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No tapes, CDs or MP3s . . . . these Records are totally different


the possibilities are endless, it gets addictive, readers' tickets are free

travel may be necessary to find things, not everyone likes quiet

Recommendable Yes:

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Some people get excited by the thought of a holiday in an exotic locations. Other people might like nothing better than to run riot . But I am a bit of an amateur genealogist which can be a seriously addictive hobby - and a potentially expensive one too. That said, there are some family history-type records that you can't order online and that cannot be accessed through Ancestry.co.uk, Genes Reunited or FindMyPast, however much you're willing to pay. I have come to realise that researching my inter-related tree (my 7xgreat-grandfather was also my 6xgreat-grandfather thanks to some intermarrying later down the line!) requires me to spend either of two things on it - one is money, the other is time. And because a big chunk of my family came from Lancashire, which is a very rainy place, there are some times of the year when it's better to stick to indoor research, which is why I'm writing this review about records offices.

CDs, MP3 files, iPods? . . . well, paperwork, actually!

If you aren't into local history (or the history of a particular area), the term "records office" might create some mental image of a unit in a business park where the rooms are crammed full of music on vinyl records, tapes and CDs . . . but they aren't quite like that. The basic purpose of a records office - occasionally shortened to "RO" in geneological shorthand - is to collect and preserve items of historical interest and they tend to be organised by geographical area. (Saying that, I'm at least ten years too young to remember the reorganisation of counties in England and Wales so this can create a bit of a puzzling cross-over. I know that some parish records for Liverpool are held at the Lancashire Records Office in Preston while others are kept at the Liverpool office and I would guess that the same applies to records for the Manchester area - I've browsed for church records for Salford and Manchester at Preston but they just aren't there even though Manchester used to be in Lancashire. Isn't bureaucracy marvellous?)

So your typical records offices is a kind of cross between a historical archive and a reference library - I won't say they are like your typical local lending library because (as far as I can tell) you aren't allowed to take anything out on loan but you can order documents and artefacts which a member of staff will bring up from a "strongroom" (I think this is like a safe for old paper documents and similar items) so that you can look at them at your leisure and hand them back in when you've finished.

I rather like this aspect to it - I suppose you could argue that (for instance) because my 7xgreat-grandfather George's will is held at Preston it should be kept by someone in my family or by someone in a distant branch but on the other hand, because it is kept safely in the Records Office, if somebody came along who was related to George's son-in-law John and knew how the two men were connected, they would also be able . Plus, if you wanted to copy out an entire will or some document about land being rented, as long as you take the reference number for the item down that means you can come back at a later date and copy it out at your leisure rather than trying to interpret the old writing and scribble it down on your own notepaper in a hurry (something I have been guilty of trying to do when I'm in a rush!). I have never been asked to prove why I wanted to see a document so in theory I suppose a person could look at every agreement made by anybody to rent farms in Blackburn during the 1700s if they wanted to.

And how might I recognise such places?

I have only been to three records offices (the office for Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland at Wigston Magna, Lincoln and Preston) since I started doing my family tree and I've only got as far as doing research in two of them, but one thing I have noticed is that there is no set building style that would help the novice researcher to look at it and think, "That's definitely a records office! I know one when I see one!". Wigston Magna office, which I've only been to once is fairly close to what seemed to the main shopping area, and looked to me a little like it could have been a school, perhaps a village hall or some similar community building in the past. The Lancashire office at Preston, on the other hand, looks quite 1960s/1970s and is on a road off one end of Fishergate (again, the main shopping area, oddly enough) and I suspect it was probably purpose-built.

