Combining a summer vacation with a genealogy research trip can be rewarding and fun for you and your family. When your genealogy research next sends you on the road, try these tips for preventing frustration and achieving success.
What is Your Goal?
The first step in the planning process, choosing a specific family or individual to concentrate on will help keep your trip focused and make the planning easier.
Know Where You’re Going
Before you go too far in planning your trip, be sure you’re headed for the right location! You don’t want to spend hours in a church or courthouse, only to learn later that the records of your family are actually kept in the next town or county. Current geographical and political boundaries are not necessarily the ones in existence when your family lived in the area. I’ve got ancestors who spent multiple generations on the same piece of land, yet resided in three different counties during that time period due to boundary changes.
Know What’s Available
Once you have decided which areas you would like to visit, take time to familiarize yourself with the record sources generally available in that region. Some good resources for this include:
- LDS Research Guides and LDS Family History Library Catalog for good, general outlines of available records for a specific location.
- City, county, parish, state or country GenWeb page to learn more about sources for a specific location, and ask for recommendations.
- The Library of Congress Card Catalog to determine what books have been published on the county or area you are planning to visit.
If you haven’t already done so, go through the research you have already compiled on the family and use this to create a list of facts or theories that you would like to prove or disprove, and a “to-do” list of records that you would like to check. To help you with this process, many genealogy software programs offer a “to-do” list tool, or the utility software, GenSmarts, can analyze your genealogy file and produce research recommendations.
Do Your Homework
Before you leave home, spend time on the Internet and on the phone to find office hours, holdings and other details on courthouses, libraries, archives, historical societies and other record repositories that you plan to visit. If the library or archive’s catalog is online, make a list of records you wish to find, concentrating especially on sources unique to the area where you are researching, including manuscript collections, unpublished papers and records, photographs and local history books. Call ahead to make sure that the records you want to look at are currently available to researchers.
Map a Strategy
The more familiar you are with the area you’re planning to visit, the easier your research trip will be. Obtain not only present-day highway maps, but also maps contemporary with the life of your ancestors. The maps I don’t research without are prepared by the USGS. These small-scale, topographic maps include county road numbers, farm roads, and many churches and private cemeteries.
Pack for Success
You don’t want to know how many times I’ve lamented during a genealogy vacation over things that I forgot to bring with me. Here’s a short checklist to get you started:
- copies of your research goals and to-do lists
- copies of your pedigree charts and family group records
- plenty of pencils (many record repositories do not allow the use of pens)
- blank charts and forms, including pedigree charts, family group sheets, research logs and forms for abstracting or extracting records (such as blank census forms)
- a laptop computer if you have one (check with the individual repositories to be sure their allowed)
- a magnifying glass to help in reading old records
comfortable clothes and shoes (you may spend a lot of your research time standing at counters or squatting in old, dusty basements). Stick with business casual over sweats or jeans, for better service.
- camera, batteries and plenty of film (or memory cards if your camera is digital)
- a tape recorder
Visiting an where your ancestors lived can be an extremely exciting and rewarding experience. Walking the land and visiting the cemeteries where my ancestors lived brings me closer to them than a piece of paper could ever do. While it’s great to jump in the car and go, advance planning usually results in a much more rewarding adventure. I’d really hate to have you go home disappointed when you find out the courthouse is closed for repairs.