Getting the most out of your first (or next) visit to the archives

Every day, new people visit archives across the country and around the world. Here’s some advice from ‘the other side of the desk’. Hopefully it will provide light-hearted reassurance that we’d love to see you, as well as help you to get the most out of your first visit, next visit, or repeat visit: I hope it will be one of a very many!

Come prepared

Most archives, local studies libraries and the like will have a web presence. This sounds really obvious, but have a look at the website before you visit. Find out how to get there and what to expect, as well as which records are deposited there. Most archives will have an online catalogue and perhaps separate lists of available parish registers and which form they’re in (eg microfilmed, digitised, bishops’ transcripts only), for example.

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve said that you don’t need an appointment and that it’s free to visit my local diocesan archives, but there are some exceptions. Do check your archive of interest, especially if it’s a private or small archive, which might need a letter of introduction or require you to make an appointment. It’s also worth checking whether documents are produced at all times that the archive is open: I once fell into a trap of visiting an archive on a Saturday when they didn’t produce anything that hadn’t been ordered by lunch-time the previous day – as you can imagine, it’d didn’t make for a good trip.

We love you to visit, but as I’m sure you’ll guess, the nature of our work means that there have to be some rules and regulations to ensure that future generations can have the same opportunities as you. Generally speaking you’ll be asked to put your coats and bags in a locker before entering the research area, so take a pound coin and some other change for the lock, just in case. If it’s your first visit and you don’t already have a reader’s ticket (often a ‘CARN’ card – a County Archive Research Network card) you’ll also need something that proves who you are and where you live. It’s worth checking what you need before arriving because different archives have different arrangements – you may even need to take a brief elearning course and go through a security procedure on arrival to make sure you’re aware of searchroom policies.

There are usually restrictions on what you can take into the area where documents are accessible. You’ll mostly need to limit yourself to your notes, your glasses, a magnifying glass and pencils. We’re not doing this to be difficult: the rules are there to protect the material. By all means enjoy a coffee and sticky bun before you start, but do it outside the searchroom and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards – there’ll often be a common room or other area available. Most of the time a camera is OK, but many places charge for a photography permit, so check before you start snapping. Please also be aware that not everything is suitable for photocopying (imagine our faces if we spot someone pushing the spine of a tightly bound medieval volume onto the glass). There may be other restrictions if something is still in copyright, or if, for example, a parish have denied copying rights to their parish registers. If in doubt, please ask.

Don’t expect white gloves – TV crews often bring these themselves because it’s what you expect to see on the telly – even though many (even most) archives now agree that they are not the best way to handle paper or parchment. Your archive’s staff will explain their policies and how to use the weights, book sofas and wedges available. Photographs are likely to be different, and you may well be given gloves to avoid damaging the surface of the print. Either way, please be kind to what you're looking at. Try not to lean on them, run your fingers underneath every line or do what my colleague calls ‘a Gary Lineker’ (who memorably licked his finger to rummage through documents).

Your archive might offer documents by a collection system – on the hour, half hour or something else. A lot of the time you can get a head start before you arrive by pre-ordering what you’d like to see, which brings us to...

Email or otherwise contact us in advance if the website doesn’t answer your questions, if the online catalogue wasn’t clear to you or if you’d like to pre-order something. It’s worth checking that the records you want are actually at the archive if you’re not sure. In some cases, records might still be at a local church, or subsumed into a company archive far from where they were originally created. This can save you some serious archive disappoint!

Have a research focus – help us to help you

We’re delighted to welcome visitors, and I really mean that. I am definitely an advocate of removing the unfriendly, dusty stereotype that some people hold when it comes to archives.

Still, a focus helps us both.

While we hear many fascinating stories, and often enjoy doing so, take a moment to put yourself in our shoes. Jumping around your family history branches and asking twenty questions about each one in quick succession makes it very difficult for both you and us to follow a clear line of enquiry, making your research time less efficient and making it harder for us to help you – we need to know what it is you want to find out, and in what order! We can advise the best place to start if you’re unsure, and often it’s working backwards from what you already know.

