Genealogy during the pandemic

The past several months of quarantine have provided many people the opportunity to delve into their family history. Some people have gotten stuck, or recognized that critical records for their search may be inaccessible online. They reach out to me for help and are uncertain of what to expect right now given repository closures. If you’re in the same position, let me tell you the current status of things on the east coast of the US — I’ll update this post as the situation changes.

Right now, federal facilities such as the National Archives centers are closed to researchers and staff are not able to fill records search requests. Many early naturalization records were deposited into these National Archives facilities, so if you are interested to research an immigrant ancestor, their naturalization records may be unavailable for the time being.

State Archives buildings house vast quantities of records and their contents vary from state to state. In Pennsylvania, for example, the State Archives houses things like Revolutionary War Pension Records, early land records, state asylum records, and much more. The State Archives of Pennsylvania, as well as those of New York, New Jersey, North Carolina,South Carolina, and West Virginia are currently closed. Some locations, such as Maryland, are offering remote research by staff. Delaware and, starting next week (July 7 2020) Virginia are open by appointment.

County government facilities like courthouses are generally open to a limited extent that may include reduced hours or public access restriction to records. Undigitized records in their possession, which may include originals of naturalization records that WERE NOT deposited to a National Archives facility; and other records like probate, deeds, and tax records, if they were not deposited to a state archive or historical society, are likely available right now, but with some limitations.

Historical society libraries currently are either open with limited access (e.g. with a maximum number of patrons permitted in the building at a time), or remain closed. State-level archives are more likely to be closed. Historical society libraries are often the repositories for records originally created by a government entity and held in a county government facility but later transferred for better preservation. They also are often in possession of family papers, privately created or published genealogies, and other artifacts such as photographs and heirlooms of historical interest.

Churches that house only their own congregation’s records may be willing to provide access by appointment right now, or do lookups on request. Central facilities that hold many congregations’ religious records (for example, many Roman Catholic diocese hold records in a central archives center) are less likely to be open right now.

An increasing number of records are available online, but often behind a paywall. Some county governments require a subscription to access probate records or deeds; an increasing number of historical societies, e.g. New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, are digitizing their records and putting them online for subscription only access.

Needless to say, genealogical research during the pandemic might move a bit more slowly, but it is still entirely feasible. If you are undertaking research yourself, I hope that this outline helps you make decisions about what your next steps are.

If you are considering getting in touch with me for help on a genealogical quandary, our plan of action won’t be very different than if we weren’t currently dealing with any repository closures — it may just take a bit longer to complete if essential information is housed in a closed facility. When taking on a new genealogical project, I always begin with the creation of a research plan. This research plan details what information is sought and which resources I will consult to locate the desired information. A research plan ensures that work is done as efficiently as possible (efficiency for both my time and your wallet). If we run into a repository closure, we can simply press ‘pause’ on that portion of the research and work on completing the rest of the research plan. When the repository reopens, we’ll be ready to retrieve the desired information at once because a research plan was already in place.

So, rest assured: there needn’t be any wait to find your heritage. We can start working on your project today. And, after pandemic travel restrictions end, I intend to start offering on-site research in Italy. If you might be interested in this service, you can get in touch now to discuss the details of your exciting journey to discover your family’s roots.

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