The Genealogist’s Internet

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13. Archives and Libraries

Gateways to archives

The National Register of Archives

National archives

The Discovery service

Other catalogues

The national libraries

County record offices

Public libraries

University libraries

Family History Centers and the Family History Library

The Society of Genealogists

Beyond the British Isles

Archives and libraries are often seen as the antithesis of the internet, but this is largely illusory, certainly from the genealogical point of view. Even with the growing range of British genealogical resources reproduced as images on the web, you will often need to go to the relevant record office or a suitable library to check the information you have found online against original documents (or microfilms of them). It will be years before even the core sources are completely available online. Technologically, it is in fact a trivial matter to take records which have already been microfilmed and put images of them online. But to be usable, such online images need to be supported by indexes, and the preparation of these requires substantial labour and investment. As mentioned in Chapter 4, delivering images via the web has implications for running costs, even where production costs are minimal.

If you are going to look at paper (or even parchment) records, then catalogues and other finding aids are essential. Traditionally, these have been available only in the reading rooms of record offices themselves, so a significant part of any visit has to be spent checking the catalogues and finding aids for whatever you have come in search of. But the web has allowed repositories to make it much easier to access information about their collections and facilities. At the very least, the website for a record office will give a current phone number and opening times. Larger sites will provide descriptions of the holdings, often with advice on how to make the most of them. Increasingly, you can expect to find catalogues online and, in some cases, even place orders for documents so that they are ready for you when you visit the repository.

All this means you can get more out of a visit to a record office, because you’re able to go better prepared. You can spend more time looking at documents and less trying to locate them. And if you can’t get to a record office, you will be able to give much more precise information than previously to someone visiting it on your behalf.

This chapter looks at what the major national repositories and the various local institutions provide in the way of online information.

Many repositories have been reducing levels of service in response to actual or imminent budget cuts. This has generally been seen in restricted opening hours and lower levels of staffing, and will probably have less effect on the web presence of the institutions. Even so, when no more staff cuts are possible, no doubt website running costs will be scrutinized more closely, with the potential loss of access to electronic resources. Current digitization projects should not be affected unduly, since these are in many cases externally funded. However, it is much more doubtful whether a reduced staff will have the time to develop and seek funding for new projects. The campaign against cuts in service at record offices is discussed on p. 395.

Gateways to archives

There are a number of sources of information about repositories and the archival collections they hold. The ARCHON Directory at <> acts as a gateway for all British archives. The site is hosted by The National Archives (see p. 208) and its intention is to provide ‘information on all repositories in the United Kingdom and all those repositories throughout the world which have collections of manuscripts which are noted in the indexes to the UK National Register of Archives’. There is a page devoted to each archival repository in the British Isles, including the Republic of Ireland. In addition to basic details such as contact information, opening times and a link to any website, it also provides links to catalogue entries in the National Register of Archives (see below).


Figure 13-1: The ARCHON Directory’s list of repositories in the South West

There are also search facilities which make it possible to search across the directory, so, for example, you could search for all archives in a given town or county. Although it is probably easier to use the Genuki county pages to find county record offices (see p. 217), the ARCHON Directory is better for locating other repositories and archives with relevant material.

ARCHON lists only the repositories and does not list their individual holdings. For these, you need to consult Access to Archives (A2A) at <>. This is a national project, initially funded by government and the Heritage Lottery Fund, to ‘create a virtual national archives catalogue, bringing together a critical mass of information about the rich national archival heritage and making that information available globally from one source via the World Wide Web’. The project has now closed with no new material being added, but the resources created during the project remain available, containing 10.3 million records for 418 record offices and other repositories. This represents about 30 per cent of the archival collections in England and Wales.

The search allows you to look for a word or phrase (which includes names) in a specific repository, over a whole region, or indeed over all regions. You can also restrict the search to material you have not previously seen by searching only for items added since a particular date.

