Archives: How to get the most from using original records
Archives provide the building blocks for family history research. They are collections of original or rare materials produced by people and organisations, whether or not they realised that their work would interest future generations.
A large proportion of the archives that you will need to consult for family history research are held in local record offices or The National Archives. Archives may also be found in places such as university libraries and museums. However, in some cases it may not be necessary for you to make a personal visit to obtain the information you seek.
References to "record offices" appearing below also apply to libraries and other places that hold archives.
Archives and Beyond
Archives can be consulted and searched in a number of different ways.
The original source may take various forms, including a single sheet of paper, a book, a photograph, a film or a large bundle of parchments that are sewn together and folded into each other.
These may be available as microfilms, microfiches or scanned digital images. If skilfully created in ideal conditions, such copies can be as reliable as the original item. An added advantage of an electronic image may be the ability to "zoom in" on sections that are hard to read. However, the technical quality of some films and fiches is poor and images may be in a negative format (i.e. "white on black" writing). Sometimes, pages have been omitted from filming, been only partly filmed or filmed in the wrong order.
Many collections of scanned original documents, such as details of people recorded in censuses for the British Isles and USA, are available online.
A substantial number of key original records, such as parish registers, have been transcribed and either published or remain as a typescript or manuscript. Numerous transcription projects have been undertaken by local family history societies.
The largest collection of parish register copies is at the Society of Genealogists' library. Record offices also often have collections of transcriptions of some of their holdings; it can help to have these available for comparison when you consult the original records.
Many, but by no means all, transcriptions include indexes and/or an explanation of the editorial principles used.
These are indexes that specify exactly which records are included and the timeframe covered. For example, "all the marriages between 1558 and 1837 in the parish register for the parish of Norton". Some indexes cover a very large range of records, such as those to national censuses or of all the marriages recorded in a particular county for a lengthy period.
All indexes should be treated with caution. As well as errors and gaps in the original records, the indexers themselves may have introduced mistakes. This is particularly true if an index has not been double-checked or if the people who did the work were unfamiliar with local names and the contemporary handwriting.
"Lucky Dip" Indexes
These are indexes where the types and range of sources covered is either not known or is not readily understandable.
The largest example is the International Genealogical Index (IGI), which is descended from a mixture of baptisms and marriages that were systematically extracted from parish registers and bishop's transcripts plus specific entries and assumptions resulting from individuals' personal research. "Lucky dip" indexes share the potential shortcomings of systematic indexes, with the added disadvantage that it not known exactly which records have been used to compile the index.
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.
How to locate archives
The relevant local record office will probably contain much basic material, such as parish registers, bishop's transcripts and pre-1858 probate records. If such records are held elsewhere, the record office should be able to point you in the right direction.
Scanned and indexed images of the English, Welsh and Scottish censuses (1841-1911) can be seen for a subscription or fee on a number of commercial family history sites. These images and indexes can be consulted free of charge at The National Archives, Family History Centres and by readers admitted to the library of the Society of Genealogists.
In addition to using general online search engines, other resources include:
- Websites mentioned in the "Helpful Links" section below
- Websites specifically relating to the people or place that interest you
- Recommendations from fellow family historians
- Bibliographies and works mentioned in books or articles on your subject
Using original records
Most original records are unique and irreplaceable. They are being kept for future generations as well as our own. Please treat them with great care. Record office rules will deal in detail with how their archives should be treated. For instance:
- 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.
It is always advisable to work backwards in your family history. You will then find it much easier to read the earlier forms of handwriting, having been introduced to them gradually. Search room staff may be able to help with a few difficult words but are unlikely to have time to work through a whole document with you.
Please return documents 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. If documents are misplaced they become very difficult to trace.
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.
Microfilm copies of records 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.
This searchable database contains about 30 per cent of catalogues of archival collections in England and Wales.
There are 10.3 million records relating to 9.45 million items held in 418 record offices and other repositories.
However, A2A does not always contain all the catalogues available online for a particular archive.
This link give details of the location and access arrangements for the Family History Centres operated in the British Isles by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If the microfilm you want is not held in stock by your local FHC, a copy can be ordered for a modest charge.
Family History Societies
Family history societies will be familiar with the archive repositories within their own area. Some run their own research centre. They may have transcribed records of interest to you and published the results on CD, DVD, in printed form or on the Internet either on the society's own website or through a commercial company.
More information and links for a society's activities will be available at its website.
Indexes the majority of births, marriages and deaths registered in England & Wales from July 1837 onwards and explains which periods are covered.
Indexes many parish registers and explains which ones are covered and for which periods.
This identifies the nature and location of manorial records, but is currently only partially computerised. For places that are not yet available online, information is only available by visiting the National Archives search room or writing in with an enquiry.
The NRA contains information on the nature and location of manuscripts and historical records that relate to British history, held in the UK and overseas. There are links to full catalogue descriptions on other archival networks as well as the online catalogues of a number of repositories.
This link gives the location, website, email address and other details for a vast number of record offices and similar facilities in the British Isles. Opening hours are stated but, as they may change at short notice, it is wise to check the latest position on the record office's own website.
You can search the catalogue and check access arrangements for the largest family history library in the British Isles.
The National Archives holds archives created by the central government and law courts of the United Kingdom. Key sections to visit include:
- The Catalogue (“Discovery”), which contains over 20 million descriptions of the records
- Research guidance by topic
- Online records
FFHS has joined the affiliate schemes of:
Ancestry.co uk To search the largest collection of UK family records on the web.
TheGenealogist.co.uk is an award winning family history website with access to millions of records online
Findmypast.co.uk Search 750 million family history records on findmypast.co.uk to bring your past to life.