Tips from the Pros: Build a Research Tool Kit, from George G. Morgan

Prepare yourself for library research visits by building a take-along tool kit. Pretend you are headed off to school because, after all, this is just another academic research trip!

Include a small stapler and staples, zipper-lock sandwich bags containing different size paper clips and rubber bands, several sharpened pencils, an eraser, small notepads with pages you can clip to others, a lined pad or notebook with pages for copious notes and transcriptions, and a zipper-lock sandwich bag with a variety of coins and dollar bills for copy machines and microfilm printers.

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33 thoughts on “Tips from the Pros: Build a Research Tool Kit, from George G. Morgan

  1. George:

    Good ideas. I would recommend also including a small hand held calculator. It certainly helps keeping people straight. Helps eliminate two year old parents and 30 year old children.

  2. Very good planning! I have also found it very convenient to take along a small digital camera. You can use it as your copy machine as some of the books are too big or too old to be placed on a copier and this way you have a copy digitized as well.

  3. I also carry a small magnifying glass (mine has a 3-inch handle), which helps when pouring through microfilm and sometimes in interpreting handwriting.

  4. A good Notebook Computer could and would help eliminate much of that notepad stuff. Ditto the paperclips,staples, rubber bands etc. You,
    however, would still need a bag of coins 🙂

    Happy Hunting!


  5. For difficult to read microfilm, I carry a yellow file folder. The yellow placed on the reading surface creates more contrast. Sometimes it helps.

  6. Excellent suggestions in your article. Also excellent ideas in the various comments. However, I’ve been finding lately that many of the research facilities will only allow you to take into the research rooms a few sheets of paper, pencils and your laptop computer. Sometimes a digital camera is allowed, but not always. Fortunately the laptop computer solves the problem of not being allowed to take in much data to work from.

  7. OK, pencil (I prefer mechanical but …), coins, magnifying glass (a really good idea), etc.
    My additions: if you don’t have a notbook computer, get a Palm PDA with GEDStar (import your Gedcom file so you have a good reference and it has a Soundex calculator built in; I also keep my research points as memos in there), and a Planon scanner (I have the R700). It makes quick work of printed documents and you have an image of the docment … good for things like church or civil records. Also suggest a digital voice recorder for making fast notes of things as you move around. Also good if you are interviewing someone and can’t write as fast as they talk.

  8. I would love to have a lap top, but life has change over the last few years. Most of the librarys, I have visted lately have a computer they will allow you to us. I carry a USB Flash, Thumb, or Chip drive on my car keys. It will hold unbelive amount of information and you can get one for less than twenty dollars. If you are at a point where you can copy material of the web. You can use Notepad or equivalent to copy paste unbelievable amount of information instantly. With a little experimentation you will descover why you do not want a more complicated Word processor for this purpose. Yes I still carry the pad of paper and a pencil; but it sure saves me time, and one of these days I’ll actually put out the thousand or more for the lap top I want.


  9. I highly suggest that before making a trip to any library that you call and find out the guidelines for the genealogy dept. At the St Louis County Library, visitors/patrons are only allowed to bring a pen or pencil (pencil case may be ok), notepad, loose sheets of research material and a small wallet with ID’s and money into the genealogy dept. Purses, briefcases, totes, backpacks, notebooks (binders), books, staplers and other items are not allowed. If seen with any of these items, the staff will politely ask that they be taken to the lockers which are on the floor below.

  10. the tips are helpful to new and seasoned genealogist. The note by Debbi Geer is extremely good advice…check before going! I tend to take the laptop most places and would not have given any thought about taking it. Thanks to all!

  11. The 35 mm. film containers – disappearing since digital cameras are used now – hold $7.00 worth of quarters; handy for taking into genealogy libraries.

  12. Was pleased to note that I had been doing stapler, pencil sharpener, pencil box, magnifying glass, etc., from beginning. Am so pleased, also, that many libraries and archives offer computers now. I can transfer my Ancestry to their computers. Ancestry is especially important for me now that my sight is more limited in viewing film. Images are great through Ancestry.

