Visiting Chicago for Research

Planning a research trip? Below is a list of popular Cook County repositories that you might want to visit. The quick summaries of their frequently-used resources are meant as a rough guide; there's no substitute for searching the repositories' holdings and/or consulting with staff ahead of time so that you'll be ready to dive into the records when you arrive.

Asher Library at Spertus Institute
Resources for Jewish genealogy

Cook County Circuit Court Archives
Naturalization (Circuit, County, Superior, Criminal, NOT District); divorce, probate, and court indexes; case files stored off-site

Cook County Recorder of Deeds
Property records, irregular indexes that include name changes
Property Search (find PIN needed to access records)

Chicago History Museum
Newspapers, directories, early police employee records, photographs, fire insurance maps, many original documents
Archives and Manuscripts
Prints and Photographs

Cook County Law Library
Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, useful for finding court cases, including adoptions

Harold Washington Library
Newspapers, municipal collection that includes school board minutes and directories
Catalog (click "Search" and choose catalog)
Archival Collections

Illinois Regional Archives Depository at Northeastern Illinois University
Early Cook County vital records (not Chicago), saloon licenses, coroner's inquest records, city council records, naturalization and probate records
Holdings (choose "Cook" to view all)
Archival Collections (scroll down for NEIU databases)

Irish American Heritage Center Library
Newspapers, vital records database, Irish genealogy research help

National Archives at Chicago
District Court naturalization records

Newberry Library
Newspapers, directories, cemetery records, Lutheran Church records
Research Guides

Rinn Law Library
Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, useful for finding adoptions

Wilmette Family History Center
Vital records including births to 1915, marriages to 1916, and deaths to 1947, Archdiocese of Chicago parish records through c. 1915, cemetery records on microfilm, all available city directories

Chicago isn't the only place you can go to do Chicago research! As you're making travel plans, consider adding the following repositories to your list:

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library (Springfield, IL)
Illinois statewide newspapers, oral histories, biographies
Surname Index Search

Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center(Fort Wayne, IN)

Family History Library (Salt Lake City)
Early vital records, church records, naturalization records, city directories, cemetery records, German newspapers, inquest records, and more

Illinois State Archives (Springfield, IL)
Statewide vital records but incomplete for Chicago for early years
Descriptive Guide

If you need a lot of early vital records, plan to visit the Wilmette Family History Center where you can access births, 1871-1915, marriages, 1871-1916, and deaths, 1878-1947 on microfilm or, even better, the same records and more as unlocked digital images through the FamilySearch website.

If you need vital records that you can't get from the Wilmette Family History Center (see above) and your time in Chicago is short, there's no need to spend it standing in line at the Vital Records Office in the Daley Center. Contact the Cook County Clerk's Office to purchase these records from a distance. There's no cost advantage to going in person--they won't let you see records without paying--and if the clerk can't find a scanned copy of the record you need in the database, you'll have to leave a by-mail request anyway. That said, the clerks to try very hard to locate records and going in person for a particularly challenging search might be worthwhile.

Parking in Chicago can be expensive and driving can be a challenge. Consider taking public transportation into the city. The "El" has stops convenient to the Circuit Court Archives, Recorder of Deeds Office, Rinn Law Library, and Harold Washington Library. Also consider taking public transportation to get from any of those four repositories to the Newberry Library or the Chicago History Museum.

If you're going to drive, the Chicago History Museum has a parking lot nearby and the Newberry Library has metered parking that would likely be available if you arrive early. It's easy to take public transportation downtown from either of those two places.

If you need to do research at the National Archives at Chicago, drive, and take the freeways rather than surface streets. Even so, it may take you 40 minutes or more to get there. If you just need a single naturalization record, it's probably better to order it by mail.

If you want to check property ownership and view related documents or look at the irregular indexes that include name changes, make the Recorder of Deeds Office a top priority. They don't take research requests by mail and their fees to copy anything other than tract book pages add up quickly.

Divorce and probate research at the Circuit Court Archives is a two-step process. If you'll only be in the area for a short time, request index searches by mail in advance so files can be brought from the warehouse before you arrive. That way, you will be able to view/copy them in person.

Check repository catalogs before you arrive. If you can't find sources to address your research questions, call to talk with librarians ahead of time. They may be aware of Chicago resources you might not otherwise find.

Finding places to eat in downtown Chicago will be no problem. If you're new to the city, make sure to indulge in a nice slice of Chicago pizza before you leave!

In a Nutshell

If you'll be traveling to Chicago for research, plan ahead so you can make the most of your time in the Windy City. There are many resources online, but also consider picking up a research guide to study beforehand and refer to during your trip. Grace Dumelle's Finding Your Chicago Ancestors: A Beginner's Guide to Family History in the City and Cook COunty is a very helpful read.


Which repositories should I visit?

Researchers often ask, "What's the best place to do research while I'm visiting Chicago?" The simple—and serious— answer is, "The place that has the sources you need to consult." For example, the Newberry Library is a world-renowned institution, but if you need early vital records, the Wilmette Family History Center would be the place to go.

Where should I stay?

The answer to that question is beyond the scope of this website, but consider accommodations in places like downtown Evanston, as well as in Chicago. The "El" makes it very easy to reach the city from there.

Where can I find information about public transportation?

Try Google Maps. Type in a beginning point and ending point and select the public transportation icon for route information.

Also visit the Chicago Transit Authority website.

What about safety?

Do a bit of research about the areas you're thinking of going to—especially if you're considering venturing out to locate an early 1900s address or cemetery—and use your common sense. Chicago is a wonderful city but there are some areas you might not feel comfortable visiting.