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Researching in archives – guidance, tips and resources

The blog post has been written to accompany the Journeys into Genealogy interview with archivist Maxine Willett of Archive Angel where we discuss researching in archives in the UK.

If you are planning on a visit to a local or national archive please read the guidance below.

Do you need to visit?

Check what has been digitised and is available online. Have the records you want been digitised and published on the internet? Check first and you may find there is an index available or the records themselves may be visible.

ArchivesHub and Google Searches may bring up some of the results you are looking for (and many others besides).

Pre-visit preparation

To make the most of your time at the archive (quite a few have limited opening hours and only open on certain days of the week) you need to prepare beforehand and know what you want to study.

Some archives such as the London Metropolitan Archive (LMA) have an online, searchable database which contains a lot (but not all) of the records available. You can sign up for an account and receive a reader’s card when you visit in person.

It is similar for the National Archives at Kew.

Maxine’s tip: Use TNA Discovery as it covers other archives

Some archives including the LMA even have specific timeslots for document delivery.

Tip: Identify a selection of documents you are interested in consulting and, if possible, order some of them in advance.

Tip2: create a timeline of events including historical events so you are aware of how someone lived

What can you take with you?

Most archives will have lockers where you can leave anything you cannot take into the reading rooms. These may require coins.

A pencil case with pencil and eraser (no pens allowed), a USB stick is useful (some will have branded ones you can purchase on the day) for saving scanned images, your phone or camera for photos (many will charge a fee for photography – possibly £7-15 for the day), a notebook.

Food and drink – some archives are located a distance from any shops so consider taking food and drink with you for consumption during one of your breaks. It will need to be left in your locker.

You may need to wear gloves, if so, these will be provided to you.

Maxine’s tip: take acid free paper with you in order to follow the text to avoid marking the page and sensitive inks with your fingertips

On the day

Maxine’s tip: Find the documents you want to study and write small labels in pencil for any items you intend to photograph/scan. Include document reference, location, date etc. When naming items one method is year then surname then first name or initials. The label can be placed next to the item and the photograph taken. You then have a properly documented source to accompany it.

Ask if there are any ‘buddies’ who can help you. Often there are volunteers who are happy to guide you.

Scanning documents at The Keep (Sussex Records Office)

The photo above shows an estate document being scanned on a visit to The Keep in Brighton. It uses an A3 overhead scanner and the scan is of a very high quality. I also had to sign a copyright declaration stating what use I intended to make of the scanned images. I saved the document onto the USB key which I bought on the day. Some of the documents I scanned are shown in this blog post:

Copyright laws

Copyright lasts for 70 years after the death of the creator. Check the organisation’s rules re publication and what licences they require. I also took a photograph of my photography licence as a record.

photography licence for visit to The Keep

Can you help your local archive?

There are vast quantities of uncategorised papers and materials in archives all across the UK. Does your local archive need help with cataloguing it? It’s also a great way to meet like-minded people.

Research done for you

If you would like someone to do the research for you, please visit the AGRA website and look for someone who specialised in the geographical area you are interested in.

Listen to Maxine’s podcast interview here:

If you have any tips for researching in archives please leave them in the comments below.

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