Planning Your Successful Research Trip

By Carolyn L. Barkley

Planning an effective and efficient research trip has always been an important component of a genealogist’s repertoire. With today’s gas prices affecting the cost of your trip more than ever before, however, your ability to plan well has become an even more significant skill. Here are eight tips to help you make that trip as successful as possible. These strategies work whether you are taking a cross-country trip or a morning’s drive to your local library – or even if you’re using your home library – and regardless of whether you’re working on your own family or doing client research.

First, realize that research is a cycle of work with several important steps: planning, collection, organization, analysis, reporting, and then planning once again. Each research trip builds upon the work accomplished in previous trips and sets the stage for work to be accomplished in future ones.

  1. Your single most important action is to focus on a problem you wish to solve. Then, you need to be able to answer the following questions:
    * “Who is the one person – or one event – that I want to learn about during this trip?”
    * “What do I already know about this person or event?”
    * “Where is information on this person or event located?”
    * “What research can I do in advance?”
    Consider all of these questions long before you leave home. If you cannot answer any of them, you are not ready to begin your trip. When you can answer them all, you will endear yourself to librarians and archivists everywhere because you will be able to present your research needs concisely (please, no twenty-year history of your family even if you are excited by your knowledge) and you will be prepared, knowing what is available – or not – at the institution you are visiting. (Note: You may want to prepare two or three problems in case you find that your first problem, despite careful preparation, cannot be resolved, or that you are SO successful in solving the first problem, that you have time to do more.)
  2.   Plan where you will go to conduct your research. First, answer the question: “Do I really need to travel to do my research?” Check the institution’s website for collections of online digitized records and databases or the availability of interlibrary loan of microfilm or other resources. (Note: never travel to see microfilm that you can borrow through your home library.) If you decide that you do indeed need to make the trip, continue to check the institution’s website to verify its address, find driving directions and parking information, and its operating hours and record access requirements. Check as well for any unknown holiday or construction interruptions that may have been scheduled recently. Check to see what other activities are located nearby (special library collections, museums and museum libraries, historical societies, etc.) that might support your research). Decide if you will need to stay overnight (or stay several nights) in order to be successful in completing your research goal.
  3. Plan what to take carefully. I am personally allergic to the idea of the rolling suitcase with all of my files bumping along behind me. If you have focused and defined your research problem(s) well, I believe that you only need to take the files that relate to the specific research focus for your trip. Another method to avoid the dreaded black bag is to make sure that all of your files have been entered into your laptop, either through a genealogical program – sources please – or through copies of previous research reports and spreadsheets.
    Make sure you know what the institution’s rules or special requirements are. Are pens allowed; are cameras or scanners allowed? Did you know that the Library of Congress does not allow musical instruments? Make sure you have a picture ID, pencils and erasers, a loose-leaf binder or paper, address labels (makes it much easier for filling out name and address on request or photocopy slips) and blank labels (place on back of photocopies with the source’s bibliographical information). If you are taking a laptop, does the institution have easily accessible electrical plugs? Should you bring a small extension cord? Do you have a surge protector? Is Wi-Fi available? Do they allow you to plug your thumb drive into their equipment (the Family History Library in Salt Lake City does, many public libraries do not)? (Note: Bring lifesavers. I know that food is banned in most libraries, BUT, no matter how healthy you are, you will get a tickle in your throat or a cough in the drier humidity and a lifesaver will live up to its name.)
  4.   Bring forms to assist you in your research.  I strongly recommend using a research log. There are many different varieties that can be found online or in books such as Emily Anne Croom’s Unpuzzling Your Past Workbook: Essential Forms and Letters for All Genealogists (Betterway Books, 1996). This form allows you to note the name of the individual being researched, your objective or problem, the research institution, and the date of your search. It also documents the location or call number of sources you use (whether you found anything in them or not), the source’s bibliographic description and any comments such as “no index,” “page x is missing from this copy,” or “book/microfilm reel, etc. is missing from the collection.” You will also need pedigree charts, family group sheets, and other more specialized abstracting forms depending on the type of research you will be doing. If you are taking a laptop, you will be able to enter much of your information directly into your genealogical program and research log file, thus cutting down on the number of hard-copy forms you will need to take.
  5.  Once at the research site, take a few minutes to orient yourself to the facility. Where are the restrooms, lockers, the coffee shop, copiers, film readers, computers, etc.? Do you need a copy card? What is the collection layout? Are the stacks open access, or will you need to request items from closed stacks (and need to have something to do while you wait for them to be pulled)? Are there finding aids, maps of the facility, etc.? Where is the staff located in case you need assistance? It is also very important that you take care of yourself while you work. Plan to take breaks at specific intervals. I find that after two hours, I need to take a short walk, drink some water, rest my eyes, and reorder my thoughts. Make sure you take time for lunch and get out into fresh air and, hopefully, sunshine. You will be more alert during the afternoon if you do.
  6.  When you have finished your research, organize your materials: research logs, forms, photocopies, and any spreadsheets or chronology tables you might have created. I recommend chronology tables as often they will provide visual clues to gaps in your research or to the fact that you might have found more than one person with the same name. I use a simple MS Word table with date, event (name and action), and source of the information. This table also tells me if my documentation is from original sources, rather than from too many secondary reports of the event.
  7. Always, always, always analyze what you have found during your research trip. This step is very often over-looked. Think of the many family trees you’ve seen online where the mother’s birth date is chronologically after the birth date of her children. Simple analysis would have prevented this type of error. Answer the following questions:
    * Is your information from a primary or secondary source?
    * Does the information add to or conflict with what you already know?
    * If the problem has not been solved, or has led inevitably to another research problem, what further work is required?
  8.  Write a research report summarizing your trip. Again, this step is often overlooked, but is important for your own research, not just for client work. In your report, restate the object of your research (your research problem), what you knew when you began the work, the institution(s) in which you researched, the sources you consulted, and your findings and analysis. Outline future work. Attach all of the copies that document your findings. You will have all of this information easily at hand if you kept a detailed research log, annotated each of your copies and supporting documentation, and analyzed your work. The report is simply a way to organize your thoughts and documentation so that the next time you decide to work on this particular research problem, you simply remove the report from the file and review your previous research as well as your notes about future work.

You are now ready to plan you next trip and the cycle begins once again.

For further information on many of the topics mentioned here, check out the following sources:

Professional Genealogy: A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers and Librarians, edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills (Genealogical Publ. Co., 2007)
Managing a Genealogical Project by William Dollarhide (Genealogical Publ. Co., 2001)
Getting the Most Mileage from Genealogical Research Trips by James W. Warren and Paula Stuart Warren (Warren Research & Publishing, 1998).

 

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