North of the border, the Scottish Archive Network (SCAN) at <> has a similar remit, and its directory has contact details for all Scottish repositories at <>. There is an online catalogue at <>, which provides consolidated access to the catalogues of over 50 repositories in Scotland, with over 20,000 archives. The Research Tools pages at <> (note the ‘r’ before ‘tools’) include examples of documents, a glossary of Scottish terms and material on handwriting. The Virtual Vault (on the ‘Digital Archive’ menu) has examples of a range of Scottish records. There is also a Knowledge Base with answers to questions frequently asked in Scottish archives. Oddly, this does not have its own page but is available as a pop-up link from other pages, such as the Research Tools page, though in fact you can go to it directly at <>. SCAN hosts or runs a number of other related websites, notably Scottish Handwriting, which is discussed on p. 289.

Archives Wales at <> is a similar site for Wales, with descriptions of over 7,000 archival collections in 21 Welsh record offices, universities, and other bodies.

The Irish Archives Resource at <> covers 19 repositories in the Republic of Ireland, mainly city and county archives.

Alongside these national gateways, there is a regional gateway for London archives in AIM25 at <>, which includes the records of over 100 institutions including Higher Education, learned societies, cultural organizations and livery companies within the M25.

There are two more general gateways of use to the family historian. Cornucopia at <> is ‘an online database of information about more than 6,000 collections in the UK’s museums, galleries, archives and libraries’. It does not offer ‘genealogy’, or even ‘history’, as a subject heading, but a search for ‘genealogy’ brings up over 200 records and ‘family history’ another 300 or so. The latter are almost all records from a very useful public library project called Familia, discussed below (p. 218).

The Archives Hub at <> offers a catalogue of archives for almost 200 institutions in England, Wales and Scotland. They are predominantly universities but there are also a number of local archives and some specialist collections of interest to genealogists, such as the National Fairground Archive, the Scottish Brewing Archive and the Royal College of Surgeons.

The National Register of Archives

The National Register of Archives contains ‘information on the nature and location of manuscripts and historical records that relate to British history’ and has an online index at <>. This contains reference details for around 150,000 people, families and corporate bodies relating to British history, with a further 100,000 related records. The materials themselves are held in record offices, university libraries and specialist repositories. The search engine allows you to search by:

The full details for an item in the search results include not only the repository (with a link to its ARCHON entry) but also the reference number used by the record office in question. An obvious use of the NRA is to locate the parish registers for a particular place.

It is important to note that unlike A2A, the NRA catalogue cannot be used to search for the contents of archives, only the description and location, so a search on family name will only find archives deposited by or relating to the family, not individual documents which mention someone with that surname.

National archives

The National Archives

The National Archives is the main national repository for the UK, with a website at <>. The area most relevant to family historians is the ‘Research guides’ page at <>. This has links to detailed pages on all the types of record at TNA which can be used to research the history of an individual under the following headings:

Each page has sections on:

By way of example, Figure 13-2 shows the ‘Looking for an emigrant’ page.


Figure 13-2: A typical ‘Looking for…’ page on The National Archives site

Similar sets of pages on ‘Looking for a place? and ‘Looking for a subject?’ cover records relevant to local and general history.

More detailed information on The National Archives’ records for individual areas of interest is provided by over 300 research guides, all linked from an alphabetical index at <>. The material on the site flagged as ‘educational’ is mainly aimed schools, but TNA’s podcasts (see p. 13), now numbering over 200, provide introductions to many of the types of record held by TNA and how to use them in genealogical research.

The ‘Visit Us’ pages (on the ‘About us’ menu) have all you need to know when visiting The National Archives, including details of opening hours. Probably the most important page if you have never previously visited is the advice on planning your visit at <>. There are also a number of animated guides which cover various aspects of using TNA at <>.

There is an enormous amount of other material on the site that is relevant to genealogists and these resources are not described here but in the relevant chapters. The ‘Catalogues and online records page’ has links to TNA’s various catalogues (see below), to TNA’s digitized document collection (p. 58), and to the online data collections on commercial data services which are licensed from TNA.

At the time of writing TNA has a wiki at <>, which allows users to add information on the records, and has a wealth of useful material. However, this is now closed to new contributors and no further editing will be possible after September 2012, at which point it will be transferred to the UK Government Web Archive, while some of the content will be migrated to the new Discovery service described below.

TNA has a development site at <>, which offers a preview of facilities not yet ready for full public release, both enhancements of existing resources and completely new services.

