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Packing for a Genealogical Journey

by Carla Ridenour

Several years ago, while browsing through a collection of magazines in a hospital waiting room, I came across a cartoon showing a businessman perched on the edge of the bed in his hotel room, rummaging through his luggage. The fellow's face was filled with pure panic and disbelief and, after reading the caption beneath the cartoon, I understood why. The caption said, "I've arrived with hardware and software, but no clean underwear." This cartoon left a lasting impression and I remember it and chuckle each time I start packing my bags for another genealogical journey.

My husband Dennis and I are fortunate in that his job requires extensive travel to many of the areas where our ancestors lived and has given us the opportunity to do on-site research at local courthouses and genealogical societies as well as meet new "cousins" and visit family cemeteries and long-ago homesites. We are currently on a "business" road trip that will eventually take us to the major cities of 14 different states, including a month-long stay in Salt Lake City, Utah.

One of the things that helps us to arrive at our destination with the proper research tools and appropriate clothing is a simple checklist. Checking off each item before leaving home, and after each research stop or overnight stay, helps insure that nothing gets lost or misplaced along the way. Although the genealogical items on our checklist vary depending on our mode of travel, the type of research or genealogical activity we will be participating in, and the length of our journey, there are several things we always carry with us.  

Our Checklist

  • A Digital Camera — For nearly a year my constant companion has been the Casio QV10. I recently replaced it with a Ricoh RCD-2 and passed the Casio on to our youngest son. Although the Casio performs well, the Ricoh's higher image resolution, plus the built-in flash and a special text mode designed for photographing documents is more useful for genealogical research. On the other hand the Casio's lower price and smaller size makes it an attractive alternative. Both of the cameras are small enough to fit into a purse, coat pocket, or fanny pack, and both have a macro feature that enables them to be used as visual notepad, taking the place of traditional pen and paper for copying snippets of text from books or records. They can also be used to capture information from microfilm readers, to copy existing photographs, or to create new photographs of tombstones, family homes and heirlooms, and living relatives.

    An additional advantage is that neither of the cameras requires a computer in order to view and/or save the images. Their images can be displayed on the camera's built-in LCD screens, or viewed on an ordinary television set and recorded directly to videotape if desired. This means I can travel without a computer and transfer the images and/or type the text into my database when I return home. The Ricoh also includes an audio mode that enables me to read and record the inscription on a document or headstone while photographing it or to use the internal memory as an audio recorder that will hold up to 7 minutes and 46 seconds of sound. The quality of the camera images are not as high as those produced by a scanner, however a digital camera can travel to places where a scanner and computer cannot go. I keep mine with me at all times. Digital cameras can save a bundle on film and developing costs but you may end up spending just as much, or more, on batteries. These costs will be much lower if you invest in several sets of reusable batteries and a small battery charger.

  • Laptop Computer with built-in floppy and CD-ROM drives, PCMCIA Fax modem, and Logitech EasyTouch grayscale handscanner (plus other scanning and printing devices if traveling by car.) — The software and data files on the laptop computer include a genealogy program and database; a word processor with document templates used for census extracts and other research tasks; a journal program; a personal information manager containing to-do lists, telephone/address information and appointment calendar; an image-editing program with the software utility needed to transfer images from a scanner and digital camera to the laptop; a mapping application (see item 4, below), and an Internet browser and mail reader so that we can stay connected with friends and family.

    The computer, scanner, and modem fit into a three-section carrying case. When packed, this case weighs less than 10 pounds but gives us access to a library of electronic information that would be nearly impossible to transport if printed as hardcopy and stored in 3-ring binders. Additional carrying cases store a portable printer and a small pack of paper as well as a portable Plustek Optic-Pro flatbed scanner that attaches to the laptop's parallel port. The computer, printer, and flatbed scanner are used mainly in the motel room, before and after a day of research, or when visiting relatives. When researching in courthouses and libraries we usually keep the computer and scanning equipment stowed safely in the car in a large insulated lock box and only bring them in if needed.