Inside, they are quite functional and I do think they seem to have an atmosphere that is conducive to work, study, research or anything similar that requires you to pay attention and encourages productive browsing through the records. It reminds me very much of the private study rooms we had at college and also in Year 11 at school, where (providing the classroom was unoccupied) students were allowed to sit and do their work quietly. I can't imagine they would suit anyone in a party mood because generally they are calm, quiet and library-like. Some offices have computers, most have microfilm and microfiche readers and there are plenty of index books for looking up church record reference numbers so that you can find out whether the office hold records for the time and area or even denomination of a religion that you want to look up. (At Wigston Magna, I wanted to look through the data from the Primitive Methodist Church where I thought my grandma's brothers and sisters would have been baptised but the office only held the records for the Anglican church in the same village - and it was just as well I looked at those, because the children I was after showed up in the Anglican records after all.)

The Lancashire Records Office - and I think some other offices too - actually has a website with the church record indexes on it, split up into Anglican/Catholic/Non-Conformist categories and then by letter of the alphabet so that if I want to check which records they have for St. Michael's C of E Church in Aughton, I can download the "A" list from that section and then (for instance) if I wanted the reference number for St. Elizabeth's Catholic Church in Scarisbrick I could select the Catholic subdirectory and then go to the "S" section. Even though these are Word documents and I've got an Apple Mac, I haven't had a problem opening them. Usefully (given that Liverpool used to be in Lancashire, as Manchester did) if the records you expect to find there aren't kept in one office, there will often be a note saying something like "See Liverpool Records Office" or "To access records please contact the Vicarage at St. Whoever's Church".

So can anybody just walk in with a biro?

Essentially, I suppose they can - but to actually be able to access some documents, you need to have a readers' ticket which is a little like a library card. When I visited Wigston Magna office, they gave me a one-day ticket but at Preston the only option was to get a four-year one which did have the advantage of being a CARN ticket (County Archives Research Network) - this one can apparently be used at any office that is part of the network, regardless of where it was issued. Whichever one you go for doesn't really matter, because they don't cost anything to obtain and all you need to provide is something with your name and address on it. (I took the photocard and paper parts of my driving licence and they were accepted together, but I think you can use utility bills too.) The card is a bit flimsy, really - it's essentially a credit-card sized piece of card that the office will laminate for you once it's filled in but mine will fit in my purse in the same slots as my bank cards and all the other plastic I seem to have accumulated in the, so I usually store it there to keep it safe.

I have always had to show my ticket and sign in (and then out, when I leave) when I go to Preston records office and on the sheet are tick box options if you want to say why you're visiting, as well as room for your car registration if you've left it in the car park. Bags aren't allowed past the front desk so I also try to make sure I've got a £1 coin for the locker, even if I just put my purse and keys in. It saves me from worrying that I might leave them somewhere and forget to pick them up before I go . . .

As far as I can tell, most offices will only let you make notes in pencil so there isn't much point bringing your best fountain pen and Parker cartridges. I tend to take two or three pencils (although I have never used a whole one up in a single visit - if hunger, the need for sleep, opening/closing times and the fact that staff like to go home at night were not factors, I probably could though!) and a sharpener, with some loose sheets of paper in a plastic A4 document wallet with a popper button. I believe some offices permit notebooks to be used but I know the one at Wigston didn't so I normally take unbound paper. Usually there are bins dotted around for pencil shavings, too.

What do I look at and how do I do it?

Different types of records call for different types of seating arrangements. In my various trips I've looked at original artefacts (some of which were so big that I was allowed to use the table nearest the help desk - I think this is partly so that the person looking at them can open them out more easily and partly so that the office staff can see that the researchers are looking after the documents responsibly, which seems reasonable to me because if these things have been kept intact for two or three hundred years it is surely only fair that the browsers don't mark them or damage them now), church records, directories of towns and even the Probate Calendar which is a list of when wills were made and proved and these have come in all kinds of formats.

Generally speaking, to look through the church records I'm after, I find it easiest to look through the index lists to get the code for the microfilm or microfiche so that I know what type of reader I should be sitting at - because there are differences!

