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Friday
Oct262012

When was the last time you…?  

….visited an archive?

Before I even start, I’m going to say one thing. I love archives and local studies libraries and libraries. On honeymoon, I took my brand new husband to no less than four – Boston Public Library, Mass Archives, Cambridge Public Library and Harvard (although I couldn’t get into the last one). I’m also going to be open about the fact that I work in one, so I’m biased.

But I really believe they are wonderful, and they need our support.

So many people I talk to exclusively research online at home, many of them believing that everything they could possibly want is already digitised and available if they type it into a search engine or one of the market leading genealogy sites. In reality, despite the giant leaps taken in recent years, there is still a great deal more information available offline.

Don’t get me wrong, I make extensive use of online resources and am very pleased that so many ‘staple’ resources can be easily accessed via my laptop, iPad or my phone (in many cases, importantly, in the form of images of primary sources). Having said that, I think that those that don’t look elsewhere are seriously limiting themselves, both in terms of what they look at, and in terms of the whole ‘experience’ of researching. There is a balance to be struck between online/offline, and depending on what you're looking for, that balance may shift backwards and forwards.

I am a great advocate of going beyond census and BMD to build a family tree or write a house history. What is the use of a long list of names and dates? Is it really better to make the biggest tree possible, or to bring a smaller amount of characters ‘to life’ by utilising every source you can get your hands on, be it parchment, newsprint, photograph, paper or other object? The answer will depend on you own personal goals, but personally, I tend towards the latter.

Visiting your local has never been more important than it is today. All around the country posts are being cut, opening hours reduced, facilities closed and accessibility altered. If we as researchers - in whatever branch of history - don’t use our archives and libraries, who will? These treasure troves of records, sounds, pictures, stories and lives are no good to anyone if they remain locked away with no one to look at them and no staff to help visitors discover them.

I don't understand the notion of someone having "done" their family tree. As far as my own goes, the more I do, the more questions I have, and the more I want to find out/check/cross reference (don't believe everything you read on a website, nor everything you read in an old hand!). There will always be things I haven't found yet, new sources to try, and new leads to follow and these will be located both on and offline. 

If you don’t have a library card or a CARN card, get one. Ideally get both! Libraries these days are much more user friendly and offer far more to you than just plain old books. Locally to me for example, beyond the physical resources that I love so much, your library card allows access to at least one, if not two, major genealogy websites for free - saving you money on subscriptions. It also allows you to access vast digital newspaper archives as well as Who’s Who, recent newspapers and business information to mention a few. All this in surroundings which lend themselves to further research in large archive collections that exist only in the real world.

Look out for events, too. There are probably talks, workshops and community groups near you that you could go to, and often they’re even free! Many libraries and archives are on twitter now, have facebook pages and mailing lists - it's getting ever easier to find out what they're up to and when and where it's happening.

However useful computers and the internet are - and will continue to be - there is something very special about looking at an original manuscript or volume. The texture, the sound… even the smell! You might be the first person to look at it for decades. My laptop isn’t half so magical. Believe it or not, I often even find microfilm better than the internet - the speed can be so slow around here that browsing a microfilm reel is actually a lot more efficient! What's more, lots of libraries now have wifi, so you can have the best of both worlds and strike the perfect balance between on and offline.

My plea to you is to ask you to find something new in your local facility, be that a resource, an event or even a piece of knowledge acquired from the staff there. If you went many years ago and found it stuffy, give it another try. If you rely on transcriptions, go and find the real thing - a lot of the time you'll get more (and better) information. Ask questions. Ask more questions. Look for posters about upcoming activities. Most of us staff love to help you, and some of us might even be able to help you with a thing or too….!

Go on, I dare you.

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