Much of your genealogy can be accomplished on the computer these days, either by searching sites like Ancestry.com or by emailing people who can help you find records you need. That being said, there’s nothing like getting your hands dirty by actually going to a library or sitting down with a relative to flip through photos and see what you can learn.
The easiest and most effective way to be a genealogist on the go is to put together a kit. Here are my recommendations for things that will help you make the most of your time:
This list contains Amazon affiliate links.
1. A Bag
If you’re carting around equipment like a computer and a scanner (details on that below), you don’t want to go cheap on the bag. Get a nice rolling computer bag that’s slim enough to not be ridiculous when you’re walking down narrow library aisles but also padded and with enough compartments to keep your stuff intact. My pick is the Swissgear Granada because it has plenty of space, can take a beating, but it also slick and unisex. As a side note – this bag is a fantastic carry on if you fly a lot and counts as a personal item you can slip under the seat in front of you.
2. A Laptop
This isn’t completely necessary, but it will make your life a whole lot easier! I’m a big fan of the smaller Macbook Air laptop computers. Yes, it’s an investment, but being able to take your laptop with you means you can scan on the go (great for libraries, materials you can’t remove, and photos your relatives don’t want to part with). It also means you can cart your entire digital library of files and photos wherever you go. Personally, I use Evernote to compile my family histories and although I could use my phone or an iPad, using the program on the computer is faster and it’s easier to show people what I’m talking about when I need their help.
3. A Notebook
Whether you have a laptop or not, don’t forget to take a regular “real paper” notebook along with you. Nothing is ever going to replace an old-fashioned scribble when you’re in a hurry and you’re going to want to have a place to write down random thoughts and little facts as they come to you. I like Moleskin reporter notebooks but if you think you’d have a hard time tearing pages out of something so pretty, go with the plain graph paper Field Notes and rip away.
A tip from me: dedicate a few pages in the back to create a master list of names and birth years or relevant places to make searching for records easier when you’re out and about.
4. Pens in 3 Different Colors
Did I seriously just tell you take pens? Yes, yes I did. What I’m really telling you is that you can’t take any old pen. If you run around town with an old pen you swiped from a Hilton six years ago, you will inevitably smear ink on something or leave little writing indents somewhere that you shouldn’t be leaving little writing indents. You need a pen that writes well, is non-toxic, is acid-free, doesn’t require a lot of pressure, dries quickly, and won’t bleed like crazy.
Also, and I’m serious here, you need at least three different colors. Why? You need one color for regular notes, another color for thoughts you want to follow up on, and a third color for corrections. Yes, I’m being serious. You might think that you can accomplish all of these things with one pen and you might even be right, but you will be making it harder on yourself if you do that and you will definitely be making it harder on anyone who tries to look at your genealogy notes later.
I recommend Le Pen pens. They’re fantastic, they’re thin, and they come in lots of colors. Spring the extra couple of bucks to get at least a few.
5. A Scanner
Fact: people who want to do any kind of effective genealogy need scanners and they need nice scanners. In addition to photos, you can scan articles, letters, postcards, magazine pages, book excerpts, etc. The good news is that you can get an appropriate scanner at a completely affordable price if you know what you’re doing. The trick is to get a scanner that’s (A) light enough to travel around with you, (B) powered via the computer and not through an extra power cord, and (C) meant to handle photos. There are really nice document scanners out there that can set you back hundreds of dollars but they are not designed for photos and will not produce archival quality scans. Get a good photo scanner.
The one I always recommend is the Canon LiDE line of scanners (making sure that you’re getting one for color images). The LiDE 120 is incredibly affordable, doesn’t require an extra power cord, and only weighs a few pounds. It also scans very quickly and has user-friendly software so it’s easy to use.
*If you need to scan slides, you need a different kind of scanner. Check out my post about scanning slides at home to see what I mean.
6. Post-it Notes
Like at all other times in life, you’re always going to need Post-it Notes. Use them to mark relevant parts of books, add tabs to your notebook, jot down contact information, or make temporary notes on something that doesn’t belong to you. I prefer the mobile combo packs they have now.
7. External Hard Drive
I always recommend backing your photo files up online AND offline so all of my photos and genealogy materials are kept on one hard drive. I keep this hard drive in my kit because I never know where I’ll be when I’ll need to look something up or show someone a photo. If you’re just starting out, it might be enough for you to just keep the files on your laptop, but at this point I have about five thousand files just for family history between all the photos and other bits of history (yes, really!) so you can see how it wouldn’t be practical to let that just sit around slowing my laptop down.
I use Seagate and always get at least 1 TB at a time.
8. Microfiber Cloths
This is me being nitpicky, but toss a microfiber cloth into your kit, especially if you’re traveling with a scanner. Genealogy research tends to be a dusty, crumby, sticky business and all sorts of whatnot ends up on the scanner glass. It’s also handy to have a cloth on hand to clean copy machines if you’re using one in a public place. If you’re going to go to the trouble of scanning/copying something you don’t want to spend the rest of your life looking at a carefully preserved digital smudge. MagicFiber is the best!
Ok, so this is a weird one, but I have found that certain libraries and historical societies are stuck in bizarre time warps where nobody uses credit cards. As someone who never ever ever carries cash, it’s so annoying to realize that you can’t pay for copies or a parking fee or a not-so-optional donation until you hit an ATM. Just tuck $5 in your bag somewhere and thank yourself later.
Headphones are a surprising must-have and something I kept forgetting about until I was out and realized I needed them. For one, you never know who else will be “working” wherever you are and I’ve ended up next to people insistent on having loud cell phone conversations right next to me while I’m at the microfilm reader. I’ve also been lucky enough to find a few places that have audio histories on file and every now and then someone will recommend something that turns into me wanting to watch a YouTube video in the middle of a quiet area. These noise-reducing headphones are small, cheap, and help even if you’re just using them to drown out the sounds around you.