The first of these I will mention (or should that be "warn people about"?) is microfilm. I've handled these things on numerous occasions and I just cannot get the hang of them so I suspect they were intended for people with nimble fingers instead of clumsy ones like I've got. Anybody who has developed 35mm camera film (or even just opened one out of idle curiosity) might know how curly the long strip of film goes when you try to wind it round the developing spool and microfilm is roughly the same thickness. They tend to be stored in filing cabinets in card boxes and when you open these up they often (although not always) have little "collars" around them, which are card bands that can be looped closed with string. Unfortunately, it's not very easy to work with - at least not to me. It's simple enough to load onto one side of the reader and to trap the film between the clip that holds it steady for viewing, but what I always find challenging is getting it into the take-up reel on the other side of the reader. Often, I have taken five minutes to get it loaded onto the viewer only to find, when I switch the machine on, that the image being projected onto the viewing screen is either upside down or looks like it's being held up to a mirror because there is no way of knowing the right way up or which is the "right side" until it's loaded! But it is very easy to scroll through once I've sorted out the basics - on all the readers I've used there is the option to move backwards or forwards slowly (great if you want to go to the previous or next page of records) or very quickly (which is brilliant if the reel covers baptisms from 1600 to 1850 and you're looking for someone born in 1845!).

Much easier to handle are microfiches - essentially, these are like overhead projector transparencies that have been shrunk down to fit twenty or even thirty pages of whatever you're looking at (it could be the Probate Calendar, or it could be a page of baptism records for one church) onto a piece of film that's around six inches wide and three to four inches high. Generally there will be a marker on your chosen microfiche reader - in Preston's office these are circular, feel like very thin plastic and are bright orange with lettering to match - which you can use to bookmark the place in the storage drawers where you found the microfiche you're looking at. (And in a drawer with about 150 of these things inside, it has to be quicker than browsing each one!) Beneath the screen of the reader are two flat sheets of glass, which will open if you press the back of them so the fiche can be held securely in place by the glass without getting marked by finger prints. The details look really tiny on these, as though you couldn't possibly read anything but the reader must act like a magnifying glass because the glass sheets simply have to be moved up and down to view each page.

Even easier (although they can be frustrating, too - you have to take mistranscriptions into account) are the records that are bound in books. The Lancashire Parish Records Society (I would imagine they aren't the only ones) have published some records this way but they have the disadvantage of being somebody else's interpretation. I once spotted an ancestor's marriage record on the Mormon family history site, Family Search, which said the bride's name was either "Blackburn" or "Shacklady" so I decided I should look up the original record and unfortunately the nearest I could get was this printed version which also gave those two possible interpretations. So I still don't know if she had been married before, was using an alias or if the vicar just had scruffy handwriting . . .

They wear gloves on Who Do You Think You Are? - does that mean everybody has to?

Surprising as it may sound, I've never actually been asked to put gloves on when I've handled original documents - which you can view by locating the reference number (often found on the National Archives website, with a note to say which office the document is kept at), filling in a request form to show your name, a brief description of the item and its reference number as well as the seat you're waiting at - at least at Preston (as you might guess by now, I've made about nine trips there!). You then have to wait until it is taken out of the strong room and the electric board bleeps to show your seat number so you can collect it from the desk.

If the original document happens to be a book or perhaps a small paper item (letter, will, etc), I have generally had to get two foam wedges from the container and put them on my desk space so that I can view the item without it being damaged (again, when these are 300 year old documents, I think this is fair enough - I'd like to think that, if my great-grandchildren wanted to see the same items in the year 2110, they would still be intact). Although light, these wedges are really big (around eighteen inches long) so they can be a bit awkward. I once ordered up a really big paper document that took up such a wide area that the staff let me use the front desk and - because it had been folded up and wanted to refold itself - gave me four little weights that looked like mini beanbags to hold each corner down.

