March 13, 2020
Right now as we’re in the midst of the corona virus pandemic, many of us are probably rethinking out-of-town research trips. Since so much of the genealogy community is “seasoned,” and the effects of the virus are worse among that demographic, research trips may seem like a strange thing to be writing about. However, even if many of us are home bound for now, it’s a great time to be preparing for a trip. Hopefully, the epidemic will abate, and travel will be possible again soon, but even if we can’t travel right now, preparing for a possible trip can help us advance our research.
As someone who has no local ancestors, I’ve taken lots of genealogy research trips over the years. I’ve traveled to local courthouses, state archives, large research repositories such as the Family History Library and to more cemeteries than I can remember. Whether my research has taken me to Nebraska or New Zealand or anywhere in between, the one constant has been that the work I did at home before I left on the trip had more to do with the success or failure of my trip than anything I did while I was on location.
In fact, I think that had I just done good preparation before a trip and then forgotten the travel part, I probably would have learned nearly as much as I did on the trips themselves. Of course, there’s nothing like walking in the places our ancestors did and visiting the cemeteries where they’re buried, and there are certainly some records that are available no place but at that little, out-of-the-way county courthouse. However, I can’t count the number of times that I’ve heard a new, or even not-so-new genealogist say something like: I just can’t do any more work on my family until I can make a trip to Wisconsin or Rhode Island or Sweden. They’re sure that if only they could get to Tucumcari and Alberta or who knows where they’d find the mother lode of records about their family. I think of it as the magic pot of records that everyone thinks they’ll find at the end of the research rainbow. In some cases maybe it really does exist, but for most of us there’s no big cache of records waiting for us. Even if there are, we’re usually not going to find them unless we do a lot of preparation at home before we set off on our journey.
When I begin to think about making a research trip, the first thing I do is think about what research I’ve already done. Have I been to the area I’m planning to visit in the past? If I have, have I reviewed, recorded and filed the records I found there? If I still have a stack of death certificates that I copied at the New Jersey State Archives seven years ago sitting in a file labelled “Miscellaneous, New Jersey”, I probably shouldn’t be considering another trip to Trenton until I’ve dealt with what I already have. I’m always amazed at what I find when I go through the stacks of paper that seem to grow around my desk while I’m not looking. And, that doesn’t even count the flash drives that are lurking in a drawer in my desk. Who knows what long ago collected documents they’re hiding. For those who are perfectly organized, this step can be omitted, but I doubt I’m the only one who says “I know I remember finding a homestead file for great grandpa, but where did I put it?”
Once I’ve gone through all of the old papers and digital files, I sometimes find that the questions I hoped my research trip would answer have already been answered, now that I’ve looked at what I already had. If not, the next step for preparing for a research trip is to check what records can be accessed from home. With the growth of the internet, the answer is usually “a whole bunch.” Between Family Search and the pay-for-view sites such as Ancestry, Find My Past and My Heritage, all kind of records are now accessible with just a few keystrokes. Add to this list all of the websites that state archives and libraries, local archives and genealogical societies maintain, and the list of documents obtainable from home skyrockets. Newspapers are another source that used to require trips to local libraries or archives where scrolling through reels and reels of microfilm until you succumbed to a bout of “microfilm motion sickness” was the price one paid for finding articles about family. With so many newspapers now digitized from all over the world, finding local color articles is often simple. It is true that many of the online sources available to genealogists have a price attached, but a few dollars for a short term subscription or even an annual subscription is a pittance compared to the cost of air far, hotels and meals that a research trip will require. Not to mention that some of the online pay-for-view sources can be accessed for free through your local library or the local Family History Center.
Finally, it’s important to remember that most libraries and repositories will do searches and make copies of records for a few dollars. If you only need a few records from a certain area, it’s definitely more cost effective to order them than it is to visit in person.
Once you have done as much research from home as possible, it’s time to take the next step and start to prepare for that research trip. Again, planning can help make the trip a success.
Researcher/Director at Large