I have been assisting and working with researchers for almost twenty years on a wide variety of history and genealogy projects ranging from a president’s records to finding the source of a story about a ghost in a dormitory. The one thing I have found to be true in all these cases is that collaborating with a professional archivist or genealogist can only help and improve a project.
The tendency in local history and genealogy research is to assume that you are the only one interested in your subject and therefore you are the only one to care. However, that is almost always not true. Professional archivists and genealogists want to help you and are waiting to assist. The trick is to be ready to answer questions and open to suggestions. It is amazing how this simple idea can help you succeed but how often researchers fail to take advantage. Therefore, here are just a few helpful hints I would like to offer from my own experience.
First, set an appointment to talk with the professional. Walking into someone’s office and expecting immediate satisfaction may work in some venues but in a field that is often understaffed and overworked, your results will be more limited than they should be. When you set a date in advance, the archivist or genealogist will be able to devote all her/ his attention to you. Offering a brief description in advance of what you would like to discuss will further aid the process. Most archivists and genealogists I know are working on multiple projects and they cannot assume to know what it is you want to meet about.
Second, you should prepare for a “reference interview.” A researcher called me and asked to come in and work on his family history. He was very brief about what he wanted, basically just giving me the surname, and requesting a time. I had no idea what work he had already done or what he hoped to find. Therefore, while I could bring some materials to him, I hesitated bringing out absolutely everything. Whatever boxes I brought out, I had to put back in the collections. As a one-woman operation, I did not relish the idea of learning that many boxes were unnecessary as the researcher already had the information. When he arrived, I asked him to have a seat and requested to find out what he had worked on so far, and what his goal was in this visit. From what he told me, he had indeed worked hard and had made some interesting progress. Together we determined what he was hoping to find that day and I provided him with not only what he needed but some suggestions on his next steps. I in no way wanted to control what he saw or worked within the collections. What I did want to do was save him time and energy chasing leads that would accomplish nothing. Sometimes it takes someone not as closely involved to point out the purple-spotted pink elephant in the room and help you become less distracted by it.
Third, be open to looking at different approaches to finding what you want. Those who work with a group of collections daily are often more familiar with connections between various places and people than someone focused only on one or two families or subjects. It is probably not a mistake that the archivist has offered you a brief history of something that seems unrelated. He/ She may know that another history has some clues that will help you with your investigation. For genealogists, it may mean that you find a brief family outline in the records of a family that married one of the more obscure relatives in the line that you are tracing. Because it was meaningless to the other family, no one realized it was there—except the people that use the collections often to answer questions from many different groups.
While there are many other suggestions I could make, I will close with this one. Never look at any visit as a failure. You may have found a clue that leads you to the next research opportunity. For example, you may not have found the exact reason why your relatives moved from Ohio to Iowa but the fact that there was a cholera epidemic and only half of the people that were in Ohio are on the next census in Iowa can be a strong hint, especially if this has occurred before death records were standard. At the very least, your visit eliminated something from your list and further narrowed your quest.
So the next time you are going through local resources, don’t shy away from using the expertise available. They may have suggestions you never would have imagined.