We’d definitely encourage you to bring you existing research, ideally organised in a way that’s easy for you to refer to when you need it. (This is a do as a say, not as I necessarily do, but generally speaking scraps of paper in a random order aren’t the most helpful...) This will help you order your thoughts and define questions before you arrive, so that you can ask for support searching for a specific event or person in an approximate time period. Think ‘Where was my great grandfather born, and who were his parents?’ rather than ‘Can you help me do my family history’? The second question is great, too – we’d love to help you where we can – but we’re likely to point you towards courses, events, reading material and useful websites to start with in this case, at least in the first instance, rather than being able to take you straight to a relevant record to answer a question. Which leads nicely to...

Investigate some background to genealogical research, especially If your visit is fleeting and you are travelling long distance

Check locally to see if your local archive can help you get started. Here in Norfolk there are workshops every month to sort out the basics: civil registration of birth, marriage and death and using the census. After that you can progress to a myriad of other sources through other workshops and talks, hands-on practice and borrowing from a big family history and local history library. Indulging in these sorts of activities will give you a great grounding in family history before you start, an opportunity to ask your questions in a small group of people, and allow you to meet others at the same stage in their research.

We love beginners, because a lot of us love what we do and want to enthuse you to get started. We hope that you’ll go on to become a regular visitor. Get involved with some background reading from our library, or do a course with us, and it will pay back dividends. You’ll know where to start, what the records mean, how they were created, and how to use them. You’ll also be comfortable using the searchroom, and it will save you falling into some of the common family history traps.

Having said that we love beginners (and we do, have I said it enough?!), if you’re visiting an archive a long way away, some prior knowledge before you arrive is especially important, particularly if you know you’ll have a very limited time in the searchroom or it’s not a country you’ve done research in. Learn what you can from home and your local archive and library, then work out what you want to research at another one before you arrive.  It can be fun to leave time afterwards to visit some of the places you found in your research, too.

I've met my fair share of researchers, sometimes visiting for only two hours from as far away as Australia, who weren't at all prepared. Hopefully they left happy with what they found, but it seems a shame to spend a finite amount of precious time learning the difference between a parish and a registration district which could have been done in advance, rather than using unique sources they couldn’t have accessed anywhere else. My best advice in this case? 1. Note the sources of your existing research (not just 'birth' but 'GRO birth index', 'note in baptism register at xxx', 'date of birth given on death certificate' etc). 2. Create some focussed research questions. 3. Use the long journey to read the relevant parts of Herber’s Ancestral Trails if you’re about to start researching in England! (Wonder if it's available as an ebook yet?).  

Ask us...

If you’re stuck, let us know.

Even if it’s that you’re not sure how to load a microfilm reader (most people don’t) we’d much rather show you than find you twenty minutes later, wrapped round and round with film and attached to your chair, the reader and the next door researcher! [Nb the latter is somewhat unlikely, microfilm is one of those things that's easy when you know how]. Sometimes even machines in the same search area load in different ways, and some of the whizzy reader-printers are initially bewildering without a guiding hand. It’s the same if your worry isn’t microfilm, but using a computer – we can point you to sources of help if you’re new to online research.

The searchroom staff are there to support and guide you, (not just to maintain security and ensure the long-term preservation of our resources). We can suggest new documents to look at to solve your enquiry, help you read words you’re stuck on, suggest what something might mean, or talk to you about how best to reproduce what you’re looking at. If we don’t know, we’ll try and find out, or point you in the direction of someone that can help.

Be realistic

Sometimes, engaging as they are, TV genealogy shows have a lot to answer for. The programme you watched probably involved six months or so of research, distilled into what you eventually saw, and one visit to the archive, even for a professional researcher, could not reveal all of the story.

There will be days where you make a succession of amazing discoveries in the searchroom, and others where you find one or two things but have trawled through many pages to little avail (interesting as they might be, smelling as lovely and old as they do, they might not be directly relevant).

It’s also important for me to say that we can’t do all your research for you. We can guide you, help you and answer your questions, but we can’t necessarily sit with you one-on-one for long periods of time (unless you’ve pre-booked a session or there’s another event on) because we have many customers to help in a typical day. If what you’re looking for is a someone to do your research, look for a local professional record searcher – some archives will have contact details to help you find them.

So, while we don’t have your family tree sitting ready under our desk (!), we will be delighted to direct you to useful material - perhaps some things you didn’t even know existed - and help you make your own uniquely personal and satisfying discoveries. For many of us, that’s why we do the job.

Happy researching!