What to Take with You on a Research Outing, Preparing for a Visit to a Family History Centre (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

What Do I Take with Me?[edit | edit source]

The Research Briefcase[edit | edit source]

Two cautions:

  • Put your name and address labels on anything you take with you, and
  • Never take original documents, only photocopies of them, as working aids.

As an example of a repository, I’ll discuss what I take to a FamilySearch Center. Other archives and libraries are similar but the details vary.

My research briefcase is one that stands upright beside my chair. This is handy for libraries and archives where table space is never sufficient; it acts as a portable filing cabinet.

The three sections contain:

(1.) Reference Materials and Continuing Projects[edit | edit source]

  • Duotang or thin loose leaf binder containing essential data for consulting records, talking to other researchers and browsing. I’m ready for anything when I have:
  • My pedigree, and if extensive, an index to it.
  • List of ancestral names.
  • List of ancestral places.
  • Alphabetical lists of all spellings of my surnames, ready for use in indexes as well as original records.
  • List of marriages needed, alpha by county.
  • List of civil registration searches needed by type and date.
  • List of places needed on censuses by year.
  • List of specific parish register entries/copies needed alpha by county and parish.
  • List of parish register area searches needed by county and central parish.
  • Folder with:
  • Local genealogical phone numbers and addresses.
  • Palaeography crib sheet.
  • Magnifying glass.
  • Lists of locally held materials, e.g. English civil registration index holdings at local FSCs
  • Folder containing:
  • Blank census transcript forms
  • Sheet of coloured paper to assist with hard-to-read microfilms
  • Pertinent maps
  • Folder with current projects for my One Name Studies (to do when I have finished reading the films I have in.)
  • Latin glossaries
  • GOONS (Guild of One-Name Studies) Register
  • Tracing Your Ancestors in Canada guide
  • 8" x 11" coil notebook for recording
  • Work To Do Book - This can be organized according to the repository you use. The following is an example for FSCs. To keep track of films on order I tape three envelopes inside the front cover for microform order forms and same-size slips for other films in at my FSC at present.

Three Envelopes for Keeping Track of Microform Orders

My pink patron cards

In due date order.
My pink patron cards and same-
size slips for other films in.

In due date order.
My pink patron cards---just in case
I need them again!

  • A page pocket contains any work sheets I may have to refer to. Another page pocket contains lined 7" x 3" slips for all kinds of notes.
  • Starting at the front of the book are pages where I note which films I need to order.

Films to Order

Film # Item For [family or clien! scope="col" | Done
0048959 Vesterø, Hjørring, Denmark PRs 1646-1848 Christensen line
0474674 1841 Hunston area, Sussex. GOONs + copy Richard/ Martha JUPP

Starting at the back of the book is my list of things to do.

Research to do at the FamilySearch Center

Source Item For [family or clien! scope="col" | Done
1891 census Copy 108 Surrey Lane, Battersea Francis THOM
Eng Death 1851 2Q onwards, Elizabeth GILES age 90+ Thomas GILES

An upright spectacles case (inexpensive from a thrift store) makes an excellent pen and pencil holder for your pocket, handbag or briefcase.

(2.) Empty Section[edit | edit source]

This empty section is for reception of work done, photocopies, and items received today. This is emptied upon arrival home and filed as soon as possible, always before the next research trip.

(3.) Items Being Taken for Others[edit | edit source]

This includes notices, photocopies, references, journals or books on loan.

Other Ideas[edit | edit source]

A handbag can be an encumbrance in archives as you may have to leave it in a locker before you enter the search room, and if you bring it with you it has to be supervised. Consider a carpenter’s apron with its large pockets, or a combination of a ‘fanny pack’ and clothing with good pockets instead. A few archives e.g. the British National Archives do not now allow even fanny packs into the search rooms so deep pockets are a necessity. Be prepared!

If you are doing numerous small look-ups for a society, friends or clients, then a system that works well is to have a large binder containing many plastic page protectors. Put the instructions for each item in a separate protector and then as you make research notes or photocopies just add them to the same page protector. Each search and its results are then in one place ready for writing up or replying to enquirers.