I usually (I must have a masochistic streak . . .) copy out the writing, or at least make notes to get a general outline of what the paperwork was about if it's a long document. If they're legal documents they can be quite wordy with lots of words like "theretofore", "notwithstanding" and other initially puzzling ones like "messuage" which I assumed to be a spelling mistake until I looked it up and found it was a term for a piece of land with a dwelling house on it, but sometimes if they are a person's personal papers they can be a lot easier to understand. I actually feel I learnt a lot about my ancestor George Hurst from his will - the church records his children attended didn't have their baptisms so just from his will, I found that he had at least six children, that he left his clothes to one son and a single shilling to his son-in-law. (Apparently this was a bit of insurance - if somebody forgot to mention a relative in the will, that person might say "He didn't know what he was writing" so leaving a shilling was a way of saying "I haven't forgotten you, I just don't want to leave you anything".)

Peace, perfect peace . . .

Sometimes noise doesn't bother me and other times, when I find it hard to concentrate, the merest hint of a sound can get on my nerves so I fully understand why records offices tend to have that hushed library-like atmosphere I mentioned. Generally they are fairly quiet and talking is more or less limited to people making enquiries and staff giving help, although I gather that it's acceptable to ask nearby office visitors for help if you're having trouble using viewer or loading microfilm etc. I can't say I've come across anyone using an iPod or similar gadget when I have visited (I'm not sure why you'd want to, if you were researching) and on the rare occasions that anybody's phone has rung the owner has tended to slip outside into a corridor or foyer so they don't disturb people.

When you think about it, quiet is a pretty reasonable thing to expect in a records office - it's only just struck me now that a distant relative I've been in contact with paid a researcher in Britain to look up various things, since they lived abroad, so I imagine it's a possibility that at least one or two visitors at any one time are carrying out work on behalf of others and receiving payment, and in that situation I suspect they want to give their customer good-quality notes in return and if another researcher in the office was chattering away, that could be very distracting.

I have only come across two particularly verbal researchers - who seemed to be thinking out loud as they searched, and also having a more general conversation, and indeed it was slightly distracting to me. I don't know whether any visitors had actually complained but one member of staff going past did quietly say something to the effect that they were welcome to go outside or to the tea room if they wanted to continue talking, so obviously staff are prepared to interrupt if people are too talkative.

I'm hungry!

I do get a bit carried away when I'm researching - to the point where I have even gone out to get a sandwich and then returned to my hunting because I was so hungry I knew I really had to get something to eat. Although eating in the records office search room doesn't usually happen, in some there are either tea rooms or spaces to eat a packed lunch. I think tea and coffee machines are usually provided but I have never heard of one where it was possible to actually buy food so it seems to me like it's a good idea to either bring sandwiches or, if your eyes need a break from reading microfilmed records, to go out and buy food. I always think I can get a lot more done in a set amount of time than I actually can so I often spend longer in the records office than I expect to and consequently end up getting very hungry - so if you go to visit and have plenty of time to spare (or are able to get home easily, or staying locally for a short break) sometimes it's worth having a ten-minute break for food if it means you can stay there until closing time.

Anything else interesting in there?

Local interest books - I said records offices were a bit like the reference section of a public library, but I think they probably have a much better selection of historically-orientated books. I have spotted quite a mixture of offerings on various shelves, some of them are town directories (I even found one of my relatives listed under confectioners in an early directory for Southport) and others are books that have been written about particular subjects (the English Civil War or the Industrial Revolution, for instance), occupations (the cotton industry, coal mining, farming etc) and even general areas.

I find it can be really interesting to read a book or a chapter about a place I'm familiar with if it was published a hundred or more years ago, just to see how the location was described back then, so if a person was doing a study on the history of a particular area and could get to the county records office it might be a worthwhile trip if the "local" section of the nearest library to that area or town didn't seem to have very much specific material.

If you made it this far and I still haven't put you off looking round a records office or archives, happy researching!

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Comments about this review »

K2705 09.07.2011 17:10

Fab review xx

kevindye 28.03.2010 20:35

How intriguing! I've never really thought about my family tree, and now at least I'd know where to start!

torr 18.03.2010 18:43

It sounds like awfully hard work to me. I think I shall leave my distant ancestors to their own mysterious anonymity. Very good thorough review, though.

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This review of Everything that starts with R ... has been rated:

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