The Waiting Game

Genealogical research used to be all about waiting.  When I began researching my roots twenty years ago, very few records were available online.  Actually, I don’t think any records were available online.  Researching the records I needed involved driving to their physical location to slowly scroll through microfilm.  Usually you would first have to find a record in an index film, and then perform a similar scroll through another film to find the record.

Now, I’m spoiled.  That same research process today takes seconds thanks to sites like and that have many records available online.  But, unfortunately, our ancestors’ pasts haven’t been completely digitized yet, so occasionally I still have to rely on microfilm as well as another of my research techniques from those early days – the mail.

Pennsylvania is one of those states that restricts access to vital records after 1906 and does not allow records to be posted online*.  The requester also has to be related to the deceased and provide a lot of the information that is usually the reason one requests such a record in the first place.  Regular postal mail today is called “snail mail” for a reason, and it is even more so applicable when waiting for a requested record from the Pennsylvania Division of Vital Records.  On June 14, I requested two death certificates.  For one, I knew the exact death date.  For the other, I knew the month and year of death.  My checks were cashed on June 29.  And I waited.  And waited.

When I wrote this post earlier this week, I was still waiting.  But as luck would have it, I finally received the records before I could complain about it by posting this to my blog.  The receipt date was September 16 – a mere three months after I requested it.  Oddly enough, I pulled out some notebooks from the beginning days of my research – and was surprised by what I found.  I was more organized back then, so I recorded dates for my record requests and receipts.  Not only did the death records cost $3 in 1990 vs. today’s $9, but the average response time was three weeks.   Also, you weren’t required to already know all of the facts on the record you were requesting!

Sometimes even information you can order online requires playing the waiting game. Around the same time I ordered those death certificates, I placed a request for an index search from USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services).  I actually already know the person’s naturalization date and have a copy of the papers; however, I requested the search to see if any additional papers are included in this ancestor’s file.  I’m still waiting for that response.  The website indicates that they are currently processing requests from mid-May, so I may have an answer by Thanksgiving.

While has made genealogists’ lives easier with many records available online, they haven’t yet completed the monumental task of digitizing their entire catalog.  For the rest of those records, the waiting game is just like it used to be back in those early days of my research.  I’m gearing up to drive to my local Family History Center to order a microfilm.  Then I’ll wait.  And maybe call to see if they forgot to call me.  Then wait some more.  Then pray that the record I am looking for can actually be found on that particular film.

As images fly by on my computer screen via blog posts, tweets, RSS feeds, emails, and Facebook status updates, I will (not so) patiently wait for the mailman and the FHL microfilm delivery phone call to arrive.  The waiting game can be difficult if you’ve been spoiled over the last twenty years by technological advances, but the results, once eventually received, are as sweet as they ever were.

*For information on a grass roots effort to make Pennsylvania’s vital records more accessible, see the People for Better Pennsylvania Historical Records Access  (PaHR-Access).

2 thoughts on “The Waiting Game

  1. I’m impatient, too, Donna. I can take a bit of consolation in a wonderful antidote – genealogy research trips. Of course, this doesn’t work for records that must be ordered by mail, but for a lot of the microfilm/book/document stuff, I’m actually happy that not all of it is online – great excuse for trips. Can’t take too many now, but I’m hoping we can do more of them in the future.

  2. I hear you Donna!!! New York is the same way – it takes forever to get anything from them!!! 🙂

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