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Some people get excited by the thought of a holiday in an exotic locations. Other people like nothing better than spending money. But I am a bit of an amateur genealogist; in layman's terms, "family tree researcher".
It can be a seriously addictive hobby - and potentially expensive, too, if you subscribe to sites like Ancestry, Genes Reunited and Find My Past - but some things just can't be found online; I have come to realise that researching some parts of my inter-related tree (my 7xgreat-grandfather was also my 6xgreat-grandfather, and I've got a friend who is simultaneously my ninth and tenth cousin) don't cost money, they just cost time.
I first wrote this review several years ago, when I simply wanted to do my own research, but now I spend quite a bit of time doing paid research for other people at Lancashire Archives. Lancashire is very rainy, so this time of year is when I appreciate being able to work indoors, which prompted me to revisit my review about records offices.
To those who aren't into family or local history, "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 (or county archives) is to collect and preserve items of historical interest and they tend to be organised by geographical area. However, way back in 1974, some bright spark played around with the boundaries of various counties, and in doing so, invented Merseyside and Greater Manchester. So, even though Manchester and Liverpool used to be in Lancashire and some church records for the cities are kept at the Lancashire office, to do any serious research in those areas you now need to go off to the relevant city to visit their shiny new Central Libraries, which have been closed, refurbished and re-opened since I first wrote this review! (Isn't bureaucracy marvellous?)
Your typical records office 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 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. Different offices have different systems; at Preston, you can order something up on the day, whereas at Bolton Local Archives you have to pre-order before you get there.
I rather like this aspect to it - I suppose you could argue that (for instance) my 7xgreat-grandfather George's will should be kept by someone in my family or on another distant branch but then again, because it is kept safely in the Records Office, anyone who is related (or simply wanted to study it) could go along at any time, order it and study it as necessary. Plus, if you wanted to copy out an entire document but can't write as fast as you'd like to, as long as you take the reference number for the item down you can return to copy it out at your leisure rather than trying to interpret the old writing and scribble it down in a hurry (one of my bad habits!). I've never been asked to prove why I wanted to see a document so in theory someone trying to produce a book or a study could view every available document about renting farms in one town between 1700 and 1800 . . . if they chose to.
How might I recognise such places?
I've visited six archives for my own personal research and for paid work since 2007 (Wigston Magna, Lincoln, Preston, Liverpool, Manchester and Bolton) and I've noticed that there is no set building style that would help the novice researcher to instantly identify it. The Bolton one looks like it should have been built in Regency-era Bath, Liverpool and Manchester are a bit "classical" - think Grecian columns, Wigston Magna looked to me a little like it could have been a school or village hall, and Preston looks quite 1960s; I suspect it was probably purpose-built.
Inside, they are quite functional and they generally seem to have an atmosphere that is conducive to work, study, research or anything that 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. However, in the past few years, I've noticed that some people (not all) seem to be keen on chattering, which doesn't really go down well with visitors who are trying to concentrate; I've witnessed at least one irate researcher (and one staff member) suggesting that the talkers might like to go elsewhere . . . and, now that I do paid research work, I can understand why because concentration can be crucial.
Some offices have computers, most have microfilm and microfiche readers and there are plenty of indexes 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 siblings would have been baptised but the office only held the records for the village's Anglican church - and it was just as well I looked at those, because that was where I found them, after all.)
The Lancashire Records Office - and I think some other offices too - lists the church records on their website, which is very helpful when I'm trying to structure my research. The lists are even split up by religious denomination, which also makes the checking stage much quicker, and they can be downloaded. Even though these are Word documents and I've got an Apple Mac, I haven't had a problem opening them. Usefully 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?
Essentially, yes - but to actually access old documents (like on Who Do You Think You Are?), you need 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. They cost nothing; 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 laminates 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. 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 try to make sure I've got a £1 coin for the locker, even if I just put my purse and keys in.
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've 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. Some offices permit notebooks to be used (the one at Wigston didn't) but I usually take a notepad that I can tear sheets out of. 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. 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 documents are being treated responsibly, which seems reasonable to me because if these things have been kept intact for two or three hundred years it is only fair to try not to mark 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 not intended for people with clumsy fingers. If you've developed 35mm camera film (or even just opened one out of idle curiosity) you might know how curly the long strip of film goes when unfurled, and microfilm is the same kind of beast. 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. Often, I've taken five minutes to get it loaded onto the viewer only to find that the projected image being projected onto the viewing screen is either upside down or the wrong way round; you can't tell until it's loaded and I never get any better! 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 (brilliant if the reel covers baptisms from 1600 to 1850 and you're looking for someone born in 1845!).
Microfiche is much simpler - 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 onto a slide 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. 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. These, however, have the disavantage of being somebody else's interpretation. I once spotted a potential ancestor's marriage record on the Mormon site, Family Search, which said the bride's name was either "Blackburn" or "Shacklady" so decided I should look up the original record and unfortunately the nearest I could get was a 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 been asked to put gloves on when I've handled original documents. Lancashire Archives has a detailed online catalogue listing thousands of items, meaning you can do the groundwork before getting there, filling in a request form with your name, a description of the item and its reference number as well as your seat number. You then have to wait until your seat number comes up on a board so you can collect your item.
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 to view the item without damaging it (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 so they can be a bit awkward. I once ordered up a paper document that was so huge I was allowed to use the front desk and was given 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 lengthy. 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 on it, but sometimes if they're a person's personal papers they can be much easier to understand. I feel I learnt a lot about my ancestor George Hurst from his will - the church records his children attended didn't have their baptisms but the will named six children, said 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 it's acceptable to ask nearby visitors for help if you're having trouble using viewers or loading microfilm etc. I can't say I've come across anyone using an iPod etc (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 tends to slip outside so they don't disturb people.
I get a bit carried away when I'm researching - to the point where I have done six hours without eating and ended up a bit light-headed. (Not good; don't do it!) Although eating in the search room isn't allowed, some offices have tea rooms or spaces to eat a packed lunch; since the recent refurbishments, Manchester and Liverpool even have cafes near the entrance, but most don't so you're likely to need to find or bring your own.
I always think I can get a lot more work done than I actually can so often spend longer in the records office than I expect to and consequently end up getting very hungry, but these days, I regularly meet up with a friend (and fellow genealogy addict) which does prompt us both to have a proper break.
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!