Saturday, 7 June 2014

Planning a long distance research trip

Several years ago I was lucky enough to plan and carry out a successful research genealogy research trip to Honolulu, Hawaii.  We live on the East Coast of the United States, and it is a long, long distance to Hawaii.  It was also my first trip to Honolulu, so I knew that I would have to plan some fun time for my husband and I.  It can be difficult to balance work and play during a genealogy trip, and an exotic locale like Honolulu makes the balancing act even more difficult.  I hope these tips help you plan a similar trip!  They worked so well for me that we repeated our Hawaii genealogy trip again last year.

I had been writing, emailing and using online resources for a long time to research my extended family in Hawaii.  My 4x great aunt had removed to Honolulu from Boston in the 1830s.  I had spent 20 years researching our connection to these Hawaiian pioneers.  By this time I had exhausted all the snail mail and email contacts I had made.  It was time for personal research time in the Hawaii State Archives, the Bishop Museum Library, and the cemeteries.  It was also time to walk in the footsteps of my great aunt and cousins, and I was looking forward to seeing their homes, churches, and (of course!) the island where they all decided to stay instead of returning to Massachusetts.

My recommendations...

#1- Appointments- don't leave anything up to chance

When planning a long distance research trip to a new place, it is important to schedule all your research day and to make specific appointments.  I made appointments to meet in person with all the people who had been helping me via email, including librarians, archivists, curators and cousins.  We made one major appointment for each morning, and decided that the rest of the day would be used for additional research or for just relaxing.  We had only one week, so cousins were scheduled for weekends when libraries and archives would be closed.  This worked out well.

Scheduling appointments also meant that I could ask "Will your archive be open until noon that day?" or "May I search your files until 5pm?".  Even if the website for a repository says it will be open, you never know about local holidays, staff vacations, or budgetary closures until you ask the staff right up front if their place will be open on the exact day you wish to be there.

#2-  Don't bring too much stuff!

Extra suitcases can cost from $50 to more than $150 depending where you are going, and paper can weigh a lot.  Nowadays your suitcase is limited to 50 pounds, or less if you are overseas.  I had to digitize as much as possible and download everything to my mobile devices, Evernote or flash drives.

If you collect things (papers, brochures, books, documents) along the way, consider mailing or shipping them home.  There was a US Post Office right across the street from the Hawaii State Archives in Honolulu.  I bought several "If it fits, It ships" boxes (for $10 they will mail whatever you can cram into the box).  Fortunately for me, Hawaii is part of the United States, so this was a real bargain.  Shipping can be expensive, but not as expensive as an overweight suitcase, or the price of an additional suitcase on the plane.

#3 - Involve the family.

We had a research plan that involved both my husband and I at the Hawaii State Archives.  I was in charge of getting the documents from the archivist, and he was in charge of photographing as much as possible from each file or box.  I decided I wouldn't sit and read, I would look at the digitized images later.  We were able to photograph nearly a thousand personal letters in one afternoon.  I placed them on the table and he photographed each one, and then I'd pick them up and repeat the process.  After I was home I found that nearly 2/3 of these letters were of genealogical interest to my family, written from Boston and New England to the Hawaiian islands between the 1850s and 1910.

Other than making a family member your personal photographer (not just for documents, but for scenes inside and out), consider a "personal assistant" who can not only navigate maps to each archive and library, but who can find a good place nearby for lunch, and a great beach on the way back to the hotel.  My daughter was our navigator during a different research trip to Nova Scotia, and she found at least two great side trips for each day that were always on our way between scheduled appointments, and she was great at finding a fantastic restaurant for the end of each busy day.

#4- Use your contacts!

It was great to meet "in person" with archivists and curators I had only met virtually online before the trip.  They were also very useful in helping me to get appointments with other people once I was on the ground in Honolulu.  I met several new genealogists, and also visited several other historic homes that I did not know about until I was there.  Don't be shy about asking about taking photos where they usually aren't permitted if this is a home from your own family tree!  The worst they can say is "no."

#5- Remember the climate and geography

Hawaii is a lot more humid and hot than where I live in New Hampshire.  Remember that items you bring home may be moldy or mildewed.  (We had this experience bringing home old family photos from Puerto Rico).  If a family member gives you an artifact, how will you get it home? We had a family member give us an old cast iron pot in Spain. Luckily it fit in the suitcase in the days before they instituted the 50 pound weight limit on planes! This would definitely take some different planning to get home today.

 Even though Hawaii looks like a small island, crossing to the other side might take a lot longer than you think due to mountain roads or small town traffic.  It is good to ask your contacts ahead of time how long they think it will take to get to their museum/house/library from your hotel.

#6 - Bring gifts

It is nice to present those who helped you in the past, or those who are about to help you, with a small gift from home.  Try to think of something from your hometown that is part of your local culture.  We usually bring small bottles of locally made maple syrup for librarians and archivists. This goes a long way towards breaking the ice in case you need to contact them again after you get home.  You never know if you will need more documentation in the future.

For meeting up with "new" cousins, something from your own family is nice- photos or a family tree chart showing your kinship are usually highly appreciated.  Don't forget to follow up with thank you cards and letters.  At Christmas and New Years I send back group photos of our cousins or our trip to the archives and museums, which is a nice way to stay in touch.


  1. Some great practical tips, Heather. Thank you.

  2. Some great tips here!! makes me wish I was planning another genealogical research trip :)

  3. Great advice! My husband and took off on a whim to visit a not-so-local county history society. Closed! That taught me to call ahead and ask about hours and help they can provide in advance of my trip and when I am there. But you've listed so many other good tips.


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