each state. You may also want to verify if an updated application form has been issued. A quick telephone call or online search should suffice.
In addition, International Vital Records Handbook, provides vital record information for foreign countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Forms and prices are provided for some countries (examples: Trinidad and Tobago, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Republic of South Africa, Republic of the Philippines), but for many, an entry includes the address of the office responsible for vital records, as well as helpful agencies such as national record offices or foreign embassies located in the United States. In some cases, as with Sweden, a brief overview of historical vital record keeping is provided as well as applicable websites.
This approach will not be the preferred strategy for everyone. It can certainly be argued that vital record information is available online and that there is less need (some would even venture no need) to check printed sources. I have found, however, that the ability to browse has enriched my knowledge before I contact an agency, or even decide which agency is the correct one and which address is the correct one. I use printed sources as an organized, annotated finding-aid to resources available on the Web. Last, but not least, when the electricity goes out, my wireless network drops its signal, the library has no more available PCs, or I’ve used the time they’ve allotted to me for that day, the print source enables me to continue my work.
I recommend Bentley’s The Genealogist’s Address Book and The County Courthouse Book, and Kemp’s International Vital Records Handbook to each of you for your home library. Public libraries and other archival institutions will want to make sure that copies of the latest editions have been added to their collections. To round out your collection, you may also want to add Ancestry’s Red Book: American State, County & Town Sources (3rd rev. ed., Ancestry, 2004). Despite its older publication date, this title includes valuable research information concerning record types in each state, as well as recommended reading.