Pennsylvania State Archives Genealogy Records on

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James Beidler used to spend hours stationed inside the Pennsylvania State Archives combing through records. Over time, the freelance genealogy researcher from Lebanon, Lebanon County, became a familiar face to archivists who helped the former journalist in his quests for information found only in documents such as birth and death certificates. Today, Beidler still spends much time scanning records, but now he does it primarily from the comfort of his own home. “These collections have meant a sea change, especially in 20th-century research,” he said. “Having them online definitely saves time versus a trip to the State Archives every time a record needs to be accessed.”

In 2009 the Pennsylvania State Archives partnered with to digitize a segment of its collections. So far roughly 13 million records, from marriage documents to birth and death certificates, have been uploaded to Ancestry. Thanks to added fields such as dates and keywords, the documents are easily accessible, accounting for millions of website page views per month. “Ancestry really made a push to catch these records, and we were interested,” said David Shoff, chief of the Division of the Pennsylvania State Archives. “We really felt the need to get these records online.”

In the past seven years, 20 sets of collections held by the State Archives have made their way to Ancestry and may be accessed for free by Pennsylvania residents. Before the Ancestry project, archivists were fielding roughly 700 requests a week from people needing genealogical reference materials. Those requests did put a strain on the staff, Shoff said. Now, those records are online and genealogists can perform searches from their own homes. “Having these records online is helping people better connect to their heritage,” Shoff said.

Prior to the collections going online, many genealogists were limited in their search areas. Beidler, who relies heavily on death certificates for his research projects, was once unable to fill one branch of his own family tree because of a certain name that was listed as “unknown.” When Ancestry posted the death certificate collection online, Beidler found the previously unknown name on other certificates, opening the door to additional searches.

The wider availability of the collections, with the most popular online being the birth and death certificates followed by military records, have helped further educate people on their subjects, a helpful advantage should they need to expand their searches from the internet to the physical State Archives. “They are more prepared to do research when they come here,” Shoff said. “It helps us as well. We know where they’ve been and what they are looking for now.”

In addition, thanks to the collections now online, the physical documents are rarely drawn from the vaults, cutting back on wear and tear. “Those birth and death records are hardly ever touched now,” Shoff said. “I can count on one hand how many times we’ve had to pull an original. Digitization is not preservation, but they are directly linked.”

Access to Pennsylvania State Archives records on is free for Pennsylvania residents.


Sean Adkins is social media manager for PHMC. Look for his updates at Pennsylvania Trails of History on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.