24 April 2013

Me v. Free: Why I Trust My Own Search Efforts Above Anyone Else's

Some libraries still offer "free" research assistance to people seeking genealogical information. Sounds like a good deal, right? Letting someone else do the legwork saves travel time and gas money, so paying for photocopies seems fair enough. The problem with "free" services, at least in my experience, is that I usually get what I pay for.

Last month I contacted a public library in a neighboring state about an obituary. This library conducts free searches, but if something is found, there's a small fee that covers up to seven photocopied pages. Okay, that's close enough to free, I thought. According to a page on the library's website, an exact date is preferred when "appropriate newspapers" are searched for death notices and obituaries, along with "the place of death or last known residence." I have that information! I thought. I'm in good shape.

This is how I worded the request I sent through the library's web form. For privacy reasons, I've replaced the real name, date, and location from my original request with descriptions of that information in square brackets.

I'm seeking an obituary for [a woman's first name, middle name, maiden surname, and married surname], who died on [a month, day, and year in the next-to-the-last decade of the 20th century]. According to the Social Security Death Index, her last residence was [a town less than 15 miles from the large city where the library is located]. Would it be possible for me to get a digital copy of her obituary, if one exists? Thanks in advance for any assistance you're able to provide!
[my name and snail mail address]

My request was polite and detailed. I'd supplied a full name, an exact date, and a place that would be familiar to anyone who worked at the library. Here's the response I received. Again, the information in square brackets is just a description of the information in the original email response.

Hello Ms. Laird,
We found nothing on the person cited in your request. We checked from [one day before the date of death] to [seven days after the date of death]. Thank you.
[name and contact info of the librarian who responded]

Would you be satisfied with that response? I wasn't! I had no idea which resources had been "checked" or if the librarian who sent me the email response was the person who'd actually performed the search. I could have followed up, but I didn't. Instead, I found the obituary myself.

It was exactly where I thought it would be, in one of the "appropriate newspapers" listed on the library's website. Surely someone at that library had "checked" that newspaper, since it covers the metropolitan area where the "person cited" had died. The obituary was published the day after the woman's death, and the librarian's response indicates that someone "checked" something from that date. The obituary was on microfilm, not in the usual newspaper databases. Did my request for a "digital copy" cause someone to ignore the microfilm and focus only on newspaper databases, none of which cover the date in question?

I have no idea why the first library didn't find the obituary I requested. It existed, and I found it at a different library. Getting to and from that library cost $6.65 on the Metro. Printing the section of the microfilmed newspaper page containing the obituary cost a whopping $0.25. That's over three times what the other library would have charged for its "free" research service . . . if they'd managed to find anything. I'll take me over "free" any day of the week. When I go after information that's important to me, I get what I pay for.

Copyright © 2013, Madaleine J. Laird. All rights reserved.


  1. I agree. To be honest, I did the same thing once to an RAOGK requester. I checked the Baton Rouge paper for the obit for a few days after the death, and I didn't find anything. The lady said she was very surprised (we are talking about someone who died in the 1980s) that it wasn't there. I had to go back a few weeks later for something else and decided to check again. This time I realized that I had forgotten to check the next microfilm. He died toward the end of the month, and the microfilms were by month. I meant to do it the first time but forgot. Sometimes we are just not as careful with other people's ancestors, especially when it is just something to do on the side to be helpful.

  2. The obituary I was looking for was published on the last day of the month, but I went ahead and looked at the roll of film for the following month first, and that turned out not to be the right move in my case. How funny!