What’s your perception of an archive? You might think of a rather dark, oak-panelled room full of academics poring over ancient texts. Or, if you’ve seen programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are?, perhaps you imagine an archivist greeting you at the door and personally taking you through to a private research room where you can view a pre-selected set of documents that all show exactly what you are looking for. Neither of these scenarios reflect what most archives are like. Let me give you a more realistic view.
First of all, what is an archive? In simple terms, an archive is a repository for preserving and conserving collections of documents, books, papers, and sometimes objects, and making them available for viewing and study. There are also private archives, such as those of large estates, although even these can sometimes be visited by arrangement with the owner. For the most part though, I am talking about public archives such as The National Archives at Kew which houses the records of government, and county archives, also known as record offices which hold an astonishing variety of materials from church and parish records, old photographs and postcards, extensive records of many family estates, maps, electoral registers and poll books, newspapers, wills and private papers to name only a few categories. Some of the more popular records, such as parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials used by family historians, are on film or fiche in order to preserve the originals.
Every archive has a catalogue of its collection. Some catalogues are available online which means you can see what is available that might be relevant to your research before you visit. Some archives also have a pre-ordering system so you can book a set of documents in advance. Each archive has its own set of finding aids to help you find what you are looking for.
Many archives are in 19th or 20th century buildings, some are purpose-built, and one I have visited in Ruthen is in a former prison which makes for an unusual day out. Apart from their amazing collections, archives’ biggest asset is their staff who, in my experience, are universally helpful. With their knowledge of local records, and their archive’s particular holdings, they can often save you a lot of time in finding your pot of gold. However, don’t expect them to sit with you and explain every document! They are very busy and, with local government cuts, a sadly diminishing resource.
So let’s celebrate our archives and the amazing work they do. Why not locate your nearest archive and go and find out what they are really like.