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Reference from Coast to Coast - If You're in Detroit, It Must Be Wayne County

By Jan Bissett and Margi Heinen, Published on May 15, 2001

Welcome to Reference From Coast to Coast: Sources and Strategies, a monthly column written by Jan Bissett and Margi Heinen.

Jan Bissett is a Reference Librarian in the Bloomfield Hills, Michigan office of Dickinson Wright PLLC. She is a past president of the Michigan Association of Law Libraries and has published articles on administrative and research related topics in the Michigan Association of Law Libraries Newsletter and Michigan Defense Quarterly. She and Margi Heinen team teach Legal Information Sources and Services for Wayne State University's Library and Information Science Program in Detroit, Michigan.   

Margi Heinen is the Librarian at Jaffe, Raitt, Heuer & Weiss in Detroit, Michigan. She teaches Legal Resources at the University of Michigan's School of Information and is team teaching with her co-columnist, Jan Bissett, at Wayne State University's School of Library and Information Science. She regularly does Internet training of legal staff at her firm and recently collaborated with Kathleen Gamache on an I.P.E. presentation, Internet Stategies for the Paralegal in Michigan. She is active in the Law Librarians of Metro Detroit and is a member of the American Association of Law Libraries.

A question that reoccurs regularly in law libraries is “What county is XXXXX in?”. The question is often posed by litigators concerned with jurisdiction or estate practitioners who may be trying to determine the appropriate location for a probate or family law matter as well as those seeking corporate or "doing business as" information.This question was addressed in a previous column.But since it's been at least a monthly inquiry in our libraries, we thought we'd review the sources we use. One of the joys of research is that even if the questions remain the same, the approach to the answer may change in today’s world of expanding sources.

As low tech as it may sound often the fastest approach may be to refer to readily available print materials. Especially for those of us sitting near library shelves housing the Martindale Hubbell Law Directory. The Martindale Hubbell "blue pages" or geographic section at the beginning of the state practice profiles bar roster provide state name, capital, state bar association information and an Index of Towns and Cities Listed by County.The listing is alphabetical by county, so you must scan each county for your desired town or city.You can avoid scanning this list by searching for your city in the “blue pages” as if you were looking for attorneys. In bold print at the beginning of each city listing is the city name, the population and the county. Of course, there is one significant drawback to this method, as there has to be at least one listed lawyer in the city you're looking for, or it won't appear.

An atlas may also provide an immediate answer to your question. BRB Publications such as The County Locator or The Librarian's Guide to Public Records: the Complete State, County & Courthouse Locator provide county location based on zip codes. Additional suggestions may be found in Zimmerman's Research Guide Counties listing.

Many web-based sources also provide this information or enough of it to lead you further:

If you have a city name:

NACO: National Association of CountiesCounty Data Queries: City/County Search allows searching by cities in a State or by City name to locate a County.

Distance Calculator at indo.com : Although this site is more frequently thought of as a distance calculator, you can type a city and state in the “from” box and click on “Look it up”. The county information is supplied by the U.S. Census Bureau.

If you have a street address:

The Census Tract Street Locator from the U.S. Census Bureau provides county information in its profile of a particular street address. Enter house number, street name and zip code. The result(s) will include access to profile(s) based on the 1990 state and county data, including census tract information identifying county name.

The United States Postal Service's Zip+4 Code Look-up provides county information for a specific address. You must enter a delivery address, city and state to view results. This site would be most useful for those large cities existing within several county boundaries.

Web based geographic name servers may also provide the information you seek. The MIT Geographic Nameserverlists place name, state, county, latitude, longitude, elevation, population and postal code information on locations within the U.S. Locations are not necessarily cities or municipalities. Please note much of the data is not current and the site refers its users to the USGS GNIS National Mapping Informationfor more current data or to the U.S. Gazeteer. The National Mapping query form may be slow to load and the results of your search may include many locales that are not municipalities. A search for Detroit found many local landmarks such as islands, capes, airports and cities. This query form did not prove to be the fastest way to find a county. The U.S. Gazeteer did not provide county information although it does provide population and other information.

And finally, PACER's district look-up provides county names located within a federal district court's jurisdiction. You may search by county name, for all counties within a district or details by county code.

County location is often important and may be critical in determining jurisdictional and public records issues. If you find conflicting information in any published or on-line source you consult, check with the local court or county clerk to determine a city's true location within a county.