Planning A Genealogy Research Trip

by Kathleen Brandt | Jan 7, 2010

Kathleen Brandt

You have scoured bookshelves and archives at your local genealogy library, ordered periodicals and books through inter-library loans, and borrowed the Family History Library microfilms that hint to your ancestor's comings and goings. You've exhausted every online database, and have spent the wee hours of the night searching the internet for ancestral information. What's next? A genealogy trip. But, before packing forms, the laptop, and camera, you'll need to do your homework.


Randomly searching for ancestors on the internet can be fun, but spontaneity is not recommended when traveling for genealogy research. It is best to narrow your trip to researching one person or family unit and make a list of data needed to keep focused. Duplicate this list on both paper and your laptop since some research centers, like the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), don't allow stacks of papers. Others won't allow computers.

Prior to travel, verify access to documents and collections. Some repositories do not allow searches of originals, or the collection is not available due to preservation efforts. If court ledgers are in the process of being digitized, you may not be able to access them. Most repositories and archives post hours of operation and research policies on their websites. You will want to verify all of this information by email or telephone.

Whereas the NARA is open late Wednesday through Friday, many State Historical Archives are closed Mondays. Very few research facilities are open Sundays, making it the perfect day to visit cemeteries and churches. Church visits and chats with local historians may provide vital information on your ancestor. Although there are too many repositories to list, try narrowing your itinerary using US Gen Web search.

What to Bring

  • An itinerary with your research goals
  • List of places to visit with phone numbers, hours of operation, and directions
  • Laptops and key-drives (or CDs) for memory and backups
  • Pencils and erasers. The use of pens are often prohibited
  • Notepads, preferably colored. Loose papers are not always allowed
  • Family group sheets, charts and forms. Find examples here.
  • Change for copy machines. Machines usually accept dimes, quarters or copy cards
  • Cell phone and charger
  • Camera with batteries and memory cards (or film)

Where to Go

Though there are thousands of valuable spots in the U.S. to learn more about your ancestors, here is a short list of some of my favorites:

If you are looking for military records from the Revolutionary War to the Philippine American War, why not travel to the NARA in Washington, D. C.? This is an ideal trip, if your family will be in tow and you wish to pair sightseeing with research. The D.C. NARA houses non-digitized files like full pension records, and compiled service records, and it holds other textual and microfilm records relating to genealogy, American Indians, the District of Columbia, the Federal courts, and Congress. For Information for Researchers at the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. click here.

The largest library in the world, Library of Congress, also in D. C., is a treasure for genealogists. It holds over 50,000 genealogies along with maps, histories and newspapers. Guides and Bibliographies are published here.

While in DC, why not visit the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Library? The DAR databases not only assist finding ancestors who served in the Revolutionary War, but since generations of descendants are documented in DAR applications, these databases may be helpful for genealogists who have hit a brick wall. You may be able to connect your family with one already on file. Information on the DAR Library may be found here.

Combining a D.C. trip with a day at the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis or the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore should be considered if your ancestor was from that state. Prior to traveling, use abstracts and indices to lead you to the correct facility. Annapolis and Baltimore are within an hour of Washington, D.C. and are full of fun family activities.

If retracing your family's migratory path leads you to St. Louis, the gateway to the West, visit the National Personnel Records Center, Military Personnel Records (NPRC-MPR) to research WWI and WWII records, medical records, and deceased veteran records from the 20th century. The Civilian Personnel Records Center (CPR) is also in St. Louis. Through these records, I traced a civilian doctor on an American Indian reservation in North Dakota. The personnel file held a photo of the doctor and the names of his Russian parents. The NPRC-MPR and CPR records are archived and must be ordered in advance online.

Visiting the town where your ancestor lived and walking on the same grounds may be the goal of your genealogy trip. While in the village of your ancestors, don't neglect the local libraries and college collections. Local libraries may have non-published genealogies or a local genealogical research section. Often they have the contact information for a local historian. College collections may also emphasize local history. One popular college collection for genealogists is the Lilly Library Friends Collection at Earlham College in Swarthmore, PA. which houses personal diaries and letters of Pennsylvania Quaker ancestors. More information on Lilly Library is located here.

If a county courthouse was destroyed by fire, as so many were, consider traveling to surrounding counties, but don't limit your search to courthouses and cemeteries. Plan a trip to state or local historical societies. These facilities are filled with archival records, periodicals, and research completed by local genealogists. The New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), in Boston, is a favorite research trip destination and is listed as one library not to miss in 9 Genealogy Libraries to Visit Before You Die, by Lauren Gamber. NEHGS holds manuscripts dating back to the thirteenth century, bible records, diaries, and unpublished genealogies. Visit the NEHGS website for more information.

The Family History Library (FHL), the world's largest genealogy library, makes Salt Lake City, Utah, a popular destination for almost 2000 genealogists a day. Although most microfilms and fiche titles may be borrowed through a local Family History Center, there are additional resources only accessible at the Utah facility. Again, planning is vital, since many resources are "vault" films, and must be pulled from the archives. Be sure to read Preparing to Visit the Library" on the FHL website.

A Memorable Trip

You will want to make this trip memorable so consider keeping a trip journal. Copy everything you find (when will you be back?), and cite sources on every document. Take photos of tombstones, the old family home, church, and schoolhouse, and record the names of your contacts and new acquaintances.

Additional Resources

  • Searching on Location: Planning a Research Trip, Ann Ross Balhuizen. c 1992. Ancestry

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