Question of the Week: When you can't find information online, where do you start your offline research?

+21 votes

So many record can be found online now, but what happens when you come up short? What's your method when you need to turn to offline resources? Do you have a particular plan that you follow?

in The Tree House by Julie Ricketts G2G6 Pilot (380k points)
Let's just say, when I walk into my local library, the library ladies try to hide.

Nowadays, I take a box of chocolate covered cherries, open it up, and set on the library ladies desk.  ;-p
LOL Eddie King. Bribery...I like it! ;)
Lots of Love, Eddie--One Smart Cookie! But I hope the cherries are a good brand, the cheap ones are horrid.

Hi Julie, I would begin in the library in the town where your relative(s) lived.  Next I would go to the courthouse for possible probate records.  Every state has a registry of birth, marriage and death records, and the state libraries have many books on subjects with which your relative may have been involved in, as well as, biographies.  If the state or town of research is too far away, check with their library and historical society by phone or email.  Hope this helps. Misha

22 Answers

+14 votes
Best answer


  1. Local libraries in the vacinity where my research subject lived. (I ask the librarian for information on other local resources.)
  2. Courthouse or Official Record Centers for that jurisdiction.
  3. Cemeteries (only if I can identify uncataloged cemeteries where family might be buried.)
  4. Local historical societies or history centers.
  5. State or regional libraries and history centers.
by Bill Vincent G2G6 Pilot (136k points)
selected by Jacob Goodman
+16 votes
Some years ago, I contacted all the people listed in one community with my surname by sending a self addressed stamped envelope and a cover letter to everyone in the phone book. I had to wait a while for a response, but eventually two came back to me which led to contacting cousins.
by Frank Gill G2G Astronaut (2.2m points)
I did the same thing. It didn't solve my problem, but I did get some interesting replies.
There is a rather unique spelling of a last name in my line that up until recently I had been able to connect everyone with that spelling to my line.  For 30+ years, whenever I traveled, I would pick up the local phone book and look to see if there were any.  If I found any I called.  I found several distant cousins that way.
This is how I first started off with my Graham family line.  I got the phone book and sent a letter explaining who I was and what I was doing and asked for their help in locating anyone knowing anything about my Middleton Graham.  The only reply I got was a hit.  George Graham of Saluda, SC wrote in what I could tell was the hand of someone very old.  He said his Grandaddy was a slave of Middleton Grahams and that he had written a booklet on the slaves and their families which included information on Middleton, would I like one. Of course I would.  He sent me one.  Let me say I included a self address envelope with a stamp.  I treasure his letter to me and the booklet as it had good information on my family.  Since then, I had a great niece of his contact me on Grahams who knew nothing of the booklet and sent her a copy .  We became good friends and she came to SC and we went with her aunt to the land of Middleton's plantation.  I also was fortunate to meet the agricultural agent who volunteered to take me to many sites that had connections with my family.  The slave descendant told me to contact Mr Roger Crouch, now deceased.  These two gentlemen got me going on my research.  Finding older residents and visiting them for interviews have proven to be very good sources.  I have found it not only rewarding to listen to them.  Often I left them feeling that I was closer to God by their responses.  Always write them and send a lot of questions you will be interested in.  That way they can think about it before you go.  I took a tape recorder with me so I wouldn't have to write while we talked and a small gift.  One man I went to visit was in a nursing home and in his late 90's.  When I got there so many people flooded into the entry just to see a stranger come in.  Mr. Griffith came through pushing them aside, saying "That's my woman.  That's my woman.l"  They are starved for attention.  He could not hear well, but because I sent questions and I had a pencil and pad, I could communicate with him well.  These older people were so intelligent...he would have been born in 1880 as I went when I was in my twenties.  I am 71 now.  You just have to be unafraid to get out and search for people and not only do you find out about the family, but you learn about how life was in that area for my great grandaddy and a lot of history.
Hi, I am a descendant of one of Middleton Graham's slaves, Mack Charles Graham.  I would really appreciate a copy of the booklet George Graham sent you.  Would it be possible for you to email me a copy?  thanks
+13 votes
It depends what information I'm looking for. I do still wonder through overgrown churchyards, peruse musty parish records, and visit places holding historic archives. I try to think of all the different places my ancestor may have left a paper trail. Were they a member of a society like the Masons? Did they go to a school that keeps its old records? I literally try and walk in their footsteps and follow the path wherever it may lead.

If they were illiterate and didn't go anywhere where someone who could write would record a part of their lives then I have to give up the ghost - one of the hardest things I have to do on here... Mind you, I never give up hope...
by Olivia McCabe G2G6 Pilot (244k points)
+13 votes
I find lots of leads in published genealogies and books, usually I can get a copy sent to a local library. The info has to be taken with a grain of salt as some of those 19th century genealogists did not always value scholarship in their work. On the other hand they have a 150 year head start on me in reaching into the past. Sometimes they are clearly wrong, but others I wonder if they had access to a document which no longer exists.

