Successful inquiries to offices and archives in Germany

From 2010 to 2014, I searched for gravesites and cemeteries in Bavaria together with colleagues. For this purpose, we made inquiries to more than 300 Bavarian municipal administrations, registry offices, parishes, city archives and cemetery administrations and asked for personal data and further information. In some cases, we had to ask several times, make phone calls or submit documents. Within 3 years, we received about 90% usable answers.

Searching for the stations of life of a chimney sweep I've contacted in April 2017 by telephone and with written inquiries the registry offices in Nienburg a. Saale and Nienburg a. Weser. Within only one week, I received the required information and was able to successfully complete the research.

While researching an emigrant family from Upper Franconia (Bavaria/Germany), I found out that the city archive of the next largest city keeps records on the place I was looking for. The employee of the registry office was also responsible for the city archive in this case. After a short phone call, I sent my research inquiry to the employee. After 6 weeks I received an unsatisfactory answer. So I called the registry office again to hopefully clear up the unanswered questions, but without success.

These examples from practical work with offices and archives show how different the results can be.

Why you don't have to accept with the answers to your requests

In the past years, I have always asking myself: Why I could not be successful with individual requests? Sometimes I had the feeling that something had gone wrong. But what?

It is clear that every office and every archive has its own unique characteristics. Last but not least, it always depends on the processor. But what can it be exactly why certain requests for information simply do not lead to the desired success?

Before you start looking for possible obstacles in the offices and archives, take a look at your own approach. What exactly do you do when you make a request to parish offices, registry offices or archives? How do you go about it?

6 mistakes you should avoid at all costs in your requests

  • You send your request to the wrong institution. You receive a rejection after a long time, because the archive is not responsible for your questions.
  • Your request is very extensive and contains many different questions that you would like to have answered. It is not clear to the person processing your letter what your actual question is and exactly what information you would like to receive.
  • You have forgotten your postal address in your written request. Where should the processor send the answer?
  • You have forgotten your telephone number or e-mail address in your letter. In case of necessary inquiries, the answer may take much longer.
  • You spoke on the phone with a very nice and helpful employee of the archive. Unfortunately, you didn't remember to write down his name and phone number.
  • You forgot to inquire about fees due and did not provide accurate information about copies needed. The registry office sends you 3 certified documents and a bill for 100 euros.

However, you are not the only one responsible if an inquiry does not go as you expect. Archives and registry offices can also make mistakes when answering inquiries.

5 possible sources of error in information provided by offices and archives

  • Your email request is sorted out as unsolicited mail by the automatic filter and ends up in the SPAM folder.
  • The request you sent via an online contact form was not submitted and therefore not processed.
  • The parish office you wrote to can only process genealogical inquiries on a secondary basis and with a long waiting period, because there are simply not enough employees available and other tasks are more important.
  • The clerk you wrote to is responsible for other tasks as well as for the archives, but due to insufficient knowledge he cannot give you any helpful information about existing records.
  • The documents of the city or municipal archives you are inquiring about are archived, but only insufficiently indexed. In other words, no one can actually tell you what information can be found where.

What you can do to avoid possible mistakes with requests 

With the following steps you should be able to minimize possible mistakes and increase your chances of success.

Step 1: The preparation

Let's assume that you generally know where the genealogical source you are looking for is usually located. That is, you know what church records are, for example, and where they are usually kept.

Before you start writing to all possible archives, I recommend that you ask the following questions again and make notes on them:

What do I want to know?

Look for the relevant names and dates (or the relevant family branch) and write down the questions that are open to you. Clarify the goal of your inquiry.

What do I need for the inquiry?

Look for necessary documents, which could be important for the inquiry. This can be, for example, the death certificate of your grandfather, if you request the birth certificate at the registry office. Also another central document, which is connected with the searched person or which underlines your search concern well, can be of importance.

Who is the right addressee?

Do you know the address or e-mail address of the institution? If not, use internet search engines (Google, Yahoo, Bing ...) to find out the contact information you need. In the meantime, the majority of public institutions have informative websites.

Contact data of public institutions can of course also be found in the good old telephone book or the Yellow Pages. I know that it is not always easy to find what you are looking for. When in doubt, it can be easier to dial the central number of the city administration or archive and ask your way through to the responsible employee.

