March 20, 2020
Right now no one is going on research trips, and it might seem a little silly to think about preparing for one with libraries and other repositories shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. However, even a pandemic like this one won’t last forever, and it’s nice to have something else to think about – like preparing for a future research trip.
To get the most out of a research trip, it’s important to plan in advance. That doesn’t mean just making airline reservations and dusting off the old suitcase; it means planning exactly what repositories and sites you want to visit and figuring out what you’ll do when you get there. In my experience there’s no worse way to start researching than to walk up to a desk at a library and realize you don’t really know what it is that you want to ask. Librarians and archivists are usually very helpful if you know the right questions to ask, but not so much when all you can say is “I’m looking for the Smith Family who lived in this area in the 1800s.”
To avoid that deer-in-the-headlight feeling, I rely on one rule: If you can organize it from home, do it. That means looking at websites for every library or repository or courthouse or museum you want to visit. While you’re there, check the catalog to make sure that the records you want to access are actually at that repository. Also, check whether any records are offsite and find out what procedures need to be taken to have them available when you’ll be visiting. Another important issue is how the repository handles copying. Can you make your own copies? If not, you’ll need to plan extra time in case you have to wait for copies to be made. Are copies allowed at all? I once visited a courthouse where copies of any sort were prohibited. The only option was to transcribe records with a pencil and paper. What I thought would be a short visit entailing making copies of vital records ended up being a day-long marathon of writing and checking and double checking.
Many smaller archives and libraries have irregular opening and closing times, so that’s another thing that needs to be checked. Also, some archives only allow access to certain records at certain times. For example, access to manuscripts and other original records at the New Jersey State Archives is only available from 1:00 to 4:15 in the afternoon, although the archives itself is open from 8:30 to 4:15. It’s important to make sure you’ll be there at the proper time. Something as simple as figuring out where you can park can make a research visit frustrating. Finding out in advance makes the whole visit smoother. Finally, if your visit will stretch through mealtimes, it’s a good idea to check whether there are facilities for eating. Grabbing a quick lunch can make the afternoon’s research much more productive. Not to mention that it’s fun to eat at a local restaurant and perhaps try some regional specialty such as scrapple in New Jersey or a frappe in New Hampshire.
No matter how well prepared you think you are, you’ll probably find that everything takes longer than you think it will. Traffic will be bad, the copy machine will be out of paper, or all of the microfilm machines will be occupied, or the internet will be down. To keep from being too frustrated, try to be flexible: use the books at the library if the microfilm machines are all busy, for example. Also, if you’ve planned ahead, you’ll probably have more items on your to do list than you’ll ever have time to finish, so if you need to switch from one to another, you’ll be prepared and won’t waste time just waiting.
Even if you’ve planned everything down to the last ten minute increment, remember to be open to serendipity. Sometimes those unplanned side trips into a set of records or to a heretofore unknown local cemetery can knock a hole in a longstanding brick wall. On a research trip to Minnesota a number of years ago, I was able to do exactly that when an archivist at the Minnesota Historical Society Library, upon hearing that I was interested in finding death information for someone who had died in Minneapolis, told me that that the city had death records that went back much further than I’d known and that they were available at the city courthouse. He even walked outside the library to point out to me exactly what bus stop I needed to wait at to catch the bus to reach the courthouse. I hadn’t planned to visit the courthouse, but it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss so I caught a bus, and a few hours later had solved the long-standing mystery of where a great grand uncle had died and was buried, thanks to asking the right person the right questions and taking a chance on a serendipitous suggestion.
While you’re cooped up at home, spend a little time planning for a research trip, even if you can’t name a specific date yet when you’ll be able to take it. One of these days the libraries and repositories will all be open again, and you’ll be all ready to get back to onsite research.
Researcher/Director at Large