The Discovery service

In April 2012, The National Archives will be replacing its long-standing online catalogue with a new Discovery service at <>. Like its predecessor, this will hold details of the 11 million or so records in the collection and links to those available for download, but is designed to provide more flexibility and to make it easier to find details of the relevant records.

The records in The National Archives are catalogued with a brief alphabetic code for the originating department (e.g. ADM for Admiralty, HO for Home Office) followed by a number for the document series and a second number for the individual piece. Figure 13-3 shows the details for some of the records in series HO 8, which cover the nineteenth century prison hulks, and HO 8/1, as you can see, identifies the quarterly returns of prisoners by hulk and date.


Figure 13-3: List of pieces for the class HO 8

The screen display in Figure 13-3 is the sort of thing you will see if you select the Discovery service’s browse option, and it allows you to see what sort of documents are in each part of the collection. However, if you are looking for a specific document series or a specific piece, it is in fact easier to do a search on the document reference.

The initial basic search offers just a single field to enter search terms or a document reference, but a drop-down adds the possibility of adding a year and a topic — you can select any combination of topics from a list of around 120. The advanced search doesn’t actually offer a significantly wider range of options but makes formulating a complex search much easier. The search help page shows how to formulate searches, and a particularly welcome feature is the NEAR operator, which finds cases where two words occur close to each other but not actually in a phrase. When searching for an individual, this can be a useful alternative to putting a personal name in inverted commas (or using the phrase search option on the advanced search page), as it will also find documents where the surname has been put first. If you just search on forename and surname without using one of these techniques, you will get lots of irrelevant results. In fact, you will often get a large number of results anyway, but the search results page will offer you a set of filters to refine your search by subject, date, and government department.

Figure 13-4 shows the start of the results listing from a search for the military record of my great-great-great-grandfather Christopher Christian. In this case, there are only five results so it is not difficulty to spot the right one lower down the page, but selecting ‘Military personnel’ in the subject filter removes all the other types of record, leaving the single correct entry, shown in Figure 10-2 on page 155, which is for a record in series WO 97 (Royal Hospital Chelsea: Soldiers Service Documents). In fact, if you know you are looking for records in a particular collection, it is easiest to use the advanced search and put the reference in the ‘Search within’ field.


Figure 13-4: Initial search results in the Discovery service

In themselves, the Discovery service’s search and browse facilities are very straightforward to use, but they cannot simplify the organization of the actual records, which have been created independently by individual government departments over the past 900 or so years. In order to make the most of the service, particularly if you are going to do in-depth research on an ancestor’s military, naval or criminal career, it can be useful to have some familiarity with the way in which the records you are looking for are organized. Of course, the subject indexing means you do not actually have to know anything about document references, but knowing the correct reference for the records you are interested in may save you a lot of time. In fact, all the ‘Looking for …?’ pages (see above) cite the relevant record classes — the ‘What records can I find at The National Archives at Kew?’ section of each page will have a direct link to the relevant material in the Discovery service. Genealogy books and articles which mention TNA documents will almost always tell you the document reference under which the material is catalogued, as with the military and naval records mentioned in Chapter 10. The research guides, linked from <>, cover all the major series of records of interest to genealogists, and books such as Tracing Your Ancestors in the National Archives by Amanda Bevan and specialist works on individual subject areas (for example, A Guide to Naval Records in the National Archives of the UK by R. Cock and N.A.M. Rodger) are recommended reading for those planning more extensive research.

Other catalogues

In addition to the Discovery Service, there are a number of specialist catalogues on the site. Those of most interest to genealogists are:

All are linked from the ‘Catalogues and online records page’, via the Records menu.

National Archives of Scotland

Until April 2011, the National Archives of Scotland (NAS) was an independent agency with a website at <>. However, the NAS and the General Register Office for Scotland have now been merged into a new body, the National Records of Scotland (NRS). In due course, the merged service will have a new website at <>, but at the time of writing this has only a holding page and the NAS site retains an independent existence.

The site has a brief ‘Family History’ page at <> and a range of around 50 guides to the various types of record held by the NAS. There is also a ‘Record guides directory’, which will help you to find which guide covers a particular topic and which is very useful for those unfamiliar with the distinctive nomenclature of Scottish administration and records.