Step 2: The draft of a written request 

Step 3: The ideal cover letter 

At some point in school, we learned how a formal letter should be structured. Although most of today's correspondence is probably no longer in the prescribed letter form, the basic principles are still important. Emails should also have a form appropriate to the occasion. I myself regularly get email requests where all politeness and structure has been lost.

Imagine if you were a clerk and received more than 20 emails a week. Which request would you rather handle?

Your written request should make it as easy as possible for the reader to understand your concerns and find the most important information quickly.

This is how your written request should be structured

The salutation

The formula "Dear Sir or Madam" belongs at the beginning of every letter and can be modified depending on the situation. In any case, it is better to address the contact person directly by family name.


Before you open the proverbial door, it is advisable to make a short introduction. This will help your counterpart to adjust to you and your concerns. Figuratively speaking, you can pick him up where you left off the last time. Refer to the telephone call or the information you have provided. Information from the relevant website or tips from other offices and archive staff are also suitable for your brief introduction to the actual issue.

Your central question - your problem

Then describe your actual concern briefly and in a structured manner and ask your questions. Make it easier for the editor to read and divide possible connections into paragraphs. If the explanation is somewhat longer, it is advisable to repeat the central question at the end.

Known information and already existing documents

You can additionally support the processing of your request to the archive by communicating known data. For example, by briefly and clearly summarizing the already known information about the person you are looking for, his relatives or important background information in one paragraph. In my work, it has also proven useful to send copies of documents that are already available. In this way you help the researcher with the research in the archives. In addition, it is best to let them know at the same time which documents you no longer need. The communication of already known information as well as already existing documents can, in the best case, accelerate the response to the request and avoid duplication of documents.

The closing formulas

At the end of the letter, possibly ask for a brief confirmation of the request. It also does not hurt to inquire about the time frame for the reply, even if there is rarely a written answer. It is better to ask about the possible response date during the first personal contact (telephone call).

Closing formulas also serve as a sign of politeness. For example: "Thank you in advance for your efforts" or "I would be grateful for your support. It also makes sense to clearly signal your willingness to answer questions: "I am available to answer any questions you may have.

You find it too formal?

Of course, you can choose another, perhaps more personal formulation. I personally don't like the formal "Yours sincerely" at the end of letters either. I like to adapt this greeting to the respective request or often use "Best regards".

In a formal cover letter, greetings and farewells should not be too "personal". It is always important to maintain the appropriate and suitable distance in the communication.

While letters contain the contact data in the letterhead or in a footer, emails offer other possibilities. In any case, your contact data should be included (again) at the end of the email request. The postal address, telephone number and email address can be inserted here by default, for example in the form of an email signature.

Important! Make it as easy as possible for the editor of your email to contact you.

The template for the perfect cover letter. Here you can get the perfect template for your next archive request free of charge. Please enter your email address below and I will immediately send you the link to download the template (text file). In addition, you will always be the first to be informed about further templates, instructions and similar offers. Of course you can revoke this decision at any time free of charge.

Step 6: The follow-up 

Gratitude for the answer

Please do not forget to thank them for answering your request and sending you information/copies if necessary. Do this even though it may actually be taken for granted to receive a proper response from an authority. However, in the email age, a few thank you lines are quickly typed and sent.

The written request has been sent and answered? Did you get the desired result?

Now it would be ideal to look at what went well and what went less well with the request.

  • How long did I wait for the answer?
  • Did I get the information I was looking for?
  • Why didn't I get the information I was looking for?
  • Are there other ways to get the information I need?

If you answer these questions briefly, you will have a brief documentation of the request. You will know what might have gone wrong and what you could do differently in the next request.

Please always remember, even negative answers can provide insights. Possible results can be

  • no information received/delivered
  • the records are temporarily blocked
  • bad condition of the records (illegible) hinders the search for information
  • the information searched for is not contained in surviving records


The forms and steps described here are ideal procedures. In practice, things usually work differently and each request is unique.

And what are your experiences with requests at registry offices and archives? Just write it to me in a comment. Let the other readers share your successes!

My explanation refer to communication with German offices and archives. Although there are worldwide (official and unofficial) standards, each language and each country has its own peculiarities.

Good luck with future inquiries!

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