Visit Tips for Archives

My family history research is currently on hold whilst I recuperate following surgery. Whilst I rue my enforced house confinement and the temporary halt to my archives visits, I’ve set out some tips for future visits.

1200px-Coventry_History_Centre

Coventry History Centre – Wikimedia Commons Photo by Herry Lawford (see Sources)

  1. Check opening times. Archives are not 9-5 open every day of the week places. If possible pre-book your visit to ensure there is space and the facilities you require are available – there may be limited reading room places, map tables and microfilm/fiche readers. And do let the archives know if you can’t make your slot so your space can be freed up;
  2. Come prepared – plenty of sharpened pencils (pens not allowed), paper and a magnifier. Also your reader ticket, or appropriate signature/address identification to obtain one. Check if laptops etc are allowed; my preparation also includes checking online catalogues, which may not be the full range of holdings, and any visitor guides for particular archives advice;
  3. Don’t forget to bring your family tree/research notes. I have separate “Ancestral File” books for my maternal and paternal lines. I also have a (private) online tree available via the Ancestry app on my phone;
  4. Have a research plan. My plan includes preparing a list of documents I want to work through. I tend to focus on sources only available at the archives. An increasing number of collections are online, so for me looking at something readily available on Ancestry as a first step, for instance, may not necessarily be the best use of my time. I wouldn’t rule it out though as an online search may have produced ambiguous results;
  5. If possible order documents in advance because: a) they are not all necessarily held onsite; and b) if you have some documents ready for your arrival it saves valuable research time;
  6. Monitor the documents you have lined up throughout your visit to ensure you have a steady flow. Archives may not, for instance, bring down documents over the lunch period; or within a certain time before closing. There’s nothing worse than sitting twiddling your thumbs waiting with the only thing occupying your mind is counting wasted time! Although you could use the downtime to have a refreshment break (which may not necessarily be onsite), review your notes or revisit your research plan;
  7. If you want to take photographs consider which type of permit best suites your needs (eg day, year etc). But be aware not all documents are suitable for photographic reproduction – they may need to specialist equipment so need ordering. There may even be copyright restrictions;
  8. Wear comfortable clothes, ones that you don’t mind getting dirty – be warned, old documents are dusty. 

    The “Archives Hands” Phenomenon

    Include a jumper/cardigan as some archives can be cold; 
  9. Check your notes and write them up as soon after your visit as possible. It’s easier to decipher “hieroglyphic” handwriting (well that’s what mine occasionally resembles) whilst it is fresh in your mind. If you’re not taking photographs read them through during your visit to make sure you’ve included key information; and
  10. Don’t be afraid to ask. Not everything is included in online catalogues. The staff have a wealth of knowledge, experience, know their collections, the geographical area and are used to dealing with all levels of expertise. Don’t go away from what might be a one-off visit thinking if only…..
Archive kit

My Archives Visit Kit – Photograph by Jane Roberts

Sources:

 

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5 responses to “Visit Tips for Archives

  1. Thanks for some great reminders! I’m off on a research trip in a few weeks and will be better prepared now.

  2. That’s good advice. It’s also important to check (1) does the record office let you use notebooks (some only allow a limited number of loose pages to be brought into the search room); (2) if photography is permitted, is it only with a camera or are smartphones allowed; (3) can you bring a USB thumb drive (my local Archives now have only 2 film readers that print copies on paper; the others all scan from microfilm to a USB).

    • Thanks Judy. It emphasises the importance of having that conversation and checking the website before visiting to see what the protocols are. And not assuming all archives have the same rules.

      • That’s so true, Jane. There are huge differences in what’s allowed (and how records are accessed) in State Government archives in various regions of Australia. Before I visit a record office for the first time, I do a Google search for genealogy blogs with tips from people who know that record office well. For example, one of my tips for Queensland State Archives is… ‘Note the Previous System location shown in the catalogue, as well as the Item ID’. That’s because of the way the record retrieval system works if the computers are out of action.

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