by Sara

Every so often, a patron visits The Genealogy Center and tells us their own version of the following sad story: “My parent/spouse/sibling is seriously ill and unable to communicate with us, and we need to find her birth certificate, marriage certificate, or military discharge papers in order to qualify for Medicaid, Social Security or Veteran’s Administration benefits.” Often the relative cannot locate the paperwork at the ailing person’s home, and does not know when or where the event took place, so they don’t know where to start. Sometimes we librarians get lucky and find a clue in an online or print index that helps pinpoint for the patron where to look. This strategy doesn’t always work, because few 20th century vital or military records are not online due to privacy concerns. In cases where the event location is unknown, we may have to send the patron back home to seek more information. We might ask them the following types of questions to help clarify the situation: Does another relative or friend of the family know more about the original event and when and where it took place? Is the event on record at the church or synagogue the family attends currently or attended at the time of the event? Is it notated in a photo album or old letter? Might it have been listed in the local newspaper? And is that local newspaper indexed, or would the patron have to scroll through the microfilmed copy of the newspaper page by page, looking for the article? And so on. We can only hope that one of these new avenues of research yields results. Sometimes a county by county, state by state search is necessary when folks married in an unexpected location and there is no state-wide index.

Don’t let this happen to you! Organize your family’s important paper documents today. Talk with your family members and gather information now. To that end, every person should make a designated location for their important documents, be it a file drawer, strong box, home safe, safety deposit box, or other safe place. After determining where this file will be kept, they should inventory their paperwork and acquire any important personal documents that they are missing now, while they are still able to do so. To request birth, marriage, death and divorce records, contact the county clerk, health department or vital records office in the county where the event took place. Military records are usually filed at the National Archives, and most military veterans or next-of-kin are entitled to their records free of charge.  After acquiring the documents, persons should let their spouse, children or a trusted friend know where these documents are stored, either within the house or at another location.

Since this is not a situation that I want to find myself in, my family is busy getting our own papers together. My parents have gathered all their documents in one place and notified their children of that location. We also recently requested my dad’s military records from the National Archives. Now, I just need to work on putting together my own documents and leaving them in a safe place for future generations. What about you?