10 January 2012

Courthouse Love - or Not

Many genealogists say they love old courthouses. See Betty Lou Malesky's "Genealogy Today: My romance with courthouses" article in the Green Valley (Arizona) News. Or Nancy Hendrickson's "Courthouse Genealogy" post on her Ancestor News blog.

Am I the only one who hates visiting the sweltering (or freezing, it's always one or the other), moldy, dusty, dirty, crowded (almost every Texas courthouse is crowded with researchers looking for the owners of mineral rights), sometimes unorganized storage places we relegate our most historical documents to?

Don't get me wrong. I LOVE the records. I LOVE the information I get from those records. I LOVE analyzing the information and correlating it with other information to solve kinship problems. I'm learning to love writing it all up, trying to achieve a "soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion"1 that others can agree with. Or straighten me out if they think I am wrong.

I'm grateful courthouses still exist and allow me to access the records that have never been microfilmed or digitized. That is how I found proof of a marriage between my third-great-grandparents in my Parker line even though the marriage records were lost in a courthouse fire in 18742 and they never appeared together on a census record where a relationship was directly stated. The Commissioner's Court records, unfilmed, undigitized, unindexed, requiring a page-by-page reading of old, faded handwriting, allowed me to find proof of a marriage (details to be documented in a forthcoming publication).

Many new researchers only know about records available online. Good researchers soon learn about records they can borrow on microfilm. Better researchers learn about records only available locally in courthouses, libraries, and archives. I HAVE to go to the courthouse and local facilities because I know information I need is only available there. But I don't love it.

I understand the thrill of holding the actual piece of paper my ancestor held in her hands when she signed it. I understand the thrill of finding evidence supporting a conclusion for which there is no document explicitly stating the relationship. But I also remember the lady who told me she spent months and months being treated for a fungal infection she got in her hands and forearms while she was going through some moldy, old documents in a Catholic archive in Mexico. Ugh.

Preserving our history and heritage is important. We shouldn't have to search for it in dungeons or dig it out of dumpsters after a court clerk's office has decided all those old documents aren't needed anymore.3 And it shouldn't require exposure to fungal infections or sneezing attacks to learn about our history.

1. Christine Rose, Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case, 3d ed. (San Jose, California: CR Publications, 2009), 3.

See also: Christine Rose, Courthouse Research for Family Historians: Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures (San Jose, California: CR Publications, 2004).

2. Imogene Kinard Kennedy and J. Leon Kennedy, Genealogical Records in Texas, (Baltimore, Maryland: Clearfield/GPC, 1987), 136; record destruction confirmed during my own visits to the county clerk's office between 2005 and 2010.

3. Erin, McKeon, "200-year-old documents come to light," (Nacogdoches, Texas) Daily Sentinel, 5 March 2010, p. 1A; DailySentinel.com (http://dailysentinel.com/news/article_b160f492-2808-11df-9f63-001cc4c03286.html : subscription required for access, 10 January 2011).

Disclosure: Links in the citations above go to Heritage Books. I have no vested interest in Heritage Books and receive no favors or compensation for providing these links. I like to support those in the genealogical community whenever I can. Craig R. Scott, CG, owner of Heritage Books, is a friend who publishes new genealogical book titles and sells books in addition to those he publishes.

© 2012, Debbie Parker Wayne, CG, All Rights Reserved


  1. I'm not a fan of courthouses, either. I always end up with breathing issues whenever I spend a day going through old paper records.

  2. Uh-oh, true confession time - when I went on a research trip to Greenville, SC, I was so happy to learn that the courthouse holdings for the period I was interested in had been digitized and were available at the library. If I have to, however, I will go to a courthouse, even one that is dirty or musty. My husband, "Mr. History," surprised me when he said that he would never be able to rummage through filthy old documents, but then he has asthma.

  3. I have to answer this question, love or not, as a co-worker once responded when asked in his review, "Would you say you have trouble making decisions?" His response? "Well, yes and no."
    My response is the same, but at least I can qualify it. I love the romantic notion of digging through untouched records (not counting insects)in a long forgotten room of the courthouse. I still have vivid memories of discovering the bastardy case filed by my ggg grandmother in a storage closet where I was told, "This is where all that old stuff is." However, the romantic courthouse lover in me gives way to the realistic need for preservation, organization, and efficiency.
    So, in emphatic summary, yes, I love them...but then again, no I don't.

  4. Maybe my title should have been "Courthouses - A Love-Hate Relationship." I'm just glad that as I came out with my confession, I had some people I respect come with me.

  5. I love the old documents, but don't like the dirt and mould much. I once found a dead louse in a microfiche reader - under the glass. I racked up the magnification to see what it was, and wished I hadn't!