How to get the most from using original records
Before you visit a Record Office
Decide what you are looking for
It helps to have a "shopping list" of items to see/copy, arranging them in order of priority.
Check whether you need to go in person
Are the records that you want to search held by that record office? If they are available online, would it be worth paying any relevant fee or subscription and then have the convenience of viewing and downloading scanned images at home?
Check where the records are held
Normally, if historical records are held by a local record office they will be found in the one that serves the area concerned. However, that is not always the case. The papers of a family may include information about transactions in more than one county, but all be held at the same record office.
Read the rules and check opening hours
These should appear on the record office website. Admission requirements and other rules are there to ensure that unique documents are not lost, damaged or stolen. So do, for instance, bring any personal identification that may be needed on a first visit and ensure that you have a supply of pencils for making notes.
Current budgetary pressures have led many record offices to change their opening hours. Few are now open six days a week. So, do check the opening days and times on the relevant website before making a journey.
A number of local family history societies organise occasional day coach transport to visit The National Archives.
Use your time wisely
Where possible, order documents in advance.
If you are attending a record office for the first time or do not understand how to access the sort of information you are looking for, don't be reluctant to ask the staff for guidance. Fellow members of local family history societies can also be very helpful in sharing their knowledge and advice.
Many archives only collect items from storage at set times (e.g. every half-hour, with a longer interval around lunchtime). Therefore, time your requests for documents so that you are not left waiting without anything to do.
Most archives allow readers to use a camera or phone to photograph documents, provided they sign a copyright declaration and do not use flash. There is often a daily fee for permission. Photography is highly efficient way to assemble a collection of accurate copies for future reference. Photographing a screen displaying a microfilm image is also possible, though the results are not always satisfactory.
Keep a record of the scope of searches that you have made, even if they were unsuccessful. This will help avoid repeating the same search at some stage in the future.
Keep a record of all reference numbers for items that you take notes from or obtain a copy of. This will enable you, or others you contact, to revisit the original document in future. With scanned images, it is sensible to include the official reference number as part of the name of the electronic file.
Try to avoid browsing casually through reference books on the shelves "in case they have anything interesting" while there are still items on your research list for the day to consult.
If you cannot visit the record office
It is unlikely that record office staff will be able to search on your behalf free of charge, even for a short enquiry. However, the record office may provide a paid research service and/or provide information on how to contact local record searchers who accept commissions for a fee. Such details may be found on the record office website or, failing that, if you enquire by email.
"The Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives" (AGRA) promotes high standards and conduct in the field of genealogy and historical research. You can find information about how to contact suitable researchers by visiting the AGRA website.