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Before Your Trip — Doing Your Homework

by Michael John Neill
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A Checklist for Your Genealogy Vacation
Why you should leave your original documents at home and six other to-do's that will help make your genealogy vacation a success.

Taking a trip to do genealogical research can be a rewarding experience and is the highlight of many genealogists' vacations. Whether you travel 30 or 3,000 miles to do genealogical research, there are many things you should do at home before you begin your journey. Planning for your genealogical "vacation" should begin at least two months before the proposed trip.

While you may not be the only person involved in planning your trip, you must decide if the main purpose of your trip is genealogical or non-genealogical. This is in part dependent upon whether or not your traveling companions are interested in doing genealogical research. Once that decision is made, there are six important steps to take:

1. Know What You Want

Adequate preparation can make your trip more fruitful and prevent some frustration and aggravation along the way. Deciding what family or person to focus on is the first part of the planning process. There might be specific facts you would like to prove or disprove. Do you want to learn great-great-grandma YUSKIS' maiden name? Do you want to locate great-grandpa's tombstone in Bedford County, Pennsylvania? Is it to research a certain family in Bourbon County, Kentucky? Having a purpose in mind for your research trip will help to keep you focused while on your trip and make the planning easier. Just deciding to leave tomorrow to do genealogical research 1,000 miles away might sound tempting, but planning can help you to make more efficient use of your time and money.

2. Know What's Available

Once you have decided which areas you would like to visit, make certain that you are generally familiar with record sources in that region. If you are an Iowa native who has never done genealogical research east of the Mississippi and plan on going to Virginia to do research, learn about general Virginia sources before your trip. The LDS research guides are available through the LDS Family History Library and provide excellent background information for most geographic areas of research. It's not possible to learn (or remember) everything, but a general idea of what to expect will serve you well. The research guide should make the trip with you.

In addition, check out the county or state GenWeb page to learn more about sources for that specific location. Are there any individuals who will do free lookups for records in the counties you are planning to visit? Getting these lookups done in advance may save time when you get to the actual record site. These sites might even provide links to information about local record sources. It may also be beneficial to check out city or county Web pages to assist in travel preparations.

If you are planning to visit any libraries, look and see if they have a Web page. Do any of the libraries have their catalog available online? Searching the catalog at home, before you leave, will provide you with information about specific books, so you can spend more of your time in the library actually looking at books. Check out the Library of Congress Card Catalog to determine what books have been published on the county or area you are planning to visit. You cannot get them on loan from the Library of Congress, but you might learn of some titles that might be at the county library you plan to visit. Write the libraries that don't have online information to find out about their genealogical collection and hours of operation.

3. What Do You Mean You're CLOSED?

While it would be nice, the world does not revolve around genealogists. Contact the county courthouses, libraries, and other record repositories you plan to visit to determine their office hours. Will they be closed while you plan to be in town? Also determine if there are any local festivals occurring during your expected stay. If you inadvertently arrive during a local festival you may find all nearby motels full (and waste time looking for a vacancy). Staying during a busy time is your own choice, but it is a choice best made from the comfort of your own home before your trip (and not during).

4. Practice Makes Perfect

Are you planning on taking photographs of tombstones or making tombstone rubbings on your trip? If you are, and you have never taken a picture of a tombstone or made a tombstone rubbing, practice on some local stones before you leave. The time to learn is not at a cemetery 2,500 miles from home, on the last day of your trip with a thunderstorm quickly approaching.

5. Do I Have it at Home?

Double-check sources where you live. Does your local library have any statewide indexes or published records for the area to which you are traveling? Searching these indexes before you leave may provide microfilm roll numbers or book page numbers which will cut down on research time on your trip. It may be your local library has a book or two that may be useful in your research. You don't want to travel 2,500 miles to look at something your local library has. If the LDS church has microfilmed records from the area, you may wish to view some indexes to local records on microfilm at your local Family History Library before your trip, making note of book and page numbers.

Are there any regional archives or special collections that you should visit? Frequently genealogists focus on the courthouse, local library, and cemetery, and ignore other possible sources. There are states that have regional archives or regional libraries that may contain records useful to your search. Perhaps a nearby university library has a collection that may be of use to you in your research.

Take your charts with you, but leave your original documents behind. No one will probably steal them, but forgetting them somewhere is a definite possibility. Fill out the family group charts, pedigree charts, and research logs as completely as you can. Traveling a distance to check a source you have already checked is a waste of time.

Make certain you have all your genealogical and office supplies you need. There are record repositories that do not allow pens to be utilized in the facility, have plenty of pencils. Either bring a sharpener or use an everpoint pencil (making certain that you have plenty of lead). Have a sufficient number blank charts and forms for use during your trip. Family group charts, pedigree charts, research logs, and abstract and extract forms may prove useful. Unless you are traveling to a major genealogical center, forms may not be easily purchased. Laptop computer users should even have some of these forms handy in case of machine failure.

6. How Do I Get There?

Mapping out your trip is an important part of the research process. There are sites on the Internet that will calculate driving distances and directions for your trip, such as Mapquest. You may wish to print out detailed maps of the areas in which you will be staying and doing research.

An Example

My great-grandmother was born near Gothenburg, Nebraska in 1882. I would like to visit the local library and other places that might have information on her and her parents. Going to Mapquest, I request driving directions between my residence of Galesburg, Illinois, and Gothenburg. I learn that Gothenburg is just off Interstate 80 and is an estimated 605 miles from my home.

To learn more about Gothenburg and Dawson County, I check out Yahoo!. I find a site for the city of Gothenburg. A casual surfing of this site indicates when local festivals are and that the city even has a sod house museum. I next checked into the site for Dawson County on the USGenWeb and located information on the County Historical Museum (with hours) and a link to the county seat (Lexington). The site for the county seat included information about local government, including the address for the courthouse and phone numbers of the county offices located in the courthouse.

I suspected that my ancestors attended a local Lutheran Church and a search on Bigbook, provided the names and addresses of many churches in Gothenburg, including one that was Lutheran. They don't have an email address, but I could write them and inquire about their records.

Traveling to visit an area where your ancestors lived can be a rewarding experience. Seeing the homestead where my great-grandmother was born in Nebraska really added something to my research. Planning for your trip is an integral part of the process. It is one thing to have to take a detour because of road construction. It is entirely another to have to cross a library off your research list because they were closed for remodeling. Good luck and good hunting.


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How-To Article: Packing for a Genealogical Journey
How-To Article: Genealogy Travel — What to Know Before You Go
Step-by-Step Guide: Finding State Resources

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