Ever arrive at a courthouse, all wired and ready to research, only to have the clerk tell you that access to the information you want is restricted?
People who tell me of such experiences are shocked when I tell them the clerk wasn't being honest with them.
Now, I am well aware there are many helpful clerks who go beyond the call of duty to assist genealogists. I've been on the receiving end of such assistance many, many times. However, some consider us pests. And let's face it: Sometimes we are.
The job of clerks of the court is to help the public and officials in the current-day business of the courts. With budget and staff cuts, many are overwhelmed.
The law does protect certain information. For example, personal information provided to a census taker is protected for 72 years. That's why the 1930 census is the most recent genealogists can explore. In 2012, the 1940 census will be released.
Different states have laws to protect the privacy of individuals. People's medical records, for instance, are protected in all states.
Genealogists are interested in wills, marriages, deaths and births. Of those records, usually only births are protected and then only under specific circumstances.
Try a search online first
A valuable resource for determining what is public and what is restricted is available at www.publicrecordfinder.com, but researchers should use the site carefully.
Prominently displayed near the top of the home page on a blue background is "Sponsored Search Public Records Search." Skip over this - the sponsor wants your money to locate records for you.
Just below that area is a section labeled "Public Records by State and County." Click on the state of interest. The next page lists "Premium: State Public Records Links" and "Free State Public Records State Links." If you're interested in getting a death certificate, choose that record under the "free" section; you'll get information on what is available and how to get copies.
Two interesting examples are Alabama and Connecticut. Alabama limits access to birth records for 125 years after the event. Those who are allowed copies of the record include the individual named in the record, his parents (or legal guardian), spouse, children and siblings. So if you're seeking your grandparents' birth records, get your parent to request it.
At PublicRecordFinder.com, selecting "Connecticut" and then "birth records" will link the user to the Connecticut Department of Public Health Department. It has birth records from 1897 to present. The page also offers a link to the Connecticut State Library's History and Genealogy Unit.
In addition to directing researchers to resources for older records, the site explains that Connecticut town clerks - not the health department - hold original birth records. The state's statutes protect birth records less than 100 years old. The later records are open only to "certain parties" including the individual subject of the record, his guardian or legal representative and, interestingly, "a representative or a member of a genealogical society incorporated or authorized to do business or conduct affairs in Connecticut."
If you plan to visit the facilities in person, it is wise to use these Internet resources to educate yourself. Perhaps you'll find that you shouldn't even be at the local courthouse; the older records may be housed at a local or state archives, library or historical society.
If you do go to the courthouse, the best approach to the clerk's counter is with a pleasant smile and a generous use of "please" and "thank you." Briefly introduce yourself. I'd suggest something like, "Hello, my name is Susie Smith. I'm conducting genealogical research and need to access wills for 1840 to 1850. Could you please tell me if you have them and how I can access them?"
Don't bore the clerk with your family history. Later, if the office isn't busy and the clerk shows an interest in what you're doing, then regaling him with family lore and your genealogical mission could lure him into joining your search. I once had a clerk get so interested that she later called me at home to share something she voluntarily located after I left.
If a clerk has been especially helpful to you, consider writing her boss a note praising her public service. Giving the clerk and her boss positive reinforcement may make them genealogy research supporters - and help the next researcher.
Good news, bad news
The bad news: Ancestry Inc. has stopped publishing its slick Ancestry Magazine. The good news: All 16 years of published issues are available online at Google Books - and access is free! Read to your heart's content at tinyurl.com/ancestrymag.