Some times I get extra lucky and my "offline" searching leads to a digital copy of a book. Instant gratification :)
by Greg Shipley G2G6 Mach 6 (69.1k points)
+14 votes
In 1950 Lady Tweedsmuir the wife of the Governor General of Canada encouraged "Women's Institute" members to preserve the history of their local communities ...the result was over 1000 "Tweedsmuir Books" often from rural areas where very little local history had been archived other than census, birth & death documents. I find these little gems an invaluable source of information for Canadian research. They are often filled with pictures and local stories from the people living in the community.
by Brett Rutherford G2G6 Pilot (121k points)
+14 votes

I guess I am fortunate as I have cousins and fellow service members who know some of my relatives and comrades I have profiles for. These are the ones that I either call contact by messenger to help me research. Some contact the local hospitals or court houses for info. They help by looking up local obituaries,and go to libraries in their area to check facts or for additional information like military or civic service, or find some type of awards or honors written up in a book or pamphlet etc. Veteran organizations like the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the American Legion, may also be a help to researching a military service member or veteran. 

by Dorothy Barry G2G Astronaut (2.5m points)
+12 votes
A Town Clerk can be a good resource for genealogical information. One hand wrote out names of my relatives and cemeteries there and snail mailed it to me.
by Frank Gill G2G Astronaut (2.2m points)
+11 votes
As I now live in the area my ancestors inhabited, I can use the local library which has a number of local histories. As New Zealand has a National Library, I can order books on interloan. The local museum also has resources as well as the provincial museum. If I wanted to travel, I could go to the National Archives or find a lovely volunteer to go for me and photocopy or scan what I wanted.
by Fiona McMichael G2G6 Pilot (158k points)
+11 votes

Another offline source is ordering copies of original documents. These have so much more than what you might find indexed online.  I recently ordered a copy of my great grandfather's original Social Security application and it listed his parents names (which I had never seen before).  Boom. One step further past that brick wall.

The only downside is it gets very expensive.

by Emma MacBeath G2G6 Pilot (739k points)
+6 votes
I go to Luguna Nigel or California's Sutro
by Joseph Garcia G2G Crew (720 points)
+9 votes
The library and your local historian from your town and state it cost very little to join them and they have all the original books and they will help you if you can't find something also and if you can join other states and towns historian sites some mail letters and documents to you love them the most. get to know the people that take care of grave site's most will help you there to.
by Anonymous Trueman G2G3 (3.6k points)
+8 votes
I have a small stack of books related to Frederick County, Maryland, and I'll consult those when I'm trying to find out more about one of my lines there.

I've also written for copies of wills when the will isn't available online yet, and I've requested records like the court files from my paternal grandfather's trial for mail theft.

Mostly, though, if I can't find it online, I'll set it aside to revisit in a few years, when I can more readily make time to visit the local Family History Center or when I might be able to travel to some of these locations and check more records in person.
by Sharon Casteel G2G6 Pilot (111k points)
+8 votes
For got one more thing colleges some will help you to. Just got to find the right people a professor a history student and it helps if you went there or a family member went there. go there or call them it never hurts to ask.
by Anonymous Trueman G2G3 (3.6k points)
+9 votes
Churches, Catholic one are the best they keep every thing well mine do.
by Anonymous Trueman G2G3 (3.6k points)
+9 votes
On  visit to England a few years ago, I got a LOT of good information from the County Records offices for Dorset and Staffordshire, and from the Family History Society in Bridport, Dorset.
by Janet Gunn G2G6 Mach 9 (93.2k points)
+9 votes
I have agoraphobia, so I leave offline research to people who can readily leave the house.
by J. Crook G2G6 Pilot (202k points)
I struggle with social anxiety, so I can relate. So grateful for all the records online these days!
+9 votes
One that I ddidn't see mentioned is Funeral Homes. I've had very positive experiences, writing to, calling, emailing, and walking in. Try to choose a time when a visitation is not in process if you're going in person.

Funeral Homes are usually named in the obituary and on the death certificate. I have received copies of the death certificate as originally created prior to being filed with the county; cemetery plot diagrams with the names and dates of all buried therein; copies of the page where all the notes for the obituary were kept; payment records showing who paid for the funeral, etc. One funeral home sent not only the record for the man I asked about but the records for all his family members.
by Debi Hoag G2G6 Pilot (304k points)
+5 votes
I beg, plead or bribe my lovely son, son in law or granddaughter to take me out in their car for the day and visit one of the churchyards where I know my family are buried or guess they may be there.
Sadly for my dear family they have to push me in a wheelchair these days. Their own fault though as they don't trust my driving abilities with the power chair. They think I might end up in an open grave!
Great days out with the camera or mobile phone.  
I do so miss scrambling around those graves under my own steam. So when you can't find the source online, visit a churchyard and take photographs!
by Carole Johnson G2G4 (4.7k points)
+5 votes
I have written to local newspapers for details about the death of my husband's great grandmother and  even contacted Downing Street regarding the death of my own grandfather, to which I received immediate positive replies. . In both cases the results were more than magnificent.  I was given a copy of a full hospital enquiry of over 600 pages regarding the tragic  death of my grandfather and Darlington Police Force were consulted and were absolutely splendid.

With regards to my husbands grandmother, very nice communication a copy of the old entry regarding her very tragic and untimely death.
by Carole Johnson G2G4 (4.7k points)
+6 votes
I first go to my electronic databases I have assembled.   Then I go to my home library where I have family books from multiple towns in Europe.  After I exhaust what I have here, I go to our headquarter's library for either the county or the city because both have very well maintained genealogy rooms.  We also have 4 LDS family research rooms in town, a local genealogy society, and a history museum with a library.  Additionally there are multiple colleges and universities with rare book rooms and local history sections.  There is a world of info out there. And some very wonderful helpful people to lead you through it!
by Laura Bozzay G2G6 Pilot (653k points)
A few years ago I called a cousin to ask her for the names addresses of a particular family surname from her local telephone book, of which there were 3. I sent a letter along with a scanned photo of my husband's grandmother who had died at age 34, asking if they were related to the family and received one reply. This person had a photo of the whole family taken that same day. In addition to sharing information and photos with each other, this 'cousin' has sent us some original funeral records and a hand-written letter by that grandmother.

Related questions

WikiTree  ~  About  ~  Help Help  ~  Search Person Search  ~  Surname:

disclaimer - terms - copyright