Research Tips

Originally published on on 30 Jul 2016.

I spent the past two weeks researching in several states.  Each archive I visited had different policies and procedures but there were commonalities that helped me use my limited time efficiently.  On a visit to one of the libraries I had a co-worker tag along and she asked me to share how I found so much so quickly.  Since she’s a dear reader, per her request, I’d like to share how I plan my research trips.

  1. KNOW BEFORE YOU GO – Your time is valuable and you don’t want to waste it!  The only way to make to the most of your visit is to PLAN AHEAD.  How do I do that?  As soon as I know I will be arriving in a distant area I identify who is in my tree that lived in the area I’ll visit and what additional information for that individual I’d like to find.  I look at the sources I have and focus on what’s missing.  I next go to and do a search for archives I may be interested in visiting to quickly plan the visit.

Here’s an example from my recent trip to Franklin County, Pennsylvania.  I click on and under SEARCH at the top, use the drop down and click WIKI.  On the map of the world I click the US, then Pennsylvania, then Franklin County.  Up pops wonderful information!  I scroll down to the bottom where the repositories are located.  I snip to Word (or if you are using a Kindle – copy/paste to Evernote) and in just a minute or two have created a guide of where I need to go.  Is the list complete?  No, but it’s a wonderful tool to start with.  Using the identified places that look promising – Courthouse in Chambersburg (for deeds and wills), Alexander Hamilton Library in Waynesboro (for obit), and the Franklin County Historical Museum (for knowledge of the area’s records in general) I can visit those websites for opening/closing times, admission costs, records that are housed there, and policies in place.  I add that info to my Word document.  As I’m Googling to find additional information about these places I discover more archives to add by looking at the right hand bottom of the Google search results page under “People Also Searched For.”  To make sure I’m not missing any smaller gem that may not receive alot of internet traffic, I also Google “Franklin County Pennsylvania USGenWeb”  Voila – scrolling down under Historical & Genealogical Societies and Museums is listed Waynesboro Historical Society.  That’s a place I need to add to my Word/Evernote document as I know that the folks I’m searching for lived in that location.  Depending on the time I have to spend in the area, I add churches (baptism/marriage/death/parishioner records) and cemeteries (family plot info), too.

In a perfect genealogical world, I would have time to contact the repositories ahead of my visit to make sure that the old deeds are still housed in the courthouse and weren’t moved to the museum but sometimes that’s not possible and I just have to wing it.  For this trip, though, I did call ahead or search the website to verify who had what.

I then prioritize what I wanted to find as sometimes life doesn’t work out the way we want.  Several years ago I planned a trip around a library in Morristown, New Jersey and guess what?!  The day before I arrived they had a gas leak and the library was closed when I got there.  I had nothing else identified to visit in the area and the trip was an expensive waste of time.  Live and learn!

Once I’ve identified my list of sites to visit I route based on my priorities.  On the Franklin trip, my number one priority was to find a will, then the deeds, as I hoped that would lead me to a firm death date and I could then locate the burial site.  If they weren’t available my backup was to find an obituary.

Even with planning, sometimes life gets in the way so you have to be flexible.  I arrived at Reagan National in DC mid day on a Thursday.  I had pre-paid for the rental car thinking I could drive in 1 1/2 hours to the courthouse to get the will and deeds, go next door to the county historical museum to check out their index of county burials and then head to the library (which was open late that evening) to find an obit.  Well, it didn’t work out as planned.  Arriving early at National I then encountered a long wait at the rental car counter as it was lunch time and there was only 1 employee available who was arguing with the customer ahead of me over company policy.  The kiosks were all down due to a computer glitch.  I waited and waited and finally another employee came back from lunch.  He was new, though, and couldn’t find my reservation even though I had a copy of my confirmation with me.  Then he found it but the transaction wouldn’t go through as the credit card I had used to pre-pay had been compromised two weeks earlier and I had a replacement card with another number.  He told me my option was to rent a car at the going rate (much higher) and deal with getting a credit on my pre-payment after my trip.  Nope!  Asked to speak to a manager and none available.  Meanwhile, the clock was ticking….   After two calls to corporate customer service I was permitted to update my credit card information and get the rental.  Thinking it would be smooth sailing ahead I happily followed the employee’s directions to go to the top floor of the parking garage and find the car in the space he wrote on the paperwork.  Except there were no rental cars on the top floor – he should have sent me to the 3rd floor.  Took me several minutes to figure out where to go.  When I got to the designated space I couldn’t get into the car.  I then had to hunt down an employee who told me they rented me the wrong car and I needed to go back downstairs to get it straightened out.  When I arrived downstairs there was a long line and seriously, the first employee was still arguing with the customer who had been there when I first arrived.  Thankfully, the nice people in line let me take cuts and the new employee again didn’t know what to do.  A manager now magically appeared and they found me a different car.  Back to the 3rd floor and another wait to get out of the parking lot as there was one employee to check me out.  I lost an hour plus that I had expected to use researching.  Deep breathing helps!

2.  PACK EFFICIENTLY –   Below is a pic of what I keep together to make my research trip more efficient:

This is all I take – my Kindle as it contains my tree, my phone so I can take pictures of my finds, a small change purse with quarters for parking meters, locker rental or snacks, a thumb drive to save what I find, identification (those are Library of Congress and NARA library cards but I also put my drivers license credit cards and a few business cards in the change purse), a pencil, red pen, black pen and highlighter, stickees (to flag the index as I’m going back and forth in a text), hand sanitizer and a magnifying glass.

All of this fits into a quart size baggie:

Remarkable how everything fits except the Kindle!  Sometimes I take a large rubber band and band the baggie to the Kindle so I don’t drop anything.

This small amount of needed tools helps me move quickly through security and not spend time digging through my purse to find what I need when I’m in the stacks.  I also check out quickly as employees can see I haven’t “accidentally” taken something out that I shouldn’t have.  This set up is a win-win for everyone!

I actually prefer mechanical pencils to the standard shown above but I was out so I used what I had at home.  I’ll get those mechanical ones when the back-to-school sales start this week.

It’s important to know the repositories policy as some do no allow you to take paper, pens, pencils or highlighters in with you.  At the National Archives, I had to leave my Kindle case in a locker, too. Again, flexibility is needed.

Next blog, I’ll give you hints for being effective and efficient when you reach your destination.  Happy Hunting!

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