When you are just starting to find your family tree you can do a lot of your research online, but there comes a time when you will have to visit an Archive. It is one of the most interesting and exciting parts of researching your family tree. The best place to start is by visiting a local records office rather than going to one of the major repositories with no idea of how to use it. A little experience goes a long way and avoids wasted time and money.
To make your visit to the Archive successful you should have a clear aim in mind before you set off. For example do you want to track one particular individual from your family tree through a series of records, or do you want to go through a particular Parish Register. Make sure you have as much information as you can before you set off. It will make your chances of success much greater.
It is as well not to have too many targets and to tackle them one at a time. Getting sidetracked is very easy and your time will fly by. In the early days of your research you will often find several pieces of information but it becomes more difficult. I count it a successful day if I solve one piece of the puzzle.
Many Archives are part of CARN Scheme and you will need a CARN Card to get access. To get this you will need to take two pieces of identification, one with a photo, with you. It only takes a moment or two to get this sorted on your first visit to a participating office, you can then use it in all Archives that are part of the scheme.
To get the most out of a trip to an Archive there are some basic steps that are worth following. Always check the opening hours. Some local Archives do not open every day, and many do not follow normal office hours. Additionally there are occasional ‘odd’ days when they may be closed for all kinds of reasons. You can generally check online but a phone call always pays dividends, websites are not always up to date.
A phone call to the Archive also serves another useful purpose. You may find you need to reserve the records you want, the staff in Records offices are very helpful as a rule and will advise you about availability of records, computers and fiche readers.
There are some very practical things you need to be aware of when researching using physical records. For example, most repositories do not allow pens in the Reading Rooms so you will need a good supply of pencils. They should not be the ones with rubbers on the end as they are not allowed either. A plain, old fashioned wooden pencil is one of your best friends when you are researching your family tree. All offices have good pencil sharpeners available for public use. Notebooks are also important and a supply of loose sheets of paper as well. Some offices do not allow notebooks to be used with particularly fragile documents.
When you go into the Reading Rooms you will only be allowed to take pencils, paper, and notes in with you. Most Archives now allow Laptops and Tablet computers, and provide electric points for them so don’t forget your cable if you think you might need it. Money for printouts is best in a pocket rather than taking in a purse or wallet as you will undoubtedly leave your desk at times. A plentiful supply of change is a good idea though you can buy a card for multiple printouts in many offices.
Clothing is important. Archives are temperature controlled, particularly in areas where original documents are held, and they can be quite chilly when you are sitting still. Lots of layers is the safest way to go. Even on a warm summer day you should take plenty of layers as it will be much cooler than you think. Lockers are provided to store your possessions so leaving a spare top in there for use later on is no problem.
Food and drink is not always easily available if you are going to be at the Archive for the whole day so taking supplies with you is always a good idea. Again, they can be left in your locker until required. It is important to remember to get up and stretch your legs and rest your eyes occasionally so going for a drink is always a good excuse.
The best advice that was given to me is to always ask the staff for help, they are a mine of information. They are incredibly knowledgeable and will do all they can to make a success of your first attempt to find your family tree information in an Archive.