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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!