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As much as we genealogists wish it were so, not every important genealogical collection is available online. In fact, in spite of the advances made, we are far from it. For some states, the available online genealogical material is considerable. Unfortunately for others, the amount of material that is available online is minimal. No matter in which state your ancestors lived, eventually you will need to expand your research to include libraries, archives and courthouses. Before you take this step, do your homework. A common mistake among genealogists, regardless of their experience level, is to overlook when a county or town was founded. If the county or town was formally established after your ancestor lived there, you may need to look in the parent county or town for relevant records. Most official town or county websites will include this information when discussing their history.

Most libraries and archives now have an online presence of some sort. Increasingly county and town clerk’s offices are adding material to their websites.  Before contacting them, it is strongly recommended that you research what records they have by visiting their websites. The better informed you are before you visit, the better your chances of success.

The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has microfilmed and digitized numerous local and state government records. Their catalog is available online at www.familysearch.org . The catalog can be a good way of getting a feel for what records exist for a given area. More importantly, however, catalog entries can give you an idea of how early records begin for a given area.  Don’t forget to look at the parent town or county’s entries as well!

In many counties and towns, local governments have transferred older records to other repositories, such as local historical societies or state libraries and archives.  Knowing where these records are and when and how they can be accessed may save you a lot of time. 

Once you know where to go and when, know what it is that you are looking for. Once you arrive at the repository, having specific questions, such as do you have a will for John Smith or do you have a marriage record for Jane Doe, can make the process go more smoothly. Remember that librarians, archivists and government clerks have other duties. Broad requests such as “Do you have anything on John Brown?” can be hard for a librarian or archivist to answer. A better question to pose might be, “Do you have an obituary for the John Brown who died in May 1910?”

In the examples, we used common names like John Smith and John Brown. One of the easiest mistakes to make in genealogy is to assume that two separate records relate to the same person only on the basis that the name is the same. Obviously, there may be many men named John Smith or John Brown in a given area. However, the same problems can occur with names that are less common. Never assume that an unusual name was only used once in a family. In fact, the opposite is usually the case. Including life events such as dates of birth and death, spouse names and marriage dates can help distinguish between multiple men of the same name.