The material in the NAS is indexed in the SCAN online catalogue (see p. 206). The NAS has a number of catalogues and indexes. These are all listed at <> and the main catalogue is at <> (Figure 13-5). The records are organized by government department, which means that unless you already have a document reference, it is probably better to use the search facility than browse. The guides cite the document classes for the records covered, but unfortunately do not link directly to the relevant catalogue entries.

The NAS also maintains the Scottish Documents site at <>, which has information on the NAS’s digitization projects, and the Scottish Handwriting site at <>, discussed on p. 289.


Figure 13-5: The NAS catalogue

The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland

The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) has a website at <>. The site offers extensive information for genealogists, including descriptions of the major categories of record and about two dozen leaflets on various aspects of Irish genealogical research. There are individual leaflets on emigration to Australia, Canada, and the US. Links to all these aids are provided on the ‘Records Held’ page at <>. There is also a FAQ page at <>.

There is a main family history page at <>, which has links to the most important genealogical resources on the site.

PRONI has an online catalogue, eCatalogue, at <> (there is also a prominent link on the home page). For a number of types of record, the catalogue entries include individual names — for example, private papers, criminal records, wills, land records and many other types of legal record. It is therefore worth searching the catalogue for any family name you are researching. Figure 13-6 shows the results of a search for the surname ‘Blackburn’.

In addition to the catalogue, the site has several indexes of use to genealogists, including:

The last two cover only those records which have been microfilmed by PRONI. There are plans to add other church records, and school records. All are linked from the ‘Online guides and indexes’ page. Unfortunately this has a 125-character URL, so either follow the link from the website for this book, or, from the PRONI home page, click on ‘Search the Archives’, then ‘Online guides and indexes’.


Figure 13-6: PRONI eCatalogue search results

PRONI has three important online databases of primary records, all linked from the home page:

National Archives of Ireland

The National Archives of Ireland has a website at <>. Among other things, this has help for beginners, information on the main types of Irish genealogical record, and a good list of links to websites for Irish genealogy, all linked from the ‘Genealogy’ page at <>.

The national libraries

The UK’s national library, the British Library, has a number of collections of interest to genealogists. The BL’s home page is at <>, while the Integrated Catalogue is at <>. The catalogue is also included in COPAC, discussed on p. 220.

The India Office records held by the British Library do not have their own online catalogue, but a comprehensive guide to them will be found at <>. Some of the material can be found on Access to Archives <> — on the A2A search page select ‘British Library, Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections’ from the ‘Location of Archives’ field. The NRA at <> also contains entries for material in the India Office records.

The British Library’s newspaper collection is discussed in detail on p. 193ff.

The National Library of Scotland has a website at <>. Its main catalogue is at <> and various other catalogues are linked from <>. Among these, Scots Abroad at <> will be of interest to those descended from Scottish emigrants. The site also has an introduction to Scottish family history at <>.

The National Library of Wales website at <> provides links to a number of online catalogues from <>. The most useful of these for genealogists are:

The Digital Mirror area of the site includes ‘Welsh Biography Online’, which has information on the lives of eminent Welsh people, and links to online collections of maps and photographs.

The NLW also maintains another useful (though not genealogical) database, Wales on the Web. This is a gateway of web resources relating to all aspects of Wales and has its own website at <>.

The National Library of Ireland has a website at <>, with a family history section at <>. This covers all the main sources in the library which are of use to family historians, and has lists of parish registers. There are several online catalogues, searchable separately or combined, all linked from the homepage. There is also a newspaper catalogue at <>. There are catalogues of the photographic collections, linked from the family history page. The site also hosts the web pages of the Office of the Chief Herald at <>.

For access to online catalogues of the UK national libraries, see the information on COPAC, p. 220, below.

County record offices

There are several ways to locate a county record office (CRO) website. Each Genuki county page provides a link to relevant CROs, and may itself give contact details and opening times. The ARCHON Directory (see p. 205) allows you to locate a record office by county or region. Finally, CROs can be found via the website of the relevant county council (you may even be able to make a guess at its URL, as it will often be something like <>).