  • Backup program disks and the Family Tree Maker CD with Genealogical How-To-Guide — So far we haven't had to reinstall any of the programs, but we do carry backup disks for the most important ones just in case something happens while we're on the road. Most of the programs are on CD and take a very small amount of storage space. In addition to serving as a backup for our genealogy program, the Family Tree Maker CD is also used to quickly find the location and addresses of genealogical societies, libraries, and courthouses in the areas where we're traveling and saves us from having to carry a hard-copy book with the addresses listed or stop at a phone booth to look them up.

  • Mapping Program — We use Delorme's Tripmate hardware in combination with its Street Atlas USA mapping software to take advantage of the Global Positioning System (GPS) developed by the US Department of Defense. The Tripmate hardware requires four AA batteries and connects to a laptop computer through the serial port. Using radio transmissions from satellites as guidance references, the GPS system calculates your position on the earth and places a marker on a map displayed on your computer screen. As you move, the GPS system tracks you on the map, showing your location, longitude and latitude, elevation, direction and speed. Tripmate is an SPS device. It uses the Standard Positioning Service designed for civilians. Although it's not completely accurate, it is a good guide for finding cemeteries as well as other locations of genealogical interest.

  • Extra Floppies and/or Iomega Zip Drive and Disks — Digitized photographs and documents captured with a scanner or digital camera can quickly accumulate and will fill up a laptop's hard drive in no time at all, especially when visiting a relative with a large collection of family photos. Archiving these items on removable media while traveling makes it possible to continue to collect them for as long as the journey lasts. A Zip disk is also be used to store a back-up copy of our data base and other important files as well as expand the limited storage capacity of the laptop's hard drive.

  • Cobbler's Apron — A friend insisted that I borrow her cobbler's apron the first time I visited the genealogical library at Salt Lake. The multiple pockets across the front of the apron proved to be invaluable for providing storage and immediate access to pens, pencils, a small stack of 3x5 cards, a roll of lifesavers, and coins for the photocopy machines and convinced me that I needed to purchase one for myself, however Dennis refuses to wear one :-).

  • Extra phone cord and connector — Although some modern motel rooms are equipped for electronic convenience with a desk and data port, many are not. Too often the phone is located on a bureau or night stand and it's cord much too short to reach across the bed to the table where the computer is located. An extra length of phone line and a small connector box is usually all that's needed to reach the computer. Other times you may not even have the luxury of a table and will need to place an upside down bureau drawer on the bed to create a makeshift work area. Be aware that some hotels will add an extra surcharge to your phone call, even if you're calling a toll free number, and even if you get a busy signal. Be sure to ask the hotel staff about their phone policy before attempting to connect to your online service. Unfortunately there also some motels with so much noise and radio interference on the phone lines that a modem connection is impossible.

  • Small surge protector — Most motel rooms have a limited number of electrical outlets. Carrying a small surge protector with multiple outlets makes it possible to plug in the computer as well as scanner and printer and keep a lamp plugged in at the same time. However, I don't recommend running the TV at the same time to prevent overload on the outlets.

  • A pair of old shoes, plastic bags, long pants, and insect repellent — A trek through a secluded family cemetery in Virginia just a few hours before our flight home taught us the value of a spare pair of shoes and a plastic bag to wrap them in. The cemetery was filled with bugs and brambles and bordered on all sides by an overpopulated cow pasture. As a result our flight home was extremely uncomfortable for us, and for our fellow passengers who couldn't help but notice the country "fragrance" of our shoes. This could have been avoided if we'd packed the proper clothing.

Labeling Cords and Adapters and Other Items

The electronic equipment we carry all requires cords and power adapters that can create a tangled mess and cause confusion when attempting to decide which cord goes with which device. Dennis prepared stick-on labels for each item with the name of the device it goes with as well as our name and home address so that they are more likely to be returned if we misplace them.

Preparing for Flight

Our equipment has passed through airport security many times without injury and we no longer worry about the x-ray machines or the hassle of security procedures. We have, however, learned to avoid stress by arriving at the airport a few minutes early and keeping a boot disk in the laptop so that if we're asked to turn it on it boots to the A drive and doesn't have to load Windows 95. We also carry the equipment on board with us and send the rest of our luggage to the baggage compartment so that we don't have to worry about lost equipment. Of course we realize that some day we may arrive with just our hardware and software but that's a chance we're willing to take.

About the Author
Carla Ridenour is editor of the National Genealogical Society's Computer Interest Group Digest.

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