Preparation makes for best family history research

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So, you have some research you need to do at an archives, library or a county courthouse?

Before you go, it’s crucial to plan ahead.

One of the biggest problems family historians and genealogists have is that we can easily get carried away on tangents. I’ve spent hours online digging for records, particularly if I’ve come across a lead that brings me to find census and other information on an elusive or previously unknown family line.

And that’s OK when you are searching through sites like Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org online in the comfort of your own home. (Just don’t forget to take notes about your sources!)

But, it’s not a lot of fun for staff members at whichever repository you are going to visit. And these are the people you want to keep happy, because you never know what records requests you may have to make while you are there.

According to J. Mark Lowe, a researcher who specializes in Kentucky and Tennessee research, the best thing to do is identify one – maybe two – specific pieces to the puzzle you are trying to solve.

Lowe was the speaker at the Kentucky Genealogical Society’s annual seminar on Saturday, Aug. 3, at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History in Frankfort.

Say you are looking for your great-grandfather who lived in Kentucky in the 1800s. Consider all the information you have now – was he born here or did he come from Virginia or someplace else? Where did he live and at what time? Who were his associates, neighbors and friends?

Based on what you know already, determine what specific questions you want to answer when you visit the repository so that you can zero in on the records you are hoping to find.

If you are going to a county courthouse, call first to find out what records are kept there, which office maintains them and what hours that office is open. Find out, too, which day or time is best for the staff there. That way, you can be sure they have time to help you if you need it, and perhaps time to give you an overview of the records they have available. Lowe says it never hurts to be extra nice; his mother used to take tins of cookies on research trips as gifts to courthouse staffers.

Keep in mind that courthouses usually maintain the original records, but you might also be able to find microfilm copies of those records at the Kentucky State Archives. If you are researching a family that lived in several counties over time, going to the archives might be a better plan because it could save you a lot of gasoline and travel time.

The state universities, including the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisiville, also have special collections where you might find papers donated by families and individuals, as well as photograph collections such as those contributed by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s (UK).

Also in Louisville is The Filson Historical Society, a privately funded organization founded in 1884, which houses 1.8 million original documents, 50,000 books and 15,000 digitized historical manuscripts. Unlike state-supported repositories, there is a fee to do research there. For more information, visit them online at FilsonHistorical.org.

If it’s your first time going to a repository, keep in mind that these places have very strict guidelines for visitors.

For instance, at the Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives in Frankfort, researchers going into the microfilm room must sign in with the security officer at the desk. Bring your drivers license, as that is your ID card while you are there. Make sure you have change, in case you decide to make photocopies of documents found.

You may only take pencils in with you – no markers or pens – as well as a laptop computer. But everything else – brief cases, purses or any other bags – must be placed in lockers next to the door.

Cell phones are allowed, but must be switched to vibrate. Photos may be taken of documents using cell phones or digital cameras, but visitors are prohibited from using flash photography.

The staff there is great and will walk you through the research process and answer any questions you may have.

To be completely sure what the rules govern the repository you plan to visit, check out their websites. These will give you all the information you need so there will be no surprises when you arrive.

That said, though, it’s wise to also call the location beforehand, to make sure the information on the website is up to date. It’s always possible that hours may change temporarily, or perhaps the location is being remodeled. Better safe than sorry.

Phyllis McLaughlin is a professional genealogy researcher and a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists. Contact her at TwistedRootsGenealogy.com with questions or suggestions for future columns.