Saturday, December 31, 2011

Some Words of Encouragement

My friend John, whom I know from Google+, is about to take a giant genealogical leap forward.  He is going to cross the invisible line from online research to offline research.  In order to continue his research he has determined that he has to leave behind the databases he has been relying on ( and and take a trip to the Maine Historical Society.

This is a big step and I am so excited for John.  I also know how scary it can be to go to a repository for the first time. Here's are some tips to make the adventure a little smoother.

1) Take Care of Practical Matters

One of the quickest and easiest ways to smooth the road to your first repository is to handle the practical matters first. Go to the archive or repository website and determine their address, phone number and hours of operation.  Next print out a mapquest with directions to the location.  Even if you have a gps, the mapquest will act a backup in case there are any road closures or your gps stops working. Before you go, call the archive to make sure they will be open the day you will be arriving.

2) Check the Catalog

The archive should have either an online catalog or guidance documents of their collections on their website.  Check these to make sure they have the records you are looking for. If you still aren't sure after viewing the website, send the archivists an email and ask.  Better to find out before driving for any length of time.

3) Check for Restrictions

Some archives have restrictions on what you can bring into the research area and what you can copy or photograph.  Some places will have lockers where you will need to store your personal items.  Bring quarters in case the lockers require them. Also bring dollar bills in small denominations.  There's nothing worse than only having a $20 bill and the copy machine only takes up to $5 bills.  There will likely be a change machine but who really wants $20 in quarters! Toss a few pencils in with your pens.  Pens are not allowed in some places.

If anyone has any other suggestions for a first timer please share them here. Also, if anyone has  first hand experience with the Maine Historical Society, I'm sure John would appreciate hearing your tips.

Good luck, John! I'm sure you're going to have a great experience.

Photo Credit: Photo by Stephen Cummings and used under the creative commons license.


  1. I always find a librarian/staffer when I arrive. I let them know it is my first time to the library/courthouse/etc and ask for any tips. Most will be happy to show you where everything is and how to request materials.

    I like to make that personal connection so that a new place is not so intimidating.

  2. I would check to see if there are lockers and can you pack and bring a lunch to store there. Is there anywhere nearby to eat or are you better off bringing a sandwich from home!

    I started before the Internet was in existence so I did the exact opposite of your friend - all that was available were microfilms and libraries and archives. Such a treat to have other options at our fingertips but there is so much that can't be found online just waiting for an offline dig and delve!

  3. That first time is always a bit scary but he'll be surprised at what wonderful finds he can make in person:). Congrats to him for taking this important step!!

  4. Sierra's comments about making a personal connection is such a good one - the first time I went to our Provincial Archives, it was definitely challenging, so I smiled and asked the 'gatekeeper' on the public side of the guarded doorway, to "lead me by the hand so I don't make terrible mistakes!" And she and the guard were so helpful - I took notes of what I needed to know, and luckily had lots of change for copies. So exciting to be in a space where everyone there is researching for a purpose!! Wonderful experience, every time I go.

  5. I remember before my first trip trying to find some advice like this. I know it will be very helpful. I could only add that a strategy to try when time permits is to purchase those white gloves (I buy them on EBay) and take a set in my bag, so I have my own, in the right size, if I need to wear them. One other thought is to bring a flash drive in case there's a computer where you could download pdf's or photos of microfilm pages - this is much cheaper and more convenient than paying for printouts.
    One other piece of advice is to remember these staff are busy and have their own work to do - so meet any objections (oh I don't know if I can get those volumes for you TODAY) with sympathy and complete agreement. Once they know you're kind and cooperative they usually manage to get whatever you need.

  6. In Australia, some of the smaller town societies ask that you ring and make an appointment, so that they can be sure to have a volunteer on hand who can help you, especially if you have discussed your needs in advance.

    Other larger Societies, that have reciprocal rights ie, being a member of one, means you don't have to pay a fee at the other, request that you bring a letter of introduction from your local Society

    NOTE: Many Australian local history and genealogical societies charge a daily fee to non-members for using their resources

    Being a member of the Genealogical Society of Victoria, meant that I could use the facilities at the Society of Genealogists in Sydney, NSW. However, when I turned up unannounced, without my Letter of Introduction, I was left on my own to muddle through without any guidance what-so-ever - so know the rules - at least here, downunder!

  7. I make sure that I have a list of clearly defined goals in addition to my list of documents/books from the online catalog that I want to look up. I have GOOD - Genealogy "Ooh, Shiny" Disorder! If I don't have a clearly defined path I get too excited over all of the great new-to-me resources at the repository. Also, make sure you have a copy of your tree, especially the branches that you don't think you are going to research. I have yet to have a trip where I didn't accidentally stumble on something that would be useful for another person or area on my tree. Being able to identify it will help you notice and note these surprise finds for future research trips.

    Just a few things that a newbie has learned recently! :)

  8. My tip would be to have a clear goal about what information you are looking for and to draw up a list including names, dates and places (even if you are taking your entire family database on a laptop etc.).

    When visiting archives & genealogical libraries I often see people turn up "to do their family history" with only a vague idea of what it is they are looking for. They mostly go away empty-handed, not because the information isn't there but because they don't know what records to look in.

    It's also difficult for staff to help if the person doesn't know what it is they are looking for!

  9. Remember to pack a lunch or snack so that your blood sugar doesn't drop while you're busy finding records. You don't want to have to quit early because of your stomach.

  10. I envy John's wonderful new adventure in original records. Whenever I visit an archive/repository, I'm always deeply moved by being able to touch a record that my ancestors also touched. Have a great time, John!

  11. Good tips, Marian! I especially encourage calling or writing ahead so you know what the local protocols are. And if you do find a worker in the repository who is especially helpful:(1) thank them; (2) thank their boss; (3) don't take undue advantage!

  12. Great tips. I used to regularly sit for so long that my feet went to sleep and my neck locked up. Take regular breaks, walk about, drink some water, and don't forget to eat lunch! Oh, and enjoy yourself :-)

  13. When in doubt about something, email or call the library or archive so you are informed before arrival. Also find out if they need/prefer to pull materials before your arrival. If you are looking at a lot of materials this may be helpful.

    Also search for and read blog posts about the places you want to visit. You may learn some useful tips and sometimes things to avoid doing.