How to make the best use of our archives and record offices before it’s too late!


25 February 2019
1-25431.jpg National Archives, Kew
In his latest blog, Paul Chiddicks urges us to take our family history outside the four walls of our home, by exploring the many different ways we can find our ancestors in the hundreds of archives and record offices we have here in the UK.

In his latest blog, Paul Chiddicks urges us to take our family history outside the four walls of our home, by exploring the many different ways we can find our ancestors in the hundreds of archives and record offices we have here in the UK.

Hands up, how many of us have actually visited a local record office or archive? With more and more information and records becoming available online, via the large commercial websites, are we now in danger of record offices becoming a thing of the past?

And what can we do as individuals, or as a collective group of genealogists, to minimise the threat to our local record office? The obvious answer of course, is to make more use of these wonderful resources.

Plan a trip to an archive or record office

So let’s take a look at what we can discover when we visit an archive or record office and how to properly plan our visit to make the most of our time once we are there.

Now whether you intend to visit your local record office, or a large national archive, there are three simple rules to follow: Plan, Plan and Plan!

You need to know before you plan a visit what you hope to discover and whether the record office or archive actually holds the documents that will help you.

Record offices and archive offices are the custodians of literally millions of documents and records that can help you grow your tree. It’s estimated that only around 10% of historical documents are available online. So there is a whole wealth of information waiting to be discovered from records and documents that are currently inaccessible online, things that even our old friend Mr Google won’t be able to find.

Plan a visit to a record office or archiveSo let us start with the record office or archive online catalogue which will give you a good indication of what documents they hold, whether they are available (the document might be under conservation or unvailable due to a closure period) and if they are available, whether they have to be ordered in advance.

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What records can you find at a record office?

A few examples of the type of record that you might find at a local record office include:

Bishop’s transcripts, electoral registers, hospital records including asylum records, land tax records and tithe maps, historic maps, Non Conformist records, parish poor relief records and boards of guardians registers, parish records, school records and workhouse records, to name but a few. This is by no means an exhaustive list and only scratches the surface of what is typically available at most county record offices.

The important thing to do is make a note of the reference numbes of any document that you wish to see when you visit and note whether you need to pre-order the document.

How to plan your visit

So we now know what documents we are looking for, the next stage is to plan the actual visit itself.

Almost every record office or archive will have helpful guides and information on how to plan your visit, so that will be the obvious place to start. The following links will help you to familiarise yourself with these type of helpful guides.

National Archives help and advice

National Archives video guides  

London Metropolitan Archives collection catalogue

Plan your visit to Gloucestershire Archives

Things to consider when you actually visit and what to bring:

  • Access and opening times: no good planning a visit on the one day a week they close
  • Do you need an advance reader ticket?  Note that the old CARN ticketing system is being phased out and has been replaced. Not all record offices have subscribed to the new system, so check before you visit what the requirements are for your particular record office. Do you need proof of ID, driving license, passport?
  • How will you get there? car? public transport? Plan your route and arrive early. If you are in a car, check for car parks and what the charges are
  • Do you need to order your documents before you arrive?
  • Do you need to book a research space at a desk?
  • Can you bring your laptop, ipad or phone? Can you take pictures?
  • Oh and don’t forget to bring a copy of your tree, you’ll be surprised how many people forget that!
  • Pens, pencils, notebooks: many record offices will not allow the use of pens, so make sure you bring pencils as well
  • Do you need to book a computer?

Ensure you make notes in your research log book of the failed documents that you have searched, as well as the successes.

Either bring a packed lunch with you or make sure you know if the record office has a café area. Bring plenty of change for car parks, snacks, lockers and photocopying as most libraries and archives charge a small fee to copy a document.

The most important thing again is planning. The whole day will run so much more smoothly if you know what to expect when you arrive and what you can and can't bring.

Use them or lose them...

With pressure on local government and local authorities to cut budgets and reduce expenditure, the axe has to fall somewhere; invariably it falls on the supposed “softer” services such as libraries and record offices. Therefore it’s in all our interest to make use of these wonderful resources before it’s too late!

I promise you that you will not beat that special feeling when you hold a document in your hand, which has been touched by your ancestor - it is immeasurable.

A fellow family historian @JaneElRoberts once told me: “Can you imagine as you blow the dust of that old document, your hands are literally covered with history.”

As you sit back and relax in the comfort of your own armchair at home just remember, “You can’t do everything online”.

So let’s get out and explore our local record office before it’s too late!

By Paul Chiddicks.

Follow Paul on Twitter and his blog.

Researching the names: Chiddicks in Essex; Daniels in Dublin; Keyes in Prittlewell; Wootton in Herefordshire and London; Jack in Scotland, Day in Essex, Kent and Gloucestershire.

QUICK LINK: The top ten sins of a genealogist


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