For anyone interested in history I cannot recommend too highly how rewarding trawling through an archive can be. Whether you are a novice taking your first steps into family history or an expert at the cutting edge of historical research, archival records can offer invaluable clues, enriching your knowledge and understanding.
Over the years I have benefitted greatly from dealing with archives throughout the UK compiling a comprehensive research database – which was used by Geraldine Roberts it to form the backbone of her book The Angel and the Cad, which has been universally praised for its ‘dazzling detail.’ Such is the wealth of information gleaned from primary sources available in archives that I have sufficient unused data to complete my PhD thesis on ‘Wicked William’ of Wanstead House. I may not be the most prolific blogger but I always try to use original information – the fruit of personal research – in order to offer original perspectives on the topics chosen.
During this summer I expect many historians will head off to libraries, museums and archives searching for tantalising pieces of evidence to bolster their areas of study. No doubt they will be joined by countless novices on day trips intending to uncover their family history.
To help you make a success of your visit, I have cobbled together the following tips
A CARN Reader’s Ticket will get you into most regional archives (See Point 3)
- Opening Times – days and hours of opening vary greatly. If you think you might need a lot of time – chose to visit on a day where the archive opens late
- Advance Contact – Always try to contact the archive in advance to give them some idea of what you are looking for and what you hope to achieve. Documents and maps may not always be ‘off the shelf’ items so you will save a lot of time and trouble by ascertaining whether items need to be retrieved ahead of your visit
- Permission to Access – Always check what documentation you may need to provide in order to obtain a Reader’s Card. Most archives will only issue a Reader’s Card once 2 or 3 forms of identification are provided. Once you obtain a Reader’s Card, however, you should be able to come and go as you please – depending on the expiry date given on the card. If in doubt always ring the archive before you make a visit. Some Reader’s Cards can be used in more than one location, such as the County Archive Research Network (CARN) – these are very handy to have.
- Knowing What You Want – Always prepare a list of exactly what items you wish to see prior to your visit. If possible send this to the archive 48 hours in advance. Failing this ALWAYS order the most important documents the moment you arrive because you will often be delayed while your documents are being retrieved. You can then get a cup of tea or settled at a desk while you await your treasure trove. Then each time you return one document, order the next one on your list. This means you can avoid the frustration of lengthy wait times between receiving items. Always check the rules on ordering items as some archives have a limit on how many items you can have at a time, and some will refuse to provide new items during lunch hours. If you are smart and pre-plan your day you can overcome these obstacles. It really is all about the timing
- Laptops and Cameras – Please be careful about checking whether you will be allowed to bring laptops or cameras to an archive. In the case of laptops, remember there is nothing more frustrating than going to an archive with no available plug points – so make sure your battery is fully charged! Please be understanding about the rules laid down because archives nowadays have to adhere to very strict copyright laws which may prevent any use of any electronic equipment. Thankfully most archives will permit the use of cameras – but you may be asked to sign up to their terms and conditions of use –which quite often requires you to pay a license fee. It is vitally important to remember that photographs are for private use only – you must not publish any documents copied without permission of the copyright holder, especially not for financial gain.
- Photocopying – Archival policy on photocopiers is similarly complicated. Some documents are no longer permitted to be photocopied because of the damage caused by laser copiers. If you are faced with this problem it is always best to ask the archivist how you can obtain a copy – and offer to pay for it to be sent on to you at a later date. Generally speaking, however, photocopiers are freely available in archives. Usually you will be asked to purchase a copying card permitting a fixed number of copies depending on the price you paid.
- What Not to Take – Never bring pens to an archive – always use pencils (without rubbers) and don’t forget your pencil sharpener! You will be asked to put valuables, bags etc in a locker so its best not to turn up with too much baggage – and remember that items are left in lockers at your own risk.
- Dealing with Archivists – Remember that archive staff are always willing to help. Don’t be afraid to ask how to use equipment such as microfiche, or to seek advice if you are stuck. You are dealing with highly trained professionals whose earnest desire is to help you achieve your goal. Above all, be patient and polite!
- Support your Archives – Before you leave the archive I would urge you to remember to leave positive feedback whenever and wherever possible. Most archives are hanging on by their fingertips during this era of austerity. Nothing defends an archive better than regular visitors and generous praise, so please do your bit. If there is an option to donate, please give generously so that we can all continue to enjoy this fantastic free British resource
Essex Record Office – Light and Airy, perfect for study
Some General Information
The best place to begin any historical research is via the National Archives Access2Archives website. This tremendous search engine will pinpoint exactly where your documents can be found. I would always recommend contacting the libraries, museums or archives listed for further and better information before you set out on a visit. If the archive is too far afield, you may be able to order photocopies and have them posted on. This could cost a lot less than a lengthy journey and possible overnight stay.
If your interest is local or family orientated it is always worthwhile visiting your nearest public record office, as they might already have a Family History Group or a local history Society where you can go for help and support.
Don’t be deterred by its brutalist architecture – The National Archives is a treasure trove
The Holy Grail of historical research is the National Archives in Kew – not only a great day out in a lovely location down by the Thames, holding a vast array of military, social, and governmental records, but it also host regular exhibitions and events.
Gwent Archives – A beautiful setting and wonderfully helpful staff
Based on research at Gwent Archives, you may like the story of Fitzroy Somerset’s arm. City of Westminster archives provided background info for Wellesley-Pole’s vagrant, and Keele University Library yielded the tale of Lady Westmoreland’s rebuke. Last but not least a brief history of the Epping Hunt relied upon documents found at Essex Record Office
I hope you find this blog helpful and be encouraged to make use of your local archive and would welcome any comments and suggestions on anything I may have omitted to mention. Happy searching!