  13. When we were at the St Louis Co library last September, they allowed just as Debbi said — PLUS A LAPTOP. The laptop made it so much easier and the staff were very helpful — lot’s of info available on their computers as well.

  14. I keep my paper clips, pencils, erasers, etc., in a zippered pencil case. And coins/dollar bills or other items in small zippered change purses of various sizes. All of this is in one side of my tote bag while my files, notebooks, etc., are in the other side. Other necessities: small and medium-sized post-it pads, and a 6-inch ruler. A small pencil sharpener is also useful. These can be transferred to a belt bag, if necessary. And, rather than a purse, a belt bag is also useful for carrying personal items such as driver’s license, credit cards, necessary medicines, etc., which should not be left behind when moving around in the facility.

  15. Good ideas! Will use when begging hubby for a laptop for Christmas! I do bring (and leave in locker) survival food, since I resent time away from researching to feed body but find fainting from hunger in mid-afternoon to be a distraction in the research room.

  16. I just returned from an out-of-town research trip tonight. After this trip, I will now add to my research kit a small penlight flashlight or better yet, a small battery powered light! This will come in handy when I photograph documents, or in the case of another black out. Despite the beautiful, sunny weather outside, the power went out in the archives where I was doing research, and I had to work by only the dim light provided by the back up generator-powered light source. The staff commented that I was dedicated to keep working through the blackout, but since I had driven 9 hours to get there and only had one day to be at this particular facility, I didn’t have much of a choice! Kudos really belong to the dedicated staff who work at the Chester Co, PA, courthouse archives, who continued to venture into the dark stacks to retrieve material for me during the half hour or so the power was out. They were all terrific.

  17. Spent a day visiting family gravesites in various cemeteries and was ill-prepared. Learn from my mistake. Next time I’ll remember grass-trimming scissors and a whisk broom. We took a digital camera but I know some prefer large paper and pencils to do rubbings of the stones. (Don’t forget the sunscreen!) Most cemeteries have a staffed office and they will gladly provide you with a map of the various plots. In addition to noting the plot numbers I’ll be scanning the maps so others won’t have to wander all over cemeteries looking for our relatives.

  18. The suggestions are great. I’m getting ready to go on my first research trip at the end of July. I’ve got my laptop, USB stick, and digital recorder ready.

    Question: If using a digital camera to take pics of documents, do you need a tripod?

  19. All great ideas, but I’d advise travelling as light as possible because of restrictions. The Library of Congress, Main Reading Room and Computer Room won’t allow in briefcases. You need to check that kind of thing in the cloakroom and carry in clear plastic baggies, though laptops are fine.

    Note of caution: please be wary of the wire brush on tombstones idea! These things are crumbling too fast as it is. Clip the grass and brush off the stone gently, but wire brushes can be very destructive. I’ve heard that shaving cream in the inscriptions highlight them well for photographs.

  20. For photographing cemeteries, I take cornstarch, large old natural bristle (fluffy) paintbrushes, a wooden dowel, small trowel, large umbrella, hand grass clippers, and bug spray. The umbrella comes in great to cut down sunglare on the shiny tombstones,the wooden dowel for looking for buried tombstones,and the trowel for digging out the buried tombstones. Cornstarch does not hurt the tombstone or the environment and can be easily brushed away with the old fluffy paintbrushes. And of course, the bug spray is a must for summer. Please don’t use anything metal or corrisive on tombstones. They are crumbling fast.

  21. Here’s one I thought of when researching family in Cambridge, Ohio: carry an old soft rag (well used – and clean! – cloth diapers are the best, as are old cotton t-shirts) when visting a library or other place where you’ll need to use a photocopier or scanner. Wiping off the glass can make a huge difference when you only get one chance to capture an image before traveling back home!

