For family historians there’s nothing like the thrill of visiting an Archive and finding new information about ancestors among the often dusty and grubby old records. Time always flies when you’re in the Archives but following these 10 essential steps before you get there will not only help avoid disappointment but also maximise your reading time on-site.
1. Do your research at home before arriving at the Archives. I can’t emphasise this enough.
Know what records you want to retrieve before you get there. Otherwise much of your time will be spent searching, ordering and waiting for deliveries rather than reading.
Searching online catalogues thoroughly can be a time-consuming business but at least they allow you to identify relevant records from the comfort of home.
2. Time is not your friend at the Archives so it is important to prioritise the records you want to read.
You can whip through some records quickly while others take a long time to wade through while often struggling with poor handwriting and faded ink.
Prioritising ensures you will deal with the most interesting records first in the unhappy event that you run out of time to access everything on your list.
3. If it’s your first visit to the Archives, apply for your reader’s ticket online to save time when you arrive.
4. Check the maximum number of records you can order online then order as many as permitted to ensure they are available when you arrive.
Most archives allow you to order records ahead of time for delivery to the reading room provided you have applied for your reader’s ticket first.
There is likely to be an upper limit on the number of records you can order and it may not be as many as you need taking into account all the relevant records you have found in the online catalogue.
It is always worth a phone call or email to the Archives explaining you live out of the area/interstate/overseas and politely request a temporary increase in the maximum number of records you can order. I have done this successfully where the Archives had only two record deliveries per day.
Be aware that most Archives will only allow you to take one record item at a time no matter how many are there waiting there for you.
If your partner or someone else is planning to help you then ensure they have their own reader’s ticket and order records in their own name.
5. Check and understand the record delivery times as well as how long the reading room will hold the records before returning them to the store.
For example, do they only have twice daily deliveries from storage or do they retrieve and deliver on demand the same day? Delivery arrangements can significantly impact on your visit and the number of records you will be able to search so don’t underestimate the importance of this step.
Do they limit on the number of records permitted per delivery? If yes, then start ordering them several days ahead – but not so many days that they are returned to storage before your arrival.
6. Understand the Archives’ copying and re-use policy for their records.
7. Take a USB thumb drive if you plan to use the Archives’ equipment to copy/scan/photograph records.
8. If you plan to use your own device to copy records, before you go check:
The battery is full and you have sufficient storage to for many new photographs.
Pack your charging cable as most Archives will have power outlets you can plug into (although they may occasionally be in inconvenient locations, hence the need for a full battery).
9. Check to see if the Archives has a coffee shop or some sort of food outlet on the premises or nearby. If not, pack a sandwich and drink to keep the energy levels up.
10. Always check the Archives’ opening times before you go as these change and they are not necessarily open Monday-Friday. For example at the date of writing:
The National Archives in Kew is closed on Mondays.
The London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) is closed every Friday but is open once a month on Saturdays. The LMA also closes for two weeks every year, usually in November. (I’ve been caught out with the LMA closures myself when I didn’t follow my own advice!)
Many of the larger Archives are open for extended hours one or more days per week.
Do you have any other pre-visit tips you would like to share which will help maximise the chance of success when visiting an Archives?
In the meantime, happy ancestor hunting.
Your Family Genealogist
Photo: From my own collection