How to Plan a Successful Library Trip

Visiting the library is fun, but it’s more enjoyable when you feel like you’re making some progress with your research. Here are some tips to help you have a better library visit.

How to plan a successful library trip


Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 26

You can listen to this episode by clicking the play button below. (You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and most other podcast apps.)
Length: 16 minutes.

1. Make a Plan

It’s easy to say, “I’m going to the library and research,” but what are you actually going to work on when you’re there? What do you want to find? Having a list of specific things you want to find will help keep you on track.

2. Make a Backup Plan

Having one plan is good; having two plans is better. I’ve had it happen that the thing I most wanted to discover – the thing that I was sure would take all day to find – was what I found in the first hour at the library. The good news was that I had the rest of the day to devote to other research; the bad news was that I didn’t have a plan beyond finding that one thing. I could have made much better use of my time if I would have had a Plan B for my day.

3. Check the Catalog Before You Go

Rather than spending your valuable on-site time looking up items in the catalog, do it before you go. Create a list of the must-look-at item, complete with call numbers. You’ll be able to hit the ground running. (Well, walking. They discourage running in most libraries.) Check out this article for tips on finding more resources in online catalogs.

4. Check the Library's Hours

Not every library is open 9am-9pm and not every library is open on Sundays. Be sure to check their current hours of operation. (I say “current” because summer hours are often different, plus smaller libraries sometimes have shorter hours around the holidays. Some small libraries even close for lunch.)

5. Explore the Library's Website

Like the catalog, don’t spend time while you’re at the library looking at their databases that you could have searched from home. I don’t mean just and FamilySearch. A growing number of libraries have their own databases, like obituary indexes and digitized yearbooks. Explore those resources from home and save your on-site time for the things that aren’t online.

6. Ask for Local Advice

Some libraries and archives have visitor guides on their websites; review those before you go. Also, tap into the power of social media. Go on Facebook and ask the advice of those who research there. Target those pages and groups that are relevant to that area, such as:

  • The library’s Facebook page
  • The group or page for the county genealogy society
  • The pages and groups for the history of the area

Katherine Willson has put together a tremendous list of genealogy pages and groups on Facebook. It’s a free download and a great resource.

A simple question such as, “I’m going to do research in such-and-so library soon. What advice do you have?” You’ll likely get practical tips such as where to go for lunch, availability of outlets for your laptop, etc.

BTW, here’s a piece of advice if you’re going to research at the Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne: If you’re going to look at microfilm, bring a sweater. It is freezing in the microfilm room!

What library do you want to visit? Let me know in the comments!

Posted: April 10, 2019.

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      • Just spent a month in Fort Wayne, researching at the Allen almost every day. I don’t find the microfilm room cold, but the new Discovery Center is FREEZING! Worth a little discomfort for the great March Madness seminars.

        • Good to know! The new Discovery Center used to be the microfilm room, so that makes sense that it’s freezing.

  • Call ahead (at least a day, preferably more) whenever possible, particularly if you want to look at something that does not have a call number! We can give you advice on best days of week and time of day to come, parking, traffic/road conditions, etc. AND some of the items you want might be stored in an area where they must be retrieved by staff – so calling in advance will make it more likely that the items will be ready when you get there.

    • Those are great suggestions! One that I might add is that if you are going with a group, let the library know ahead of time that your group is coming. Many libraries will arrange orientation tours for groups. It’s also good to give them a heads up that they might be extra busy that day!

  • As much as possible, start filling out your note pages at home, with the repository, date, title, author, publication info, call number, and what you’re seeking. Then you won’t have to spend research time (and hand muscles) on those page headings.

  • Hi, Amy: I just watched one of those very enjoyable videos you and the other ladies have done. You mentioned an ancestor, Matilda Skinner, and that you haven’t found when/where she died. Have you checked the Canadian Census records? There is an Edna M. Skinner, widow, mother in law, listed there, as well as other entries – all through

  • I agree with the advice given above. But another thing to be aware of is that many libraries not only have had to cut hours, but also staff. My old place has a lot of newbies (who are great people), but they only work 10 hours a week for a pittance, and none of them stay too long. The days of having experts in the collection are long past. Just be advised that when you go to a place that they might have really good ‘”hidden collections” that the current staff is not aware of. Sorry to say, I get that a lot, but that’s real life. On the other hand there are some great new discoveries being made and more and more is being put online where it is available 24/7/365.

  • Also, if you are checking a special collection, check to see if they have different hours than the library. I went to a University Library once and only had a couple of hours instead of the whole day. I could have gone longer on a different day. And some days they were closed completely. And it was staffed by a student who didn’t know what she was doing.

    • That’s a great reminder! I’ve had similar experiences even at a public library. The genealogy and local history room was staffed by volunteers and had different (shorter!) hours than the rest of the library.

      • Also if you get there and the genealogy room is closed, ask. Don’t just walk away because they may take pity on you and open it for you.

