Whether you’re planning a trip to the State Historical Society, the Family History Library, the National Archives or the local courthouse, it pays to be prepared. Avoid frustration and increase your research time by asking these 10 question in advance of your visit.
1. What are the regular research hours?
This may seem like a no-brainer, but some people still neglect to ask. By asking, you may learn that the facility is open late on certain nights for research, or that some areas of the facility keep separate hours. While the main library may be open daily 9-5, the microfilm room or local history room may have more limited research hours.
2. Are there any holidays or special closures?
It’s not that uncommon for archives, courthouses and other research facilities to close for a few weeks during the summer or winter to give their staff a break, or to do some housekeeping. Holiday closures may also include days you didn’t expect, or portions of a facility may be closed for repairs or remodeling. Some smaller courthouses may even close for lunch!
3. In what form are the records available?
Are the records available in their original form or on microfilm? If the microfilm copies are illegible, can the original records be consulted? Are the files or records open-stack and open for browsing, or close-stack, meaning they must be requested or paged? What is the procedure for requesting records and is there a limit on how many records can be requested in a given day? Is there an online or published index or inventory of the available records that can be consulted in advance? Is this index/inventory complete?
4. Are there any record restrictions that will affect research?
A variety of restrictions may exist which could potentially affect your access to records during your visit. Some facilities may limit access to the facility or to certain records to members of certain genealogical or historical societies. The records you require may be housed off-site and need to be requested in advance of your visit (a common occurrence at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and in crowded courthouses). Newer records may have restrictions on access due to privacy laws. There are even cases where records may only be viewed in the presence of an archivist due to their age or value, and this will often need to be scheduled in advance.
5. What unique records or collections are available?
Whenever I visit a new research facility, I almost always make time to explore the records or collections that are unique to that facility – in other words, not readily available anywhere else. These may be family papers or letters, special groups of records, or one-of-a-kind manuscripts. If you can’t view these records elsewhere, it makes sense not to miss them while you’re there.
6. Are there restrictions on copying?
Can photocopies be made of all records? Is there a copy machine available for printing from microfilm? What is the cost for making photocopies? Can records be digitally saved to CD or flashdrive? Can you purchase a copy card, or do you need exact change? Can you take photos with a digital camera? Is flash allowed or not? Is there a charge for taking digital photos? Sometimes there are records which may not be photocopied and/or photographed, so you’ll need to plan time for making an abstract or transcription. There may also be records which can only be copied by a staff member, for which you’ll need to allow extra time. Different types of copies often mean different costs.
7. What can and can’t I bring with me to the facility? Anything I absolutely need to bring?
Can I bring a camera? Laptop? Flashdrive? Portable scanner? Do you require ID? Most facilities have restrictions on what you can bring into the research area with you. Some don’t allow pens or markers. Some don’t allow cameras or scanners. Some don’t allow laptop computers. Some require a photo ID, and some may even require membership in a society for access to all records. Avoid disappointment and make sure you have the tools you need by learning in advance what you are and aren’t allowed to bring, or what may be required for research.
8. What are the best times to visit?
Every facility has times which are busier than others. Mondays and Fridays are often busier than mid-week, for example. If you can plan your visit for a time that is usually less busy, you’ll have an easier time getting a good parking spot, finding an open microfilm reader and getting records from the stacks.
9. Is there a lunchroom? Nearby parking? Public transportation?
These are the questions I often forget to ask, and I end up kicking myself as I arrive. Staff members at the research facility will be able to tell you the best (and cheapest) place to park, or which bus routes provide service. If they don’t have a lunchroom, ask about the best place to eat close by, or bring a bag lunch if they have a locker you can leave it in (since most facilities will not allow you to bring food inside).
10. Is there a particular archivist, librarian or staff member who specializes in my area of interest?
Having someone on hand when you’re visiting who will be able to help you with your specific research questions can be invaluable. All staff members should be able to help you locate records or use the microfilm machine, but there may only be one who is a specialist in Colonial research, for example, and can help you find records you didn’t know existed.