Monday, March 4, 2013

Making the Best of a Bad Day in the Courthouse

Six thoughts. Others will have other approaches or additional suggestions.

1. Not everyone will be happy to see you, regardless of your demeanor. Prepare to be surprised.

2. In all ways possible, fit into the office routine as you understand it. Many public employees are overworked and under-appreciated; those who deal with the public often must confront amazing ignorance, unwarranted indignation, or both. One way of coping is to stay in their rut. If they can help you without leaving the rut, everyone will be happier.

3. Learn as much as you can beforehand about the history and the records and your rights. Know the difference between what you need and what you want.

4. Let none of that knowledge show. Ask questions instead.

5. If the person in charge is uncertain, read the situation as putting you both on the same side: "How can we find out?"

6. If the person in charge makes a clearly false statement, leave it alone unless it is crucial. If it is crucial, ask the next question in the least assertive way, for instance, "I thought your web site said . . . -- did I read it wrong?" Or any other opportune stratagem that may lead to a boss person who actually cares, or know the facts, or both.

7. Let there be pauses. It can take time to figure things out. Sometimes clerks can produce the desired record shortly after denying its existence.

8. If possible without making the situation worse, introduce yourself, leave a card, and say you'll be back.

9. If it becomes necessary to formally assert your rights, do so as nicely as possible, and preferably to someone in some position of authority, which is rarely the first person you meet on the first day.

Harold Henderson, "Making the Best of a Bad Day in the Courthouse," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 4 March 2013 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Connie Sheets said...

My favorite courthouse experience was in a tiny town in the southern portion of a certain Midwestern state, where I was a complete stranger (my family left the area in the 1840s). The clerk in charge of the records I needed was quite grumpy and unhelpful when I arrived, but after two days of following the routine you describe - almost to the letter - and keeping out of her way, she became my best friend and refused to take payment for the copies I needed.

Harold said...

Thank you, Connie! That could be point #10: Stay more than a day if possible.

Margie said...

Thanks for the words of caution. I am planning a courthouse research trip to Massachusetts. My one and only encounter a few years ago was met by one of the grouchiest people I have ever met! Luckily my encounter was brief and once she pointed me to the right room, I did not have to cross her path again. Ugh! Now I am approaching this trip with lots of trepidation. I will try very hard to implement your suggestions. Thanks!

Geolover said...

Harold, great tips! Part of your #2 is that many or most Courthouse visitors with whom clerks have contact are lawyers, title-searchers and investigators who often treat the clerks like dirt. Your most important tools are "please" and "thank you," and respectful phraseology such as "do you have time to . . .," "would you be kind enough to point me to . . .," and "yes, ma'am."

Another part of #2 is that most Courthouse traffic is about current records, and a staff person who's been there a year may not have a clue about Court jurisdictions in (say) the 1860s. This makes #3, #4 and #5 important: the clerk is not stupid or ignorant, just lacking experience. "Can you tell me if" is a useful non-threatening opener to a direct question.

Part of #3 is to recognize there is local terminology and that practices in County A were not necessarily the same as in County B next door. Further, if you have worked with records uploaded by FamilySearch, recognize that the titles for record books are often not books' actual titles and may not reflect a division such as between Register of Wills and Orphans Court.

One joyous experience was with a young archivist who was proud of what had been done in a new facility. She was glad to relate some history to a positive listener, and was the greatest ally.