Research Trips (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Research: French Canadian Ancestors  by Louise St Denis. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Introduction[edit | edit source]

A genealogical trip can be both exciting and worthwhile. It shouldn’t just be a dream, make it come true. You will be able to add not only factual information to your family history but also the feelings, sounds and visual images that such a visit can provide. Your feelings can be captured as you travel by keeping a diary recording them at each heritage place and meeting with relatives. Plan on bringing home some kind of visual images as well, whether as photos, slides or video recordings. These will evoke memories for you and become splendid illustrations for your family history. Take pictures of relatives, neighbours and friends, but also of churches where ancestors worshipped, their old homes, schools and other old buildings they would have known. Maybe there are headstones in the local churchyard or cemetery, and even if your ancestors are not commemorated in this way, you can take home photos of the burial ground itself. I have pressed wild flowers growing on grandparents’ graves and they are potent reminders of my visits and how I felt at that time.

If you plan on visiting newly found or known family, take the opportunity to record stories about what they remember on audio or video tapes. Other books and courses which may be useful to view:

  • Ask Lots of Questions, Get Lots of Answers - Heritage Productions book listing over 600 questions to review a complete life story
  • Producing Your Family Video - elective course in this program that gives instruction on completing this objective
  • Methodolgy-Part 3: More Strategies and Methodology-Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording provide information on interviewing and successful taping of oral histories, gathering written, visual and artifact evidence, and how to organize and care for these items.

Several of the newer genealogical computer programmes can now incorporate not only still photos, but also audio and visual clips. Make sure you plan to gather these when taking a trip back to the family’s old haunts. Throughout this module you will be presented with lots of tips. The most important one is:

Be prepared…Do your homework before you go!

The golden rules are:

  • Plan well ahead
  • Do ONLY what you can’t do here

Start about 10 months before you plan to travel, by defining your research needs. Concentrate on what you cannot do here, that is, visiting people and places and consulting material that is unavailable. Make a list of what you want to achieve while you are there. This may include important information to obtain, who you would like to visit, and what places you want to see and experience. By having such a list you can plan a suitable length and itinerary for your trip. Don’t leave things to chance; those who do very rarely get much accomplished. Often whatever can go wrong with travel plans will go wrong, so leave time for travel glitches. Productive research trips come from good planning. The more information you have before you leave…

  • where information is to be found
  • what days and hours they are open
  • what kinds of research methods are used
  • how long does it take
  • how to obtain certificates and copies of materials you want

…the more you will achieve.

If you are going to Europe don’t try to go to too many places in one trip. It is better to limit the number of places but do a thorough job at each one; you will achieve more and it is less expensive and less tiring. You cannot soak up the ambiance of a place if you feel rushed or worried about arranging hotels or transportation. I always know before I leave home exactly where I am going to stay each night, and precisely the way and times I am travelling between destinations. This peace of mind allows me to concentrate on the people and places I visit, and on archive research.

Older Relatives[edit | edit source]

Your older relatives should be sought out as a first priority since we never how long they will still be with us. New-found cousins may not be quite such a high priority as far as longevity is concerned, but they just might hold the key to un-jamming your research roadblock. Write to tell them that you are coming and would like to see them. Wait until you have further details on archives opening hours before setting up appointments with relatives, as you will probably be able to schedule the relatives around the archive openings. When you arrange an interview time, make sure you ask them to have their photo albums on hand; it may take an old person a few weeks to arrange for someone to get them down from the attic! In your correspondence also suggest that they think about other items of interest: do they have newspaper articles or clippings, memorial cards, a family bible, diaries, old address books, birth, marriage or death certificates, any other types of certificates, memorabilia, old maps, pictures and books. Often suggesting the items reminds the person of something they may not have thought of.

Comprehensive lists of types of documents and other family memorabilia can be found in the courses Methodology-Parts 1 through 4. Prepare yourself with notebooks, tape recorder, still and video camera. There are several guides to carrying out successful oral interviews. In the Heritage Book series, Ask Lots of Questions, Get Lots of Answers is a perfect companion for your trip. It lists over 600 questions to review a complete life story.

Also in this Certificate program, the course Producing Your Family Video gives all the instructions you need to video tape your family interviews or conversations. With a tape recorder it is estimated that you get 10 times the amount that you would taking notes. But what about the facial expressions and body language? Video recordings have a tremendous visual impact and breathe life into your family history.

Once you are face-to-face with your relatives, ask again about all these same items. Perhaps some of them have books, maps etc. that may be of interest to you; or they may know the area well and can suggest further avenues of research. They may not be forthcoming with this information in letters, but face-to-face is a different matter. Be prepared for some pleasant surprises! It doesn’t hurt to arrive with spare space in your suitcase for all the things you are going to be given—someone else’s ‘old rubbish’ can be a gold mine for the family historian.

Ancestral Places[edit | edit source]

Decide which churches, schools, houses, workplaces etc you would like to visit and start getting maps to locate where they are as well as information on opening hours and transport to them.

If you are visiting churches, find out from the vicar where you can get the key, as it may be with a church warden living nearby. Contacting him/her could be most valuable as they may know of any present-day members of your family still in the area, or old people who knew your ancestors.

If you plan to look for gravestones, ensure that you contact the local Family History Society to see if the MIs (Memorial Inscriptions) have been recorded, then get the index checked. The burial register may be on microfilm available here and some have the grave plots noted. The sexton’s book at the church may have to be consulted by mail.

So many people waste a whole afternoon in fruitless wandering around a huge graveyard when, by writing a couple of letters beforehand they could walk right up to the grave itself, even if it isn’t marked by a stone.

A very nifty and successful idea is to take along a supply of small plastic envelopes and the plastic sticks that hold donor cards in flower arrangements. Then when you find a grave site that is well-tended you can leave a note with your name and address, protected from the rain, for the descendants who tend the grave. A cleft stick, if available, also serves the purpose, but it is best to be prepared beforehand. I write a note on the back of a business card and insert in a spare plastic airline luggage tag, then attach to the plastic stick. A prior letter to a school or to the present-day residents of your ancestral home can often bring rich rewards, such as contact with distant relatives or friends of your family, invitations to view inside the house, and even a welcome cup of tea!

Whenever you visit a church, local archive, museum etc. do sign the visitors book and include your reason for visiting, with surnames you are researching. This has paid off for me more than once, when others come looking for their ancestors too. Take a little time to look back in the visitors book to see if any umpteenth cousins have been there before you!

To more fully understand your ancestors’ milieu, search for places of interest in respect to their occupations and daily life. There are published guidebooks to:

  • Town museums
  • Country museums
  • Gardens open to the public―from small cottages to royal residences>br>
  • Craft workshops, factories and fairs that can be visited. There’s everything here from patchwork quilt making to power stations.
  • Industrial Heritage sites to visit, with examples from tin mining and whisky distilling to lace making.

Up-to-date guides showing locations and opening times can be located through your public library or bookstore, as well as national or local tourist offices in the area concerned. Most areas now have websites aimed at the tourist.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Research: French Canadian Ancestors offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.