As you progress from beginning genealogist to the intermediate level, you realize that not all research can be done using the Internet from the comfort of your home or office. You must make visits to libraries, archives, repositories, court houses, and even churches and cemeteries in order to gather more information about your ancestors. And very often the locations you need to visit are hundreds of miles from home.
If you've never made a genealogy research trip, these tips and insights will help you plan and execute a successful journey. And even if you have made one or several such trips, hopefully you'll still find some tricks to make the next journey easier and more fulfilling.
The 6 P's Of A Genealogy Research Trip
For many of us, a genealogy road trip sounds like great fun. But you can't just hop into a car or on to a plane without first giving some thought as to the following items:
- Plan - in order to find any treasure, you need to have a map, right? You need to know where you are at any given time in relationship to what you are looking for. You need to know what is and isn't available, what is open when, what resources are where. A plan that you put together before you reach your destination can save time, energy and prevent frustration.
- Prepare - once a plan is in place, prepare materials and tools to take with you on the trip. Understand that not everything will be available for purchase at your destination. You may not be able to locate your favorite "sleuthing" tool at an office supply store or it may be very overpriced compared to purchasing the item online. A checklist of items (see below) comes in handy for this part of the preparations.
- Proceed - for some researchers this is the fun part, while for others, the traveling is actually the most nerve-wracking. Get to your destination safely and get settled in where you are staying. Then get set for the fun!
- Procure - the goal of any genealogy research trip is to procure information whether it be in the form of photocopies of original records, photographs of gravestones, or even interviews with family members.
- Process - the review or processing of materials happens both during the trip as well as afterwards once you arrive home. A good analysis of records and information during the trip can lead to further discoveries at that location. Later on you will review the discoveries to see how they fit in with your other research and also compose source citations for the documents.
- Preserve - and what do you do with everything you've found? Make sure it is safe and available for future generations. Take time to preserve not only the materials you gathered, but also think about writing down your own memories of the trip: what you saw, who you met, and more.
Being properly prepared for a genealogy research trip and having all the tools available will translate into success in gathering the information you need in the easiest and quickest manner possible.
Plan: A Good Plan Requires Good Research
Developing a plan for a research trip should be reflective of the same skills you use in your genealogy. You wouldn't "guess" at your relationship with others, now would you? Utilize various resources to research the following components of your plan:
- Locations - verify locations of repositories, archives, and cemeteries. Don't count on GPS systems to be accurate or to work properly in remote places. Print out routes if driving using Google Maps (http://maps.google.com) or other websites.
- Hours of Operation - also verify the hours of operation for libraries and other places where you will research. Do not rely on website information. Especially with recent budget cuts at government archives, you should call and check the hours that a location will be open.
- Weather - not only is weather important for the travel portion of your trip, but if you anticipate performing research outdoors - say in a cemetery - you need to prepare to be flexible and perhaps bring appropriate clothing and gear. If you have a mobile device or smartphone, make sure an application with radar maps is available.
- Deals - check to see the best time of year to travel as well as which websites offer the best prices on supplies such as folders, binders, etc. Remember: the more you save, the more you can spend on meals, accommodations etc.
Prepare: What To Pack And What You'll Need
Although the following list is in no way comprehensive, it will cover most situations you will encounter during a typical genealogy research trip:
- Directions to and from locations
- Hours of operation
- Confirmation for air travel, car rental, and accommodations
- Local sights, restaurants, pharmacies, etc. Make sure you include address and phone of an office supply store and a store like Walgreens or CVS - these are useful for disposable cameras, batteries etc.
- Reports, family trees and charts from your database.
- A blank research log.
- Print out of names and addresses of relatives or fellow researchers in the area.
- Print out of your Internet favorites and bookmarks if you are not taking a laptop or netbook with you.
- Print out of accounts and passwords for research sites, etc. to use at library computer or other public computers.
- Emergency information including who can be called in case you are injured or stranded.
- A flash drive or CD containing the same Printed Materials as above. Also consider posting these same files on Google Docs (privately) or some other area where they can be accessed from another computer.
- A netbook or laptop with all power cords and peripherals.
