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Preparing for a Genealogy Research Trip
Column published: 01 March 2007
By: Shirley Gage Hodges   Biography & Archived Articles

It is the time of year when we start to plan our research trips for the year. I would like to touch briefly on how one goes about getting the most out of their research trips. I also want to talk a little about those things that you can do to get ready for your trip. It doesn't matter how great the facility is if we haven't prepared adequately we won't accomplish as much as we might be able to.

I want to make sure we are all on the same page. I am talking about research trips, not a family vacation. Believe me, if you have a non-genealogy type spouse and you try to palm off a research trip as a vacation, you may end up as a statistic in the divorce courts.

Learning how to prepare for a genealogical research trip is extremely important. The success of your trip many times is directly related to the amount of preparation you have made. We all need to make the most of one of our most valuable assets, which is our time.

I know that some of these things will sound very elementary, but some times we need a refresher course.

Do your homework. Don't waste valuable research time at the library on things that you could find in your own attic. Exhaust all your home and family sources before you turn to the research facility. Everything that you can accomplish before you leave for your trip will allow you to spend your time at the facility doing things that can only be accomplished there. Don't waste that valuable time doing things that you could do at home or in research facilities near your home.

Review the material that you have accumulated over time. Recheck notes. It takes longer but saves time in the end. Now your offices may be totally organized. I know I have what I refer to as my "piles and files". Look through them for pertinent information.

Review both the abstracts that you have made from documents and the originals if you have them. I think that many of us discover that we sometimes have overlooked a clue that we have had in our possession all the time. Sometimes, it is simply because we have become a little more sophisticated in our research techniques and we recognize the significance of an item better. We might have abstracted the material when we were fatigued or perhaps we might have gotten distracted. We might not have been far enough along with our research in that line to realize that some of the other names in the document had real significance for us. It is well worth the time taken to review the item. Sometimes we make mistakes when we are extracting data because we write down what we are expecting to see. Always remain open-minded and don't be influenced by what you are expecting to find. Some times there is a wide gap between the actual facts and what we were expecting to discover.

Determine what you know and record the source of your information. The goal of every genealogist should be to have a record that is complete and verifiably correct. Another researcher should be able to go back to your sources and come up with the same conclusions.

The hard part is trying to determine which facilities and places you need to visit once you research your destination. You really need to devise a plan before you ever leave home. If you use the shot gun approach and just dart from hither to yon that is what your final research project may look like. You may end up with scattered data that is not tied and bounded together in a concrete and coherent way.

When you arrive at a facility always ask about their special collections. Each facility may have a collection that is truly unique to them. At the Eaton County, Michigan Genealogical Society, for example, we have 300 Civil Defense cards that were filled out at the time of World War II. People indicated things that they could do and sometimes gave a lot of personal information. Three of my husband's uncles had filled out cards so we were very happy with that find.

Click on images for larger copy

front of sample Civil Defense card

back of sample Civil Defense card

Organize data to maximize time at facility. Have your materials arranged in such a way that you don't waste a lot of time trying to sort through materials.

Recently my husband and I were doing research at Salt Lake. One gentleman finally worked up his courage and asked me how I had organized my materials. He said that I seemed so organized. I really had him fooled but I was flattered! I had gone to the local Family History Center and pulled information on all of the materials that I wanted to check on. I then organized them by call number. I was able to just walk down the shelves and pull the materials very quickly. When I finished with those, I could go back and pick up another set of books. I didn't have to dart all over looking for what I wanted.

I have a special puzzle file for each library. When I get ready to go back to the facility I can pull it and attempt to solve problems.

Use a surname checklist. I try and get everyone used to this idea. It doesn't have to be some grand and glorious chart; it can be on a 3 x 5" card. Some times when you get home from a trip you will think, oh my gosh, my Smiths also lived in that county. By using a "cheat sheet" if you will, you won't find yourself driving back 75 miles or sometimes more to a library to check something else out.

On your trip, keep reviewing your plan and see how you are coming. Make necessary adjustments.

Sometimes you have to create your own research facility. A couple of years ago we were rushing to get to a cemetery in Shiloh, Ohio when I spotted an Ice Cream Social at a church. I told my husband that we needed to stop. He said that we didn't have time. My reply was that we didn't have time not too. He thought I had gone over the proverbial bend but I told him that we were going to get something and find the oldest person we could and sit with them. We did and told them what we were doing in the area. Within about 15 minutes everyone in a two-block area had heard about those crazy Michiganians. We actually met some shirttail relation and found out where Hodges Corners was. The only homestead was still standing.

When the trip is over your work has just begun. Organize all the wonderful material that you have found. In fact, go back to the beginning and repeat the process of what you did before. Our genealogical data is always in a state of being refined and improved.

Until next time :)

Shirley Hodges, biography & genealogy lectures; email:

Editor's Note: Shirley Hodges is the author of the popular Guide to United States Census, 1790-1930

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