How to Achieve Genealogy Success with Archival Research

While the next generation of genealogists may not have to travel to archives, libraries, or courthouses as often to do research as in previous decades, visiting repositories for genealogy is far from outdated. No one has been able to actually measure the percentage of records that are accessible online, but it’s clear that for those who focus simply on researching from their computer, they are missing a lot of information. While I personally have an affinity for researching with original records and spend a good amount of time volunteering at the National Archives, I know that when I walk through the stacks and gaze upon miles of endless shelving that it is far from being all online.

If you are thinking that you want to do some genealogical research at a local repository, you should look forward to the opportunity. There are a few steps you can take to prepare for your visit. Ultimately, you want to structure your visit around your research goals. Is there a specific record or file you want to retrieve and have reproduced? Are you looking for sources that will allow you to go deeper with your research questions? Having a plan is key and the best way to follow a plan is to spend some time doing reconnaissance work about the repository.

Archival Research

There are several methods for scouting out the holdings and collections of a particular repository. Be sure to always check out the website. Most repositories will have a catalog or a variety of guides (finding aids) to their specific collections that will help in becoming familiar with their holdings. The website is also likely to have a page dedicated to policies and procedures, so you can plan what you need to bring or leave behind. A great way to survey materials throughout multiple repositories would be to use large catalogs like WorldCat and ArchiveGrid. You can enter in different subjects, family names, and keywords to locate possible resources. Other resources include genealogy guides that are in print and online for different jurisdictions including counties, states, and countries, even as specific as large cities or college towns where a lot of repositories are in one place. Whatever you find that is of interest, write it down and make it a part of your research plan. You will greatly increase your chance for research success if you go in knowing what you want to look at.

Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to the staff ahead of time. Even if an appointment is not required, it’s good to make contact before your visit. You can explain your research interests to them and they might have some knowledge that will shed light on your query. I think it’s important to prepare how you present your questions. Tell the staff exactly how you are stuck in your research and what you are looking to find out from their collections. They can save you some time and pull files for you, so you’re ready to go right from the minute you walk in.

You might be asking, “Can I save myself a trip and have the archivist carry out research for me?” Yes, but only in a limited number of circumstances. If you have a specific reference to a document and need it reproduced or if there is a name index associated with that collection, then yes, the archivist can do a look-up for you. But I’d say for anything that would take more than fifteen or twenty minutes, you are probably going to be politely let down in that regard.

You are more likely to get extra help and tips for your genealogy work if you carry a good demeanor. You will not be treated differently based on your expertise with archives or microfilm readers, but your overall attitude. Being courteous to the staff goes a long way and it’s important to understand that they have to serve the needs of a variety of patrons who are using the archives for different purposes. It wouldn’t hurt to dress with some class when you go to visit, as it’s good to make the impression that you care about you do. The facility and it’s staff care very much and take pride in their collections, so they want to feel that their files are in good hands when they leave the shelves.

Most of all, enjoy your time there and the fact that you are on a research trip. You experience your research differently because you’re not working on genealogy at home. A bonus of spending time at the archives is you become acquainted with so many different types of documents and sources. This knowledge allows you to think beyond the standard array of must-use genealogical sources and perhaps will encourage you to approach a brickwall problem in a creative way.

Jake FletcherJake Fletcher is a professional genealogist, educator, and blogger. He has been researching and writing about his ancestors since 2008 on his research blog. Jake currently volunteers as a research assistant at the National Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts and is Vice President of the New England Association of Professional Genealogists (NEAPG).