I came to Washington, DC for a couple of days to do some onsite research at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) about the St. Louis. In the sweltering heat, I waited outside for the museum to open with several scheduled tour groups. All I wanted to do was to get to work. I had printed out the call numbers of the folders I needed, including the materials the survivors I interviewed had donated to the museum. I had scheduled a meeting with a museum historian. I was totally prepared, or so I thought.
Archival skills are a must
I was directed to the Library and was beside myself when I realized I had lost all my genealogical research skills over the years. You see, I had neglected to contact the Library ahead of time and discuss my research needs. All the materials I wanted to access are stored offsite and by the time they were pulled and sent to the museum, I’d be back in New Jersey. I was close to tears about my huge faux pas.
But, the good news is that I can share my rediscovered tips for onsite primary research with all of you.
- Go to the museum website and check out collections and archives online, to the extent you can.
- Prepare yourself for doing book research, primary document research, and photo research.
- Bring your USB drive along with change. Depending on the venue, be prepared to save scanned document images to your USB drive (this is the procedure at the USHMM) or be prepared to photocopy your documents.
- Have a champion onsite. Whether it’s one of the librarians, archivists, and/or historians, make sure someone is there to champion your cause and guide you to the materials you need. I found the staff at the USHMM to be incredibly helpful and gracious.
- Ask who on staff might be willing to vet your manuscript for historical accuracy.
- Check the hours before you go. Thankfully, I knew from the USHMM website that they were having a special event yesterday and would open 30 minutes later (hence the long wait outside).
Using the Shoah Foundation collection
Since I wasn’t able to access the collections I wanted, one of the librarians suggested I use the Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education collection, accessible online only at a few institutions, including the USHMM, University of Southern California, University of Michigan, and thankfully, Rutgers University. You have to be onsite to use this collection. When I plugged in the keywords SS St. Louis (although technically, it’s MS St. Louis), I found 88 testimonies, including several of the survivors I’ve interviewed myself. However, since the Shoah interviews took place in 1995-1996, I found my interviewees had different things to say. Note that some of the testimonies may take time to cache, so you may have to plan for additional research time.
Question for you: How do you prepare yourself for a research trip?