The Blog

Planning Your Genealogical Research Trip

We, as genealogists and family historians, are willing to go to some lengths to find information on our family lines.  When we have exhausted the available resources online or on microfilm through LDS family history centers, occasionally we need to take an on-site research trip.  It is an inescapable fact that some of the things we need are only available in person. These one-of-a-kind documents may be crucial to our research. You might be asking yourself, “How do I take a successful trip to conduct family history research?”

One of the keys to success in any research is planning.  If you need to visit a courthouse, county clerk’s office, research library, historical society, or archive, here are eight important steps to complete before you go.

  1. Review the 0nline catalogs.  Find out what their holdings are and make a list of what you want to see, in order of its priority.  Often you can search by a location or surname.  Watch out, many of these have listings for different types of records in separate online catalogs.  Keep looking.
  2. Make a To-do List.  In your list, remind yourself WHAT book, microfilm, or record series you are looking for, WHY you are looking for it (searching for Aunt Mildred’s husband’s name), and WHERE in the building it may be.  Many places have multiple levels or specialized rooms for separate collections.
  3. Check the key info. Check online for hours, fees, parking, lockers, where to eat, and especially closing dates for holidays.  Don’t get stuck at a locked building or spending all day trying to park your car.  I got stuck once because I thought Memorial Day was a perfect time for me to go, but it was apparently a perfect time for the staff to close up too.
  4. Read the Records structure.  Every archive arranges their information differently.  Take time to check the location’s website for an online tutorial, or user guidelines. Ask friends if they’ve had experience there or check the Wiki at FamilySearch, and input the name of the place you are going.  Researchers from all over have shared their experience about places to research, and so much more.
  5. Gather supplies.  What can you take into the building?  Can you take your laptop, scanner, or camera?  What are the photocopying policies?  How much?  Many places will not allow you to use their copier, or do not have open shelves.  Allow for the extra time for staff to help you or records to be pulled.  Are you taking lunch, or packing a small snack?  Make sure you take extra batteries or the charger for your camera.  Not every place has internet access, so don’t rely on getting your information from the cloud. Have a paper copy or information on your laptop or tablet.
  6. Plan for more than one day. If this is your first time at a certain place and you have a lot you need to search, do not expect to get it done in one day.  In all likelihood, you may take a significant amount of time just getting settled and getting used to the facility.  Be realistic about what you can find, and if possible plan for more than one day of research.
  7. Make a Plan B.  Things never work out the way you plan, so plan some more.  If somewhere is unexpectedly closed (power outage or other emergency), where else can you go in the area?  Cemeteries are rarely closed.  The main county library often has a historical or genealogical collection for the area.
  8. Be open to happy accidents.  On my first baby-genealogist research trip I made a lot of mistakes, but I also planned well and it benefitted me every time. On a five-day trip to Genesee County, New York, I found that I was finished at the historical society early one afternoon.  I hated to waste any time, so I pulled out my Plan B.  In Genesee, the county courthouse and county clerk are in separate buildings.  I went to the county clerk’s office because my Plan B was to re-visit the town clerk, but for some reason I couldn’t find the phone number to see if they were still open.  As I walked into the office I stood in line patiently, and an older man walked up to ask if I needed any help.  I told him my problem and he said he thought he had the number in his office.  It turned out that he was the County Clerk himself.  We got to talking and he showed me the deed records.  He was kind, but a little skeptical that I knew what I wanted.  I whipped out my binder with my plan, copies of censuses, and other information and showed him that I knew exactly when my ancestors came into the county.  He was amazed at the organization and looked over at a near-by secretary saying, “Okay, she’s hired.” Needless to say, as I worked he looked over my shoulder from time to time, and would say things like, “I know I have a map for that area over here, would you like to see it?”  There was my ancestor, named on the map.  I love happy accidents!

The more planning that goes into your trip ahead of time, the more you will get out of your research. Why waste time during your trip when you can plot your course before you go?

Tell us your success stories with on-site research, we’d love to hear from you!

Rebecca’s Reel Hints: Your Next Summer Vacation at The State Archives

Planning your summer vacation?  Going to the mountains? The beach? Well, how about a visit to the state archive?

The state archive may not be the first destination to come to mind. But don’t overlook their importance. State archives are so full of information, and no two are the same.  Often, not only do they have extensive libraries of published indexes, but they have so many records that are not available anywhere else.  Before you jump in the car, however, there are a few things you might try first:

  • Check out their websites.  A great one-stop-shop for finding the state
    archive (and any associated contributing historical groups) is put together by the Council of State Archivists at http://www.statearchivists.org/states.htm.  Choose your state and off you go.
  • At the website, check for digitized records online.  You’ll be surprised to see how many different types of records are available – death, military, historic photos, and more.  Most archive sites have a link conveniently titled “Genealogy.”
  • At the website, check the online catalog.  Use the catalog to plan what you need to look at when you get there, how it is stored (textual records, microfilm, fiche, off-site), and any restrictions for use. Every archive website is set up differently, and some are a little more difficult to navigate than others.
  • Ask about the loan program. Did you know that many state archives participate with your local library in an interlibrary loan program?  For example, I knew it would take weeks to do line-by-line searches in old handwritten copies early of New York county tax records. When I checked the online catalog I found that the microfilm could come to my local library.  There are sometimes costs for this, but in my case, there was only a limit to how many films I could order at one time.  Those eight films took me four weeks to go through, but it was four weeks I was able to spend on my own time from home, and not a four-week trip to New York.
  • Don’t like the website?  Keep trying.  I used to hate the website maintained by my own state.  The problem was partially in the way records were named, but the problem was more about my own inexperience.  The more I used the site, the easier its navigation became.  If you need help, ask around.  Is there anyone you know at your local genealogical society who uses the site often who can tutor you?  It is worth the effort.
  • Plan the visit! Most archive websites have rules for using the facility, hours of operation, parking information, photocopy costs, rules for computers and cameras, and even short tutorials to help you.  Read up – you’ll end up frustrated if you go there and it is closed because of a holiday or you cannot find parking.  When you get there, ask if they offer tours of the facility.
  • While you’re there, look for county records. Sometimes the state archive may solve your burned county conundrum.  Many times counties were required to send copies of their records to a state facility.  Even if the county archive burned down (again!), copies of many types of records may have been obtained by the state archive.

Maybe going to a state archive isn’t your family’s idea of a good vacation destination or maybe you don’t have time to go right now.  Have a digital mini-vacation and visit the website of your favorite state archive and get familiar with its holdings.  Personally, I am bartering right now with my husband to go to any state archive near a baseball stadium – that way we can divide and conquer as we travel.

What works best for you?  What have you enjoyed or found at your state archive?  Write and share your ideas. Happy trails!