Planning an Effective Research Trip

One of my favorite things to do as both a genealogist and a historian is to go on research trips. I’ve learned the hard way that in order to get the most out of a research trip, you have to plan, plan, and do some more planning beforehand. Over the last couple of years I have taken more research trips for my work as a historian than I have for genealogy. I have been asked if there is a difference between the two. The one grant-funded research trip I went on came with its own unique set of expectations but in general there is not any difference between how I plan for a genealogy trip versus a “historian” trip.

My decisions to go on a research trip are usually motivated by cost effectiveness. Not everything is online – shocker I know! – and sometimes it costs me the same or less to go on-site and get what I need than it does to hire someone or pay the research fees involved. Admittedly, I can be a bit of a control freak and simply prefer to do the research myself in some instances.

Once the decision has been made that I need to go get a record or look at particular resource myself, the next thing I do is consider about how much time it may take me to do so. For example, is it something that will take me only an hour to get through or an entire day? I want to make my research trips as effective as possible which means balancing leaving myself plenty of time to get what I need and maximizing the amount of things I can get while there.

The next step I typically take, if I have not done so already, is to survey the records available at the repository I will be visiting and at other nearby repositories. What do they have that could help me figure out the research problem(s) at hand? Surveying the records available means nothing if I do not write it down or preferably neatly type it up!  Here’s how I survey records:

  • I visit the repository in question’s website to see if they have any catalogs or other databases I can search through.
  • I like to also just browse their offerings especially if they have finding aids available. I look for finding aids for the topic and geographical location in question. There have been several times I have come across a potentially useful resource that I would not have thought to look for otherwise.
  • If an email is listed, I send a detailed email explaining the time frame in which I am researching, the specific topics involved, my research objectives, and ask if there are any additional resources not listed on their website that may be of benefit.
  • I also like to reach out to my fellow genealogists and historians to see if any of them have been to where I am headed and what tips they may have for me.

At this point I typically start a draft of a research plan. I put my research objective right at the top to help keep me focused and on track. If I am going to more than one repository I create a research plan for each one. I list the records or sources I want to look at by order of importance. Each person may have their own system for prioritizing, there is no wrong way! I prioritize according to the potential value of the information that record/source may provide balanced with the likelihood of that record/source will actually yield anything helpful (including negative evidence). It’s a tricky tight rope to walk but one that has paid off immensely for me!

Then I move onto figuring out the logistics of the trip. For each repository I am visiting I gather the following information:

  • When are they open?
  • Do they have any special events or closures coming up?*
  • What is the parking situation like? Any fees involved?
    What is the air conditioning like?* I need to know this due to a medical condition I have,    be sure to take into account any health conditions you have.
  • How can I go about copying what I need – can I take pictures or use a scanner? How much do they charge for using a copier?
  • Are there any special rules or procedures – limitations on what you can bring into the research room, identification you need to bring, etc.?
  • Are the records I need on-site or do I need to contact them in advance about what I need?
  • Do they have lockers? How much for these?

The items marked with the asterisk are items I usually call to verify with a live person. The rest I look on their website or social media pages first. I tell them I have reviewed their website when I call and like to end the conversation by asking if there’s anything else they think I should know…and of course a THANK YOU.

I include all of the logistical information in my finalized research plan. That way all of the information I may need is right at my fingertips. I prefer to work with paper copies of my research plans. Additionally, I never bring my original research files with me. I type up summaries of what I already have relevant to my research objectives and bring those with me. I put my research plan, summaries, and a map with directions in one folder or a book report cover. But what if something happens to that folder? I save those research plans, summaries, and additional information on Google Drive where it’s there if I need it.

Lastly but not the least, take a lunch break and sneak in some time to relax and have fun. If you are stressed out and hangry, you will not be as effective as you could be!

One of my favorite things to do as both a genealogist and a historian is to go on research trips. I’ve learned the hard way that in order to get the most out of a research trip, you have to plan, plan, and do some more planning beforehand. Over the last couple of years I have taken more research trips for my work as a historian than I have for genealogy. I have been asked if there is a difference between the two. The one grant-funded research trip I went on came with its own unique set of expectations but in general there is not any difference between how I plan for a genealogy trip versus a “historian” trip.

My decisions to go on a research trip are usually motivated by cost effectiveness. Not everything is online – shocker I know! – and sometimes it costs me the same or less to go on-site and get what I need than it does to hire someone or pay the research fees involved. Admittedly, I can be a bit of a control freak and simply prefer to do the research myself in some instances.

Once the decision has been made that I need to go get a record or look at particular resource myself, the next thing I do is consider about how much time it may take me to do so. For example, is it something that will take me only an hour to get through or an entire day? I want to make my research trips as effective as possible which means balancing leaving myself plenty of time to get what I need and maximizing the amount of things I can get while there.

The next step I typically take, if I have not done so already, is to survey the records available at the repository I will be visiting and at other nearby repositories. What do they have that could help me figure out the research problem(s) at hand? Surveying the records available means nothing if I do not write it down or preferably neatly type it up!  Here’s how I survey records:

  • I visit the repository in question’s website to see if they have any catalogs or other databases I can search through.
  • I like to also just browse their offerings especially if they have finding aids available. I look for finding aids for the topic and geographical location in question. There have been several times I have come across a potentially useful resource that I would not have thought to look for otherwise.
  • If an email is listed, I send a detailed email explaining the time frame in which I am researching, the specific topics involved, my research objectives, and ask if there are any additional resources not listed on their website that may be of benefit.

At this point I typically start a draft of a research plan. I put my research objective right at the top to help keep me focused and on track. If I am going to more than one repository I create a research plan for each one. I list the records or sources I want to look at by order of importance. Each person may have their own system for prioritizing, there is no wrong way! I prioritize according to the potential value of the information that record/source may provide balanced with the likelihood of that record/source will actually yield anything helpful (including negative evidence). It’s a tricky tight rope to walk but one that has paid off immensely for me!

Then I move onto figuring out the logistics of the trip. For each repository I am visiting I gather the following information:

  • When are they open?
  • Do they have any special events or closures coming up?*
  • What is the parking situation like? Any fees involved?
    What is the air conditioning like?* I need to know this due to a medical condition I have,    be sure to take into account any health conditions you have.
  • How can I go about copying what I need – can I take pictures or use a scanner? How much do they charge for using a copier?
  • Are there any special rules or procedures – limitations on what you can bring into the research room, identification you need to bring, etc.?
  • Are the records I need on-site or do I need to contact them in advance about what I need?
  • Do they have lockers? How much for these?

The items marked with the asterisk are items I usually call to verify with a live person. The rest I look on their website or social media pages first. I tell them I have reviewed their website when I call and like to end the conversation by asking if there’s anything else they think I should know…and of course a THANK YOU.

I include all of the logistical information in my finalized research plan. That way all of the information I may need is right at my fingertips. I prefer to work with paper copies of my research plans. Additionally, I never bring my original research files with me. I type up summaries of what I already have relevant to my research objectives and bring those with me. I put my research plan, summaries, and a map with directions in one folder or a book report cover. But what if something happens to that folder? I save those research plans, summaries, and additional information on Google Drive where it’s there if I need it.

Lastly but not the least, take a lunch break and sneak in some time to relax and have fun. If you are stressed out and hangry, you will not be as effective as you could be!

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