        • They might! On the other hand, don’t get upset if they don’t. Library staffing is generally pretty thin as it is and opening up a room that wasn’t scheduled to be open can be an issue.

  • Don’t forget if they have a sign-in sheet, sign in. Very often funding is based on the number of people served.

  • One thing I learned the hard way, was to make sure the genealogy department is open. I only had one day in a county library in Virginia.(I live in Arkansas)..only to be told that you had to make an appointment 2 days before for a librarian to open the room and monitor you while you were there. I have been to lots of genealogy libraries….this was the worst.

  • Calling ahead is definitely good advice – check to see access restrictions for special collections as well. I was horrified to discover that a library in British Columbia restricts its local history records room (now behind a closed, locked door) to card-holding members of the library system! They also have all the genealogy books locked in that room as well. I was there on a Sunday afternoon in the winter. As a librarian, it left me speechless and as a genealogist, angry. So, sad as it sounds, make sure you will have access to the records the location holds before you spend money and time to travel there.

    Also, take a couple of memory sticks with you, especially if visiting smaller libraries. Unlike bigger libraries, they might not have them available for sale and you’d hate to make a big discovery with no way to save it.

  • Great post Amy. I try to think like the Boy Scout motto “Be Prepared”. I always take 2 of the most important items – 2 pens, 2 pencils, 2 thumb drives, and 2 water bottles. I also bring a notebook, snacks, lip balm, tissues, and a small bottle of hand lotion. I make sure I will have access to my tree either by bringing my laptop or finding out if I can login to my own Ancestry account on the library computers (I have found a few libraries with Institutional Ancestry accounts don’t have the ability to allow you to login to your own account). If tree access is not possible, I print out a few pedigree charts and family group sheets for the part(s) of my tree I will be working on.

    I was really surprised recently to have created a whole research plan for many microfilms at the FHL and in the intervening days (less than a week) between creating my plan and going to the library, the whole collection was digitized and available in the catalog. I was really glad I had created several back-up plans because I got them all done!

  • Another thing to ask is exactly WHAT you are allowed to bring into the research rooms at a library or other genealogy research facility. I know that at the North Carolina Archives there are lockers in the outer reception area, and you are allowed to take only minimal designated items into the research room.

  • One more thing… I always send a “thank you” email to the librarian and/or the volunteers who have helped me. I usually personalize the thank you by including the family surnames or local historical events I am working on … just in case they find something interesting after I leave town.

  • I have found that my digital camera is my best friend when I go to a library. I always ask to see if it is OK to take pictures in the library and if so I have taken a picture of each page of some books. That way I have my own digital copy. Talk to the Librarian, tell them what you would like to find, they are there to help. I was once told of a typed 3 ring binder full of obits from the local newspaper, as I was taking pictures of that, she said I might be interested, in some of the other binders with marriages, divorces, anniversaries, etc. What a great unexpected find. As a thank you I gave the Library a digital copy of all the pictures I took, as a back up for those only copies of binders. So it was a win win for all.

    • Yes, I agree that asking is a good idea. I was busy snapping photos of book pages at a library in Cincinnati when the librarian came over and told me I couldn’t do that. They made money by charging for copies, so you had to make notes on what pages you wanted copies of and they made the copies for you. Kind of embarrassing and a pain, but I can understand their situation.

  • I’m planning a trip to KY the first week of May in hopes I can meet some of my grandmother’s family as well as research at the Hart County Historical Museum in Munfordville, KY to find some answers.

  • I would really like to spend some time at the Library of Congress. I have no specific research targets at the moment as I’ve just discovered that my PGF is not bio.

  • I’m heading next month to Hannibal, Missouri. I plan to spend some time in the library there looking for information about exactly where my ancestors lived and where the kids went to school. Your podcast was very helpful.

  • Great tips for a library visit! My local library, Grant R. Brimhall Library in Thousand Oaks, California, has a great genealogy section with a sign-in sheet.

  • I’ve been fortunate to live in the KCMO area for the past year and have made several visits to the Midwest Genealogy Center, a branch of the Mid-Continent Public Library system, in Independence, MO. It has a wonderful, diverse collection and a terrific staff. If you’re in the area, be sure to visit!

  • Attended genealogy night at the SAR Library Sons of the American Revolution. While the lectures took up most of the evening, it was fun to wander and check out their collection. Will definitely return and we agree with you – have two plans when you go!

  • This was very timely. We are headed to Ireland next week to do research at the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland. I appreciate the review and new things to think about before we go.

  • I have not been to the Allen County Public Library nor the Family History Library. I have set myself a goal to get to one of them in 2021. I just need to do some more genealogy here at the Midwest Genealogy Center in Independence, MO (a suburb of Kansas City), to make it worth my while so that I don’t research things that I could have found at home. Need to make good use of my research log over the next year and a half. Thanks for the good tips!