Andrew Chapman has a set of links for county record offices in England, Scotland and Wales at <>. Usefully, the page includes direct links to many of the online catalogues and other digital projects. There is a similar list at <>, which includes the offshore islands.

For the Republic of Ireland, where the term ‘county archives’ is used in preference to ‘county record office’, see the listing in ARCHON (above, p. 205), or the Genuki page for the particular Irish county.

There is a wide variation in what record offices provide on their websites. At the very least, though, you can expect to find details of location, contacts, and opening times, along with some basic help on using their material. However, most offer substantial background material on the area and specific collections, and even online catalogues. Even better, a number of CROs have undertaken substantial digitization projects, some of which are mentioned elsewhere in this book. Much of the manuscript material held by CROs is catalogued on ARCHON.

Public libraries

The original Familia web site has now been reinstated.

Public libraries, although they have little in the way of manuscript collections, have considerable holdings in the basic sources for genealogical research. For example, many central libraries have microfiche of the GRO indexes and microfilm of local census returns, as well as local printed material.

The UK Public Libraries page at <> is a general site devoted to public libraries. It provides links to library websites, and to their OPACs (Online Public Access Catalogues) where these are available over the internet. However, the pages do not seem to have been updated for some time, so you may find some links no longer work. As with record offices, public library websites will be part of the relevant local authority’s web presence.

The People’s Network at <> is a site devoted to English public libraries and the ‘Find a library’ facility enables you to find public libraries centred on a particular postcode or place. Although focusing on English libraries, the site does have details of those in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. However, the place-name search seems to be hopelessly unreliable — it thinks that Worcester is 4.9 miles from Greenwich, and doesn’t even recognize the locations where some of the listed libraries are located. In fact, it may be better to use the ‘Search and Discover’ facility, on the ‘Discover’ menu, to search on a place-name and the word ‘library’. You can also use this to search for particular content within public library collections. The full list of collections covered will be found on the ‘Detailed search’ page at <>, which allows you to search within any combination of collections.

A particularly useful collection to search from this page is ‘Cornucopia Familia’ (listed under ‘UK Collections’). Familia was a major project to provide a comprehensive guide to genealogical holdings in public libraries. Unfortunately, the project lost its funding some years ago and its site has long closed down. However, Cornucopia (see p. 207) now has an archive of Familia’s data for UK libraries and these will turn up with the title ‘Family and Local History Resources’ if you do a search on a local authority or place-name, either on the People’s Network or on Cornucopia itself at <>. Since the information has not been updated since 2006 at the latest, phone numbers and opening times will not necessarily be up to date, but the lists of material held are probably still quite accurate. A public library may possibly have disposed of census microfilms, now that all the censuses are online, but for details of holdings of printed electoral registers, trade directories and newspapers, Familia ought still to be quite reliable. The original Familia site is accessible via the Wayback machine under <> (5 July 2009) and this includes the holdings of libraries in the Republic of Ireland, which Cornucopia has not archived.

For public libraries in the Irish Republic, the country’s public library portal has links to public library websites and online catalogues at <>.

A useful resource for locating individual books in public libraries is Worldcat at <>, a global library catalogue. If you enter a book title, it will bring up a record for the book. If you then enter your postcode, it will list the closest libraries which hold copies of the book.


Figure 13-7: The Familia record for Bradford Public Libraries on Cornucopia

University libraries

While university libraries are not of major importance for genealogical research, all have special collections which may include personal papers of notable individuals. There are some significant university collections relating to occupational, religious and ethnic groups, some of which are mentioned in the relevant chapters of this book — for example, the gypsy collections at the University of Liverpool (see p. 182). They are also likely to have collections of local material which, while probably not of use in constructing a pedigree, may be of interest to the family historian looking for local topographical and historical information.

There is no single central index to university library holdings but COPAC is a major consortium of 60 research libraries, including the three university libraries which are also legal deposit libraries, entitled to request a copy of any book published in the UK (Cambridge University Library, the Bodleian in Oxford, and Trinity College, Dublin). It also includes the British Library, and the national libraries of Scotland and Wales (see p. 216). The COPAC website at <> provides access to a consolidated catalogue for all member institutions.

