Think back to those firsts, your first day of high school, your first date, your first day at the new job, your stomach is all a flutter. You don’t know what to expect where to go and who to see. You are worried, you do not know what you are doing and it will show. You are constantly thinking about saying or doing the wrong thing, looking and sounding like a newbie. Sound familiar, because it is a universal human experience. For some it is a fleeting moment, for others it can be crippling and can be holding them back from a rewarding experience.
We have all been there, and firsts can be tough. However, we also know that once we move past those initial nervous butterflies, we all begin to enjoy the experience and wonder what all the fuss was about. The same can be said for visiting an archive.
At some point in your life as a family historian, you are going to experience that first day in an archive. You may experience many of those feelings you had on your first day at the new job or on your first date. You’re excited to have this new experience while at the same time, you’re afraid of making the wrong move. For some of you, maybe your anxieties of the unknown are holding you back from making that initial visit.
The best way to get rid of those nervous butterflies is preparation. The more prepared and knowledgeable you are about the archive and the process of doing research, the more comfortable you will be in getting through that first day.
Here are a few tips. Don’t let fear of the unknown hold you back from visiting an archive and experiencing a wonderful rewarding part of genealogy research.
- Do some investigation on the internet first. Check online for catalogs, indexes, collections and guides. Don’t waste your time going to archives that don’t have the documents you are looking for, know what that archive holds that you need to see. Nothing says newbie like asking for a collection that they do not hold. Today with the internet there is no excuse for not knowing what an archive holds in their collections.
- Call ahead, make an appointment- and possibly even order your documents ahead of time. Some larger archives and certain collections are not easily accessible and require pre-planning. This will also make an archivist very happy. Showing up knowing what you want to see, with call numbers, titles, authors etc, says I know what I am looking for and I have done my homework. Nothing can excel your comfort level more than winning the support of the archivist.
- Check visitor information and guidelines before heading out. Every archive has a set of ground rules- their own policies and procedures, while most are very similar across the board, they can vary slightly, make sure you read them in advance.
- Never whip out a pen in an archive, a true sign of an inexperienced researcher. Paper and pencils only. Again, check with the archive, most will not allow bags, purses and even laptops but they all very slightly. In my experience, the larger the archive, the longer the rule list.
- Go with a game plan- determine what topic, family surname or particular ancestor you are researching, heading in without a game plan will leave you overwhelmed and bewildered. Trying to order too many collections at once is a sure sign of your inexperience. An archivist knows what you realistically have time to cover. Don’t make him or her pull more then what you can possibly examine in your allotted time period. Take your time and don’t take on more than you can handle.
- Keep Track of Your Sources- sometimes we get so excited about having primary documents in front of us we get ahead of ourselves. Before you begin your hunt, write down the word file, the call numbers, the description of the folder or box you plan to open.
- Start with a local archive- this will help you get your feet wet, learn the ropes and make your mistakes at a smaller level before going to a larger National Archive. It also allows you to fix your mistakes because you can go back.
- If you are still nervous, find a fellow genealogist who has been through the process; ask them to join you on your first visit, or even a fellow family historian who also has yet to visit an archive. You can learn the ropes together.
Regardless of all those nervous butterflies, have fun, learn something and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Mistakes make us better, more confident in our task the next time around. However, certainly don’t let your fear hold you back from what can be one of the most rewarding research experiences of a genealogist’s journey.