Record Offices: How to make the most of their resources
To make the most of your visit you are strongly advised to do some background reading first, and to arrive well prepared. If you are new to family history, there are a number of excellent introductions to the topic (see Bibliography). It is also a good idea to join a Family History Society and/or a local class in family history, details of which may be obtained from your Local Education Authority, Record Office or Workers Educational Association.
It is always helpful to contact the Record Office before making a visit. Check that they have the records you need for your research, as well as asking for details of opening hours, and information on whether you need to book a seat, or a microfilm reader, in advance. Some offices may be unable to produce documents throughout the day, so it is best to plan the time of your arrival accordingly. Studying family history can be a lengthy process. You will need to set aside plenty of time for your first visit.
Most Record Offices operate a readers' card system and many use the County Archive Research Network (CARN) under which a card issued in one of these offices is valid in the others. Most systems will ask for proof of identity such as a driving licence or passport, including your signature and current address. Others may require a photograph.
To get the most from your visit, you may find it helpful to spend time, before you arrive, collecting the known facts about your family. Start with these and try to trace back. Searchroom staff will welcome precise details giving an idea of the date and of the place from which the family are believed to have come. If you know that the family were nonconformists, this information should be included. The more concise your enquiry the longer you will have to study the sources.
It is advisable to bring copies of your notes with you, as well as pencils, papers and reading glasses. You may also need money for photocopying. The vast majority of offices make no charge for access to the office, but they do welcome donations.
At the Record Office
Almost all Record Offices have a signing-in book which you will be expected to sign on each visit. This usually implies your agreement to observe the Record Office rules which you should read on your first visit. The rules are designed to protect the documents, and the interests of your fellow users. Smoking, eating and drinking are not permitted in searchrooms, and the use of pencils rather than ballpoint pens to make notes will also be expected. Many offices will insist that outdoor clothes, bags and briefcases are left in a reception area or locker. You will not be able to bring animals in to the Record Office.
When booking, please tell the Record Office the number of people who will be attending. Wherever possible avoid bringing friends or family with you if they do not wish to carry out research. They may be denying a place to others. Some offices may allow you to bring in a baby or young child, but please check on local practice before making a visit. You will always achieve far more if you can give your undivided attention to the records, and even the most child-friendly offices may have to ask you to leave if your child is disturbing other readers.
When you arrive, a member of staff will explain how to use the indexes and catalogues, or show you relevant leaflets or instruction notices. You will also be shown how to order the records you wish to use, usually by filling in an application form. If you find a reference in an index it is always best to check the catalogue entry for more detailed information before ordering the document. Do not be afraid to ask for advice if you cannot find the information you require.
Please show consideration to other users by speaking quietly and as little as possible. If you have come with others you will save a lot of time by discussing how to share the work before you reach the Record Office. Discussions about progress can take place over lunch, or at intervals outside the searchroom. A running commentary between readers can be very distracting.
There is considerable variation of practice between offices over the use of tape recorders, laptop computers and cameras, so it is advisable to seek prior permission. The use of mobile phones and scanners is unlikely to be permitted.
Using the Records
Most of the original records which you will study are unique and irreplaceable. They are being kept for future generations as well as our own. Please treat them with great care. The following tips may be helpful:
- Handle the documents as little as possible, and try not to touch the written text.
- Do not use a pencil to point out or follow entries.
- Avoid resting anything, including your papers or body, on the document.
Staff may be able to supply weights, or document supports, to deal with more unwieldy items. Please use these rather than improvising.
It is a good idea to make a note of the references for all documents which you have used, even if your search proved unsuccessful. This will save you from going over the same ground twice. Describing the exact extent of the search also helps e.g. 'searched 1700-1720 and all Smith entries noted' or 'failed to find marriage of John Smith 1700-1720, other Smith marriages not noted'.
It is always advisable to work backwards in your family history. You will then find it much easier to read the more difficult earlier forms of handwriting, having been introduced to them gradually. Searchroom staff may be able to help with a few difficult words but they will not be able to work through the whole document with you, because they will also be engaged in a range of other duties. They may be able to recommend books which will help both with this field, and with the use of such sources as deeds and manorial and diocesan records.
Please return documents, or other sources, promptly and in the order in which they were received. If you feel that the original order has been muddled please inform staff before you do anything about it. Every office holds millions of documents, so any that are misplaced are very difficult to trace. Some offices will ask you to hand the documents to a member of staff and wait while they are checked, so bear this in mind if you have a train to catch! Most Record Offices place a limit on the number of documents you may have at any one time. If you are returning a document which you may require again later in the day, please tell the staff.
Owing to problems of wear and tear from increased use, more and more records are being produced to searchers in the form of microfilm or fiche. Microfilm copies of the records held elsewhere, such as census returns, may also be available. These too should be treated with care. You will usually be asked to wind back roll film onto the spool it was on to begin with. This is particularly important where the office operates a self-service system for microfilms. If this is not done the next user of the film may face a considerable delay before the film can be used.
Email, Postal and Telephone Enquiries
If you are unable to visit a Record Office, it may still be possible for you to obtain the information you need. Though an extensive search is usually better carried out personally, some offices have the resources to carry out a minor search for a year or two in a single parish without charge. Others will make a charge, and some are only able to answer enquiries about sources held, and do not search within them. Many offices are able to supply a list of record searchers who will carry out searches for you for a fee. For any other than the most straightforward enquiries it is advisable to write to a record office, rather than telephone, and a pre-paid envelope is always appreciated if using the post. Most offices now provide a paid research service, although the resources available may limit the number of searches that can be carried out for any one client.
The work can be slow and at times frustrating, but there are many exciting and satisfying moments. Each year tens of thousands of people get pleasure and fascination from using the wealth of records which we have in this country. With proper care and respect for the documents everyone can share in this enjoyment, and ensure that future generations will also be able to enjoy the privilege.
Gibson, Jeremy, and Pamela Peskett, "Record Offices: How To Find Them", (8th ed.), (Federation of Family History Societies, 1998).
Pelling, George, "Beginning Your Family History, "(7th ed.), (Federation of Family History Societies, 1998).
The Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, "Record Repositories in Great Britain "(10th ed.), (HMSO, 1997).
The original text for this page was issued by the Association of County Archivists in conjunction with the Federation of Family History Societies.