Genealogy: Strategies for conducting field research

10-17-2014 10-37-12 AMBy Barry J. Ewell

Each day of your trip is full of research, excursions, meeting new people, taking pictures, reflecting upon your family, and unexpected happenings. Take time at the end or beginning of each day to write in your travel journal. Upon your return home, you will find that your journal will be one of the most important assets you have in furthering research and documenting the value of your trip. After just a week on the road, one day blends into the next.

I tend to write events in my travel journal in a chronological format (what happened first, second, third). For example, after I entered a library I will write details about the following aspects of my experience there:

  • Who I spoke with and their role in the library, address, email, phone number, and so on.
  • All discussions (no matter whom it was with) and information exchanged.
  • The records I looked at and why.
  • What I found and decisions I made during my search.
  • All new information, carefully documenting all associated information.
  • Thoughts and questions that cross my mind during the research.

I make comments about the places I visited and why they were of interest to me. I discuss what I learned. I also include brochures I may have picked up and any other information that will help me tell the story.

I find myself reviewing what I wrote several times during the trip as I ponder options and make decisions about what direction to take the research and planning my free time. The parts of my journal that are most interesting are how often I happen to meet the right person who is able to open doors to help find the place I am searching for, or the person who knows about my family name and history and will take me to the gravesite of an ancestor, or the person who knows the person who now lives in the ancestor’s home, or is the person who knows where to find the record I seek.

Learn about local history. One of the most enjoyable aspects of taking a genealogy trip is learning about the history of the local area. Don’t become so focused on trying to find that long-lost record that you forget that your ancestors were people with dreams, opportunities, successes, frustrations, disappointments, bills, sicknesses, and death. They may have moved more than once or cleared the land to make a new home. They lived there, so why not spend time getting to know the area’s history?

Learn about the history of the area where your ancestors are from. What did they eat? Where would they have gone to church? Where is the mill they took their crops to? What sort of natural features did they encounter when farming the land? What is the city most famous for? The more you know, the more you can appreciate just what your ancestors’ lives were like when you are there. If you learn that lamb and potatoes were the primary staples or that blueberries were grown in the area since the 1600s, perhaps you will take the time to order the “local” dishes when you are in town. Who knows, you might even ask for the recipe.

Searching for your ancestors’ original places of residence. Like many of our ancestors, your forefathers came from tiny villages that few people have ever heard of. When they immigrated they may have simply said they were from the largest nearby town or city. If you are looking for the experience to stand exactly where Great- Great-Great-Grandpa lived or have your picture taken in front of his home, make sure you know exactly what town they came from.

Records such as birth and land records can help locate where your family lived by giving you a street address or the name of the land where they lived. With such information in hand, I have been able to ask directions from locals and gain very good directions to find what I was looking for. Don’t be surprised if the information on the records gives you a different village.

You might have the right village and go to the church. However, the church may no longer have the records. It is quite possible they have been moved to the genealogical society in a larger, nearby city. In most countries, older records are being consolidated in central repositories. Always ascertain in advance where the actual records are kept.

Searching libraries and archives in the country. As I have conducted research in various countries, I have learned to expect to find the unexpected. Some of my experiences were as follows:

  • Record offices will have government hours (perhaps closing for lunch).
  • You may need advance reservations.
  • You may need to look up your resources in a catalog and write them on a request form, which you submit to the reference librarian.
  • Your request may take more than a half-hour to arrive.
  • You may only be allowed to view one request at a time.
  • You may or may not be allowed to take photographs of the documents. If you are not allowed to take photographs, then you may need to fill out a request form and submit it. It may take from just a few minutes to a few hours before your request is ready.
  • Sometimes you are limited to the number of copies you can make in a day.
  • Remember that the person behind the desk is in charge.
  • The staff may bring the requested artifacts to you and pick them up from you while you are seated.
  • You may be required to stow your backpack in a locker.
  • Security may ask to see the contents of your pockets or purse.
  • Some record facilities are very strict about each researcher having a table or seat.
  • Research under these conditions gives you the thrill of handling papers that may be over two hundred years old.