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My Guide To Using County Records Offices

Rosamunde Bott,

nce you have exhausted your online search as far back as 1837, you will need to start searching offline records in order to go further back. If you are in the UK, this means visiting the relevant county records office, but if you are outside of the UK you may wish to hire a UK genealogist to do the search for you.

The main documents for finding ancestors before 1837 are parish registers. These are mostly now held at the local county record office for that parish.

Preparing to use the archives

It is highly recommended that you contact the appropriate record office or centre before you arrive. Each record office has its own way of working, and with some you may need to book a space or a microfiche reader. You also need to make sure they are not closed on that day (some close on certain days of the week). You will also need to ask whether you need to bring some form of identification. Most CROs now issue a record office identity card which can be used to gain entry to record offices across the country.

Before setting off, you will need to make sure you have the following:

Pencils. In all archives, pens are banned and all your notes must be made by pencil. I recommend you supply yourself with a set of cheap propelling pencils with an eraser on the end. Normal pencils become blunt very quickly and you will get fed up with having to sharpen every half hour!

A Pad of A4 paper. I prefer A4 lined paper because you have more space to make notes and set out lists.

Small Change. If you want to photocopy or print documents you will need to pay a small fee. You will probably also need some coins to feed the coffee machines, lockers and, in some cases, parking meters.

Your notes. Any large bags will have to be put in a locker, so make sure you have everything you will need, including your previous notes, to hand.

Identification. If its your first visit you will probably need to register for a ticket and will be asked for identification. A driving licence is usually fine.

Magnifying Glass. This may not be absolutely necessary, but if you want to look at wills and other documents it can be very useful when deciphering handwriting.

Packed Lunch. Its up to you, of course, but some record offices do not have caf facilities, and unless the archives are in the centre of a town, you may find there are very limited refreshment opportunities.

What to expect when you arrive

You will normally need to sign in and leave your coats and any bags in lockers.

If its your first visit you will usually find that the record office staff in the search and index rooms are very helpful and will direct you to the readers and show you how to use the indexes and the readers. I wont go into much detail here because each CRO has a different system so you will need to find out when you get there. However, you will normally be able to help yourself to microfiche or film once you have found out how they are indexed.

Microfiches and Microfilms

Parish registers are usually recorded on microfiche or film. The first time you use a microfilm reader you will probably need some help from the staff to load the film. As most films carry several parishes, you will need to wind the film through to the appropriate place - this can take some time. Some readers have an old-fashioned manual winding system, but if you are lucky you might find one with an electronic winder which makes the task much quicker. Luckily, most registers are copied on microfiche, which is much easier to use.

Making Notes

Dont just make notes on the successful searches. Make a note of every source you use and whether you find anything or not. If you do not do this, the chances are you will find yourself wasting time going through the same sources if you visit the record office again. Duplicating work you have already done is a terrible waste of time, so do remember this important rule!

Follow the above guide to using county records offices and you will be fully prepared. Alternatively, if you do not have the time, you can hire a UK genealogist to do it for you.

Ros is a professional genealogist and runs a UK ancestry tracing service for UK and international researchers who need help with their UK ancestry. Ros offers a "one-stop-shop" tracing service for all UK ancestors, or can carry out local searches in Warwickshire and Birmingham. Find out more at http://www.tracingancestors-uk.com.


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