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Genealogy Roadtrip: 10 Tips for Researching at a Library or Archive

Posted by Anne Gillespie Mitchell on June 24, 2014 in Ask Ancestry Anne
Library of Virginia

Library of Virginia

So where do genealogists go on vacations? The mountains? The beach?  Not a chance.  If we have our way, we go to archives, libraries, courthouses and cemeteries.

Now if your family is with you and they’re not quite as obsessive about genealogy as you are (yes, oddly enough that happens), you might want to plan activities for them elsewhere.

All right, now that you’ve cleared the way, here are 10 tips to help you get the most out of your visit to a library or an archive.

1. Do Your Homework Ahead of Time

If you show up without any knowledge of how the library or archive is organized or how they allow people to access information, you will waste valuable research time learning how they work.  So before you go:

  • Read the website ahead of time or call to find out what the rules are and what they allow on site.
  • Make sure you check the hours and days they are open and what days they are closed.  You will be a very sad genealogist if you show up and the closed sign is on the door.
  • Where can you park? Where can you eat? Where should you stay?  You should know this ahead of time.

2. Be Nice to People

Once your there, rule #1 is “Be nice to people.” Sure it seems obvious, but people are always more helpful if you are polite and respectful. And they are always more helpful to the people who come after you. Librarians and archivist like to help. Just remember a smile can get you a very long way.

3. Learn the Copying Policy

What are the rules about copying the material that you find? Know before you go.  Can you takes pictures, make photocopies, or scan?

4. Prepare for All Those Copies

You will need to make copies, unless you have a photographic memory.  The rest of us need to bring change for photocopies and  jump drives for those digital scans to save our finds.

5. Pack Your Supplies

Bring pencils, pens, papers, erasers, notebooks, laptop, tablet, and anything else you can think of you might need. If you’re using a laptop, invest in a cable lock, otherwise you’ll be lugging it around every time you want to leave the desk. And for goodness sake, bring your tree or at least the tree of the people you are researching. You will forget something important if you don’t.

6. Consider the Essentials: Food

When you are deep in the documents, you may forget to eat. But you will need your energy. If you bring your own snacks and water with you, or dollars for the vending machine, you can be back at the documents without a lot of wasted time.

7. Be Kind to Your Eyes

Don’t forget your reading glasses! I did that once. Not a good research trip.  And bring a magnifying glass.  Handy tip: if you put a piece of yellow construction paper on the surface where you are viewing microfilm, it might give you more contrast to pick out details.

8. Pack What You Need

Leave your valuables elsewhere. Don’t bring every credit card and a huge money roll with you. Bring just what you need and keep it with you at all times.

9. Check What is Available Before You Go

Are there catalogs and finding aids you can use ahead of time?  Don’t waste time while you’re there looking at things you could have looked at from home. Look before you go!

10. Make a Plan

Who are you looking for?  And what exactly? Have a research plan.  Don’t just show up and browse. Ok, that can be fun, too. But plan. You’ll get more out of your trip.

Happy Searching!

About Anne Gillespie Mitchell
Anne Gillespie Mitchell is a Senior Product Manager at Ancestry.com. She is an active blogger on Ancestry.com and writes the Ancestry Anne column. She has been chasing her ancestors through Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina for many years. Anne holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program, and is currently on the clock working towards certification from the Board for Certification of Genealogists. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook and Finding Forgotten Stories.

5 comments

Comments
1 Kimberly LoomisJune 24, 2014 at 3:39 pm

Think you for these tips I’m heading from Kansas to Oklahoma this weekend.

2 MonikaJune 24, 2014 at 10:13 pm

All very good tips. One more that I might suggest: if you are headed to do your research in Europe and you are going to look through church books and/or other documents that are centuries old, “bone up” on the old hand writings (e.g., Suetterlein or Kurrentschrift). You can print out the alphabet on the internet and teach yourself to write whole sentences with it before you leave. If you do not know how to decipher the old hand writings, you may never even recognize the name of your ancestors even if they are right under your nose!

3 Bruce BoydJune 25, 2014 at 8:10 am

I think No. 10 should be right up there with No. 1. First rule – Know what you are looking for and how it relates to what’s available at that specific site. You’re not on a scavenger hunt.

4 LOU VALERIOJune 26, 2014 at 8:40 am

It wouldn’t hurt to add Language transltor APP on your phone when doing research may be helpful

5 MargaretJune 30, 2014 at 1:41 pm

In regards to tip #7 specifically the hint, can you give more information on where to place the yellow construction paper? My local library has very old microfilm machines and I have thought I would go blind doing research on them, anything to make it easies on the eyes would be great.
Thank you.

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