- A power strip (this is a great way to make friends with other researchers!)
- Digital camera, digital video and/or digital recorder for photos, movies and interviews. Also useful for taking photos of records and save on photocopying costs.
- Batteries of various sizes for digital devices.
- Cell phone. Or purchase a disposable cell phone for about $20 for use in emergencies.
- GPS or mobile device/smart phone with GPS capability.
- A handheld scanner.
- Change for photocopiers.
- Office supplies such as highlighters, pens, folders, magnifiers, etc.
- First aid kit, especially if you will be doing cemetery research.
- Favorite snack foods.
- Clothing appropriate to the weather forecast including an umbrella.
- Small thank you gifts for folks you meet along the way including family members, interview subjects, helpful library staff. A small zipper bag of candy with your business card will do the trick.
Proceed: Half The Fun Is Getting There!
When it comes to travel, there is only so much of the situation directly under your control. Here are some tips on what you can control and how you can cope when control is not an option:
- Air travel requires patience these days. If you haven't traveled recently, check out the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) website at http://www.tsa.gov/. Try to limit yourself to carry-on items to speed up your trip and don't forget that any liquids and gels must meet certain restrictions.
- Car travel requires you being at your best in terms of alertness and attention. Take breaks when needed and rest if necessary. Also make sure your car has a checkup before a long trip.
- Especially if traveling solo, set up a system where you call a friend or relative once you arrive at your destination or if you are delayed. If stranded at an airport or other location, use your social media applications like Facebook and Twitter to get recommendations on where to stay, eat, etc.
Procure: Get While The Gettin' Is Good
Once you've arrived, your plan may have you hunting in a cemetery the first day, at a local courthouse the next day, etc. Remember you may need to be flexible due to weather or unexpected situations such as reduced hours, constructions, etc.
- Use your time efficiently at the library or archive. If you see a book from which you want to photocopy pages, have you first checked Google Books (http://books.google.com) or Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org)? If the book is in the public domain, chances are it is available for download for free. Don't waste time photocopying what you can get later online.
- Don't forget to copy down essential information for your source citations! There's nothing worse than having photocopies and not remembering where they came from.
- Analyze only when necessary to find more information at the immediate location. Don't spend time reading every line of information if it can be done later that night in the comfort of your hotel room.
- Outdoor photos - especially those with tombstones - are affected by the time of day and weather. Cloudy days are better than sunny days so rearrange your schedule if possible depending on the forecast.
- And remember to thank the staff at the repository, courthouse or cemetery. In these days of budget cuts and overworked staff, a "thank you" goes a long way.
Process: Take It All In
While there will be some processing and analyzing of material during your research trip, much of this will take place once you've returned home, get unpacked and are settled back into your routine.
- Arrange the materials in folders based on surname, subject or whatever filing system you use.
- Compose your source citations for each piece of evidence so it can be included in your database and reports.
- As you process, make notes as to your successes and failures: which repositories yielded the most information or had the most resources? Which locations require another visit in the future?
Preserve: Saving For Future Generations
You've completed your trip, you've updated your database, you've made progress in your search for your ancestors. Done, right?
Not so fast. Besides preserving the information you've located, also consider how you want to share that information with family members and other researchers.
- All paper materials and photos should be scanned, digitized and uploaded to a location for safekeeping. You may not have access to those items again even if you retraced your trip years from now.
- Consider writing an article for your local genealogical society's newsletter or even one of the national society journals. Share your tips and tricks, your adventures as well as your misadventures.
- A blog might be the perfect way to share your experiences with others including family members. Using a free site like Blogger (http://www.blogger.com) you can create your only blog in less than five minutes.
- If you use social media sites like Facebook (https://www.facebook.com) or Twitter (http://www.twitter.com), consider posting about your experience. You can even create a Facebook page dedicated just to your research trip. And don't forget to lookup those archives and libraries and follow them as well!
Genealogy research trips can be fun, productive and addictive but only if you are willing to plan ahead and develop a comprehensive program covering where to go, how to get there, what to research and more. Remember those 6 Ps - Plan, Prepare, Proceed, Procure, Process and Preserve - and you'll reap the rewards of that research trip for years to come.