  22. We have traveled through 12 states searching archives and cemeteries for our families. A few places absolutely will not allow digital photos to be taken even though it means less handeling and wear on the documents, photos and books. We made some photo copies and took many digital photos where allowed. I always asked if we could use cameras. I recommend more than one photo of each item because you wouldn’t want to miss something by mistake. Be aware of lighting. Photoshop works great to improve yellowed copies and repair old photos and documents. Always keep a copy in it’s original state. I took my laptop computer,digital camera and a video camera for interviews, scenery etc. We did find a 95 year old ancestor we didn’t know about, I filmed her talking about her youth and other ancestors and she identified people in pictures I had scanned to my computer. I would never have remembered it all!
    Ask questions of the old timers in town, they are a wealth of knowledge.

    I found while reading old microfilm my eyes grew very tired quickly. Always carry eyedrops for moisture and Dramamine for the dizzyness the eye strain caused. It works well. A magnifying glass, good sized with handle. Mini sized stapler, paper clips, post it notes (cannot use these in library, historical books) so I took strips of paper and marked pages I wanted to copy then did all copies at one sitting. Highliter pens for my personal materials. A steno pad,pencils,large envelopes to keep my copies in labeled per family name…good organization. I didn’t want to spend my time entering it all into my computer when I could be doing more research, did that at home. Maximize your time. Take water and snacked for quick energy breaks.

    Most importantly we found that being friendly, honest and organized showed the staff of places we visited we were really serious about our research and they offered lots of help, suggestions and even access to some areas not normally viewed by the general public. By showing them we really cared about the old files and documents we in turn were rewarded ten fold.
    Always clean up after yourself. Have fun!

  23. Please never use any type of chemicals, soaps, wire brushes or chalks rubbed directly on gravestones. The old stones especially were often made of various “soft” materials and this will increase the breakdown of the stones. Delicate, soft, natural bristle brushes and water are best. The old way of paper and chalk rubbings does not leave residue if used carefully. I like my digital photos from various angles and a photoshop type program that can be used to enhance pictures to read stones.

  24. Boy, I don’t know where to start when I get to the Md Archives next week. This will be my first attempt at finding my GGrandparents plantation in the land records. Does anyone have any suggestions on where I should begin, what info I should have with me etc. The suggestions on what I should take were great, but I understand that only paper and pencils are allowed there. I feel that I am in deep trouble before I begin.

  25. I’m glad I read all these GREAT comments! I’m planning my first ever genealogical trip, set for 2007. Texas, Alabama, here I come! I plan to photograph cemetery’s & towns & hopefully records at libraries. I don’t want to take a wire brush or clippers on a plane from San Diego to Houston at the moment, but if need be I’ll find something to buy in town. My own hands works the best though. I’ll let everyone know how my trip went in March ’07.

    Escondido, CA

  26. Thanks for some fabulous information.

    I might add: Maps of the area; interview forms; reading glasses, Tylenol, extra film/batteries (for non-digital equipment); extension cord; earphones; extra batteries for cordless mouse, etc; extra lead for mechanical pencils; highlighter to immediately mark specific info on my copies; extra print cartridges (to work/copy in hotel); boxed-ream of copy paper, and a few sheets of Kodak photo paper; contact-names/addresses/phone #’s; and a watering can for watering tombstones for a clearer image.

    I also take a scanner/printer/copier/fax on my local and long-distance trips for scanning a relative’s photos, documents, obits, and news articles. It also enables me to print and share from my own collection of valuable photos/documents, obits, news articles (for the person being visited or interviewed).

    Except for the laptop and scanner, all can compartmentalized into small freezer bags or other convenient containers and will fit into a large boat bag or file storage box for easy transport.

    Thanks, again!

  27. and take an e-pen – you can scan text with it (it’s a pen, basically, with a head for reading text) and it instantly dumps the scanned text into a Word.doc on your laptop. This is helpful if you are not allowed to photocopy something.

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