Dressing for Research, by Mary Penner

Flowers and flagThe heat wave was unusual for Salt Lake City.  Five consecutive days with temperatures near 100 degrees with a repeat heat performance expected today. No problem. Wearing shorts, a T-shirt, and sandals, I left my motel and began an eight-block walk to the Family History Library.

This was my first trip to the FHL, so my excitement quickened my pace.  Before long, though, I slowed to a steady walk.  How freaking long are the blocks in this city anyway?  Plus, the bank thermometer flashed 83 degrees and it was only 9:30 a.m. When I finally slipped through the doors into the FHL lobby, the cool air-conditioned atmosphere was a welcome relief.

Sitting through the first-time visitor orientation, I noticed goose bumps popping up on my arms.  This room is a little cool, I thought. After the orientation, I plunged into the stacks, flipping intently through books.  Wait a minute, my toes and fingers feel cold.  In fact, I’ve got goose bumps all over and I’m starting to shiver. I looked around at the other researchers.  Long pants and sweaters were standard attire.  Was that person who just passed by wearing earmuffs?  No one told me it would be 47 degrees in here.

I made a quick exit into the welcome heat outside. First detouring to Nordstrom to buy a sweater, I trooped back to the motel.  I threw off my shorts and slipped into jeans and tennis shoes, not forgetting socks for my frostbitten toes. No longer dressed for a 3-mile hike in shimmering downtown heat, I got in my air-conditioned car and drove to a parking lot near the library.

Since that frosty July, I’ve encountered all kinds of dressing dilemmas while conducting genealogy research. Not long ago, I marched into a library wearing my new high-heeled boots, with my boot-cut jeans, of course.  It was like an artillery unit had moved into the lobby.  With each booming step, my boots sent a shock wave of sound throughout the building.  What drunken designer put tile floors in a library?  Have you ever tried to tiptoe in high-heeled boots?

Then there was that time when I stopped at a remote cemetery to hunt for my great-great grandfather’s grave. Who knew it was supposed to snow that day?  As soon as I stepped out of the car the flakes tumbled out of the sky.  My leather bomber’s jacket and slippery loafers soaked up the snow like sponges. 

Just what should the well prepared genealogist wear from head to toe? For the head, we need a rain and snow-repellent, heat and UV-protective hat, preferably with detachable ear flaps and a built-in headlamp.  Nighttime goggles that double as sunglasses with magnifying lenses would be helpful, too.

For the torso we need layers.  A sleeve-less tank top with a T-shirt over that with a long-sleeved cotton shirt over that with a sweater over that with a light water-repellent jacket over that with a winter coat over that.   Each of these must have numerous pockets for holding quarters, post-it notes, pencils, small notepads, paperclips–just about everything from your desk drawer.

For the legs we need long pants that zip off to make shorts.  Over that we need water-repellent, wool-lined breakaway pants like the NBA players have.

For the feet we need socks that wick away sweat yet can also double as heat producing thermal insulators.  And, we need mud, snow, and rain-repellent high-top, ultra-cushioned hiking shoes with soundless soles.

Getting dressed for research is serious business. On the other hand, I could wear my denim shorts, my ragged sweatshirt, and my furry slippers and sit in front of my computer and conduct research.  Hmmm.  What should I wear today?

Genealogist Mary Penner writes Lineage Lessons, a weekly genealogy column, for the Albuquerque Tribune (www.abqtrib.com/neighbors). She can be reached at mpgene@juno.com.

7 thoughts on “Dressing for Research, by Mary Penner

  1. Hi, Mary;
    Yes! Someone else has noticed that multiple seasons clothing is best for genealogy work, indoors and out! I have done my share of cemetery photos, library sitting and record room copying, all of which require many different outfits. I take with me a little of everything so I’m covered if it rains, shoes for mud, or puddles or dry carpet, or even 100 years of leaf mulch in a cemetery hardly looked at or walked into for the same length of time. My car always has a jacket in it, too.
    Andrea
    RAOGK, Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness, Knox County, Ohio

  2. Yes! Believe me…I was suprised when I went to Washington D.C. to attend the National Institute for Genealogical Research (NIGR) at the National Archives… I packed light because it was July in D.C. Little did I know how cold it would be in the archives and in the lecture room where I sat for most of the day. Since then, I’ve made sure I pack a little of everything. Great article and a great reminder!

  3. Boy did this make me laugh….just got back from the Boston and outlying areas tracing my families and their small towns. Of course, they were having the worse storms in decades. I was in a cemetery in a small town, Blandford MA, in no back, mesh top trendy tennys looking for gravestones in the rain. What a disaster! I had my soaking stocking feet stuck up the heating vent all the way back to Boston! Good thing my husband was driving!

  4. I too faced a similiar experience when I went to Boston last summer. My mother and I took the commuter train into the City on probably the hottest day in July. We of course wore shorts, tanks and sneakers. I had my bookbag with research notes pencils, maps, coins, and what I was researching. I had no idea how freezing it was in the archive building!. The upside was that we had taken so much time stopping at other places first was only 30 minutes before the archives closed for the day. I still got what I needed at the time but this summer I’ll be alot more prepared.

  5. Great article, however being a professional researcher you should be dressing in a working attire, churches don’t really appreciate tank tops and shorts, libraries really don’t like flip flops. In the 1950′s I was a teen ager and I went to do research at a California Mission, I knew I was going to be crawling on the floors the books I needed was on the bottom shelf, I was refused entrey. I learned to ask that question what to wear when I call for information days and hours. LTE

  6. Great artical and made me think of of how great the people in the FHL in salt Lake were to me in 2005 when I spent 5 hours in there.
    Again very good reading
    Wayne L.Bailey

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