All university libraries are included in the National Archives’ Discovery catalogue at <>, which provides contact details and has catalogue entries for archival material (i.e. not books or periodicals) relating to individuals, families and organizations. The Archives Hub at <> is a site which offers descriptions of archival collections in over 170 academic libraries.

University library sites do not generally cater for family historians, but the University of London’s Helpers site at <> is an exception in that it is specifically designed to assist with research about individuals — the name stands for ‘Higher Education Libraries in your PERsonal history reSearch’. It includes a database which lists and describes the holdings in the University’s colleges and institutions that may be useful in genealogical research, and has guides to using Higher Education libraries.

Bear in mind that university libraries are not open to the general public and that you will normally need to make a written application in advance in order to have access, particularly in the case of manuscript material.

Family History Centers and the Family History Library

The LDS Church’s Family History Centers (FHCs), increasingly referred to as FamilySearch Centers, are valuable not just because they hold microfiche copies of the GRO indexes and other materials, but because any UK genealogical material which has been microfilmed by the Church can be ordered for viewing in a FHC, and this includes many parish registers. Also, their computer suites provide free access to some commercial genealogical data.

Contact details for FHCs are given on the FamilySearch site at <>. If you use the basic search, you may get no results if there’s not an exact match. Unless you know there is a centre in a particular town, it may be better to search on a county name. The results are shown as a list of local centres and an interactive map.

Genuki provides a quick way to get listings from the equivalent search facility on the old FamilySearch site (see p. 41): the page at <> has links which will search automatically for all FHCs in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

The key to exploiting this immense wealth of material is the Family History Library (FHL) catalogue, which can be consulted online at the FamilySearch site. The catalogue search is available by clicking on the word ‘catalog’ above the search boxes on the home page. This offers searches by place, surname or, for published works, author. There is also a beta version of a keyword search. Note that there is no advanced search — you can only search on one field. If you enter a place-name, the search page will validate this and convert it automatically to show the country, county and place. The search results show a list of the various types of record available for it. Figure 13-8 shows the initial results of a place search for West Horsley in Surrey, while Figure 13-9 shows the expanded entry for ‘Church records’, with descriptions of the various items available.


Figure 13-8: Search results for West Horsley, Surrey, in the FHL catalogue


Figure 13-9: Search results for West Horsley, Surrey, in the FHL catalogue — Church records

In order to find the microfilm reference for one of the entries, you need to click on it to bring up the ‘Title Details’ screen (Figure 13-10). This tells you the repository where the material is held (or was at the time of filming), together with the repository’s reference for the material. This means you could even use the FHL catalogue as a partial catalogue to county record offices. Under the ‘Notes’ heading is detailed information on the microfilms relating to this item (Figure 13-10) with an exact description of what is on each film, together with the film reference which you can now use to order the film at an FHC.


Figure 13-10: FHL catalogue search Title Details

The Society of Genealogists

The Society of Genealogists is home to the premier genealogical library in the country and its website is at <>. General information about the library is at <> and there is a link to the library catalogue from <>. There are two types of search: the default browse search takes you to the first item in the catalogue which matches your search criteria, or the more useful ‘Power Search’ allows you to select items based on up to three fields.

In order to use the library, you need to be a member of the Society or pay a search fee (see <>, or follow the ‘How to find us’ link at the foot of the page). But even if you are not in a position to use the library itself, the comprehensive nature of the Society’s collections makes the catalogue a valuable guide to which parish registers, for example, have been transcribed, or what has been published on a particular surname. If you are not already familiar with the library and its catalogue, it will be worth looking at the tutorial at <>, particularly if you want to search for place-names or surnames.

Beyond the British Isles

If you need to consult archives outside the UK and Ireland the best general starting points will be the pages for individual countries on Cyndi’s List — each of these has a section headed ‘Libraries, Archives & Museums’, with links not only to the national archives, but also to major provincial archives. Of course, if the country is not English-speaking you may not be able to make full use of the site, but you will often find at least some basic information in English and an email address for enquiries.

The Family History Centers have microfilmed records from many countries, and searching on a country in the Family History Library Catalog will list the various types of record and what has been filmed (see p. 221).

Next chapter: 14 Surnames, Pedigrees and Families