Have you wondered what a day researching at an archives or library should look like? How about a bird’s eye view? I’ll take you along with me on a typical research assignment. You’ll have to remember that I am not perfect, and rarely am I so disciplined that I follow this formula precisely, but it is my goal. SO, don’t get discouraged if you slack a little, too.
A successful day at the library begins with great preparation at home usually at least a day before I go.
- Decide a research question to answer. The question should not be to find “all the Chaplin family.” The question should be well defined, such as, “When and where did Benjamin Chaplin die?”
- Write up a synopsis of what IS known about him and what previous research has been conducted.
- Determine a theory and locality to search. My theory is that he died in Jones County, Iowa, since he was last known to be living in 1880 there, and I can’t find him in 1900, but his widow is living there. Thus, I will want to focus my search on Jones County.
- Determine all the variant types of records to search. In this case, I will need to check for vital records, burial records, probate records, mug books, etc., because each record may give different information and clues.
- Check online databases that may reveal clues to the answer. I will remember that any records that have been abstracted or transcribed are subject to error. That said, they ARE a clue to help me find the original. For instance, the USGenWeb site for Jones County, Iowa, lists Benjamin F. Chaplin who died “03/08/1890” and is buried at Riverside Cemetery. This is a transcribed record. I want to get closer to the original.
- Check the library’s or archives’ online catalog for their holdings. In this case, I will use the Family History Library Catalog. I will search for records at the county and state level.
- Copy the sources to search onto a research log (digital or print), or print out a hard copy of the source. Ideally, when I enter the source in my research log, I’ll take the time to determine how I want to cite that source, write out the citation, and then I won’t have to figure it out again as I use it. THAT’s the ideal.
- Pack a bag: sack lunch (you know, the important things!), digital camera, laptop, cell phone, printouts or digital files, and a light weight sweater.
Only after I’ve done all my preparation at home will I be ready to head to the library. The drive to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah takes me about thirty minutes. In order to save a few dollars, I park the car several blocks from the library and walk.
At the library or archives:
- Get set up at a desk or microfilm reader: At the Family History Library, SLC, the U.S. and Canada microfilms are on the second floor, U.S. and Canada books on the third. I will spend most of my time searching microfilms, so once inside, I climb the stairs to the second floor. I head to a bank of microfilm readers where the lighting is dark enough for me to read the screen, but not too far from the film cabinets because I’ll be going through a lot of film. I pick a spot, check the microfilm reader to see if the light bulb works, etc., set up my laptop, and attach a lock to prevent theft, fire it up, and pull up the file with my research log.
- Find the books or microfilms on the list to search.
- Start with the first item on the list and search it. As I search I make my notes right on my printout or into the research log. As I search, I make a note in my log about each record searched, what items (years, names, etc.) I searched and any positive or negative findings.
- Analyze the source for credibility, authenticity, and what it DOESN’T say. This is really hard to do because other sources to search are in the queue. It’s so much more fun to gather than to analyze, so I have to reign in my leapfrog tendencies and take the time to analyze each record while I have it in front of me.
- Preserve the image for later use. To do this, I dig out my digital camera and take a photo of it with the tulip setting on, flash off. I also use the timer so my finger doesn’t move the camera when the shutter closes. It’s important that I remember to record the image number and it’s source, so I can match these up when I am at home. Note: I could preserve the image on a memory stick. This takes more time because I’ll have to take the microfilm off the reader, hand carry both spools to the printer area, load them on a printer, find the right page, assure it’s lined up correctly, give it a file name, and THEN save the image on the stick. This process is so time consuming, I prefer camera images.
- Repeat this process until all sources have been searched, examined, analyzed, recorded and digitized.
It’s important to process the day as soon as I can. Sometimes, it’s not until the next day but it should be done while it’s fresh on my mind. Processing the day usually takes two to three times as much time as the actual research. Why? Because it’s when you process the evidence and write the report that your brain goes into deeper analysis. There’s something about writing that connects to the brain. You will be a better researcher if you will take the time to process your research as you go.
To process my day I’ll need to:
- Upload my digital images from my camera, or from the memory stick.
- Attach documentation to the images.
- Write a research report of records searched and findings, both positive and negative.
- If two pieces of direct evidence are in conflict with each other, determine if the conflict can be resolved or is further research needed.
- If the research question was answered by good evidence, record it in a database or word processing program and determine the next research question.
- If the research question was not answered, take the time while the research is fresh to determine another strategy or record set to search.
Once I’ve determined where I want to go next, I’ll begin the preparation all over again for my next trip to the library. This step should be done soon after coming home, while the details are fresh.
Well, it’s been a long day, so I’ll say ‘nite all! Thanks for coming along!