If you are regularly using several different repositories it may be wise to have a research binder for each one. At the front could be a list to which you add Things to do as you think of them, plus guide sheets for that repository and any relevant family information. At the back would be several copies of transcript forms you need there.

Efficient Use of Time[edit | edit source]

Make the best use of library time by planning work at home or whilst travelling, using the guidebooks and holdings catalogues that you have received from archives or are available online. The FamilySearch Catalog is available online and provides enormous savings of FamilySearch Center time by looking up catalogue queries at home.

Many repositories require you to book ahead for a film or fiche reader, or use of a computer. Plan well-ahead for these so you can get the machines you need when your material is first there. In all likelihood you will need to read some of it and then go home and digest the material, returning later for another session, so you need to leave time for that. Occasionally one runs into machine breakdowns or electricity outage and so on. If you always read time-dated material, such as films at a FamilySearch Center, directly they come in this will not bother you.

I use a lot of photocopied maps of parishes that I highlight to show which censuses or parish registers I’ve read. It focuses you wonderfully on the gaps in your area coverage.

It’s a good idea to alternate between film/fiche/books/computer to ease neck and eye strain and then it is possible to do a full day’s work on machines. Another tip when reading faint writing is to slowly move the film as you read it. This aids in distinguishing the writing from the background.

It is important to get into the habit of filing work pages as soon as possible and certainly before your next archive trip. One of the reasons many family historians don’t accomplish very much is that they may have the information that they need but it’s unfindable (and thus unusable) because it isn’t filed properly. Frequent rummaging through a huge pile of unsorted notes and photocopies is a waste of time and effort.

Using indexes will save time, but do be sure to understand how they were made and checked, and even why they were made. Read the instructions or notes for these details. For example, there isn’t much point in consulting Boyd’s Marriage Index unless you are aware that he utilized phonetic spelling. No wonder there are no Phillips or Wrights! I have found that when searching an index prior to about 1950 for English first names you will find people faster by starting at A for females, but at Z for males. There are more Ann, Eliza, Elizabeth, Fanny and Mary than later letters, likewise more William, Thomas, Robert, Richard, John and James than earlier letters. Transcripts are available for many genealogically important materials, particularly parish registers, but some are better than others. Check the instructions or notes at the front to see how they were made and checked.

There are plenty of pre-computer-age transcripts that were made by well-meaning but careless individuals. Perhaps they did not have the required palaeographic skills, or were not aware of the importance of checking. That said, there are hundreds of good handwritten and manually-typed transcripts as well. Just make sure that you understand their provenance and go back and check the original sources as well.

Effective Use of Films on Loan at FamilySearch Centers[edit | edit source]

To make the most use of films already ordered by other patrons, it is essential to know how certain types of records are arranged on GSU films for your particular area. For example, the arrangement and effective use of the commonest British original records film loans are outlined in the chart below.

Efficient use of Films

Source Arrangement on a GSU Film How to Use Efficiently
Census – Scotland and 1841 England and Wales Alphabetical by parish May also have parishes starting with surrounding letters.
Census – England and Wales 1851-81 By contiguous areas Nearby parishes may be present.
Parish registers, BTs and other transcripts Alphabetical within a diocese May also have parishes from that diocese starting with surrounding letters

Many FamilySearch Centers (FSCs) have a list for patron use of the films in on short-term loan. This may be called the Flip Chart, a term dating back to the spiral-bound books provided to the first FSCs for keeping this list.

Take note of the film number and due date for any films of possible use, then look up (and print off) the details on the FamilySearch Catalog at the FSC. To save valuable FSC time, check at home on the FamilySearch Catalog under Film/Fiche Search.

You will then know the exact parishes and dates on each film and can decide whether you want to read it next time you are there. I write film number, due date and brief details on a slip of paper of similar size to an order form, and keep these in due date order with my own orders in a pocket in my work book.

Tremendous savings in film loan costs can be achieved by using what is already at your FSC. I get a lot of my best stuff off of other people’s films!


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.