Sources and resources

Archives for family history

In this first post in my new series of articles about libraries and archives I think it is worth examining the role of archives and how we access them.

What is an archive?

An archive is a collection of historical records and also the physical place that these records are stored. Most archival records are unpublished materials, although some may have been published in some format. For example, digital images may be published online. Archival records tend to comprise mostly original records, although some archives also collect unpublished derivative materials.

Most archives that we use in family history are collected and managed by government or other organisations, but individual or family collections of papers can also be considered as archives.

Why archives are important in family history research

In family history research we rely heavily on government and church records. Few of these ever get published and are instead stored in archives. Archives may also hold business records, legal documents and personal papers, such as letters.

Few of our families have books written about them and even if there are books, best practice requires us to examine original records, which makes archives a treasure trove for research.

Searching archival records

Libraries and archives both use catalogues to list the material that they hold. Catalogues are then used by researchers to locate material. Most archives provide access to their catalogues online.

Unlike a library, describing unpublished archival material adequately in a catalogue is quite a challenge. This can make it difficult for a researcher to find material of relevance. Because of the challenge in cataloguing the material, it is not uncommon for archives to have a backlog of uncatalogued material.

While most libraries use the Dewey Decimal system to catalogue their items, each archive seems to invent their own system. To search an archive catalogue effectively, you need to learn their cataloguing system, appropriate search terms and short cuts.

On its own, the description of an archival record rarely provides much detail about the content of the material. Further detail may be provided by indexing, which lists key word descriptors. When a researcher searches a catalogue, the search examines the catalogue title and description, and the additional indexed text.

It is not uncommon for archives to have a huge backlog of material that has not been indexed. This is unfortunate for family historians, as we search for surnames and they are rarely included in the title or description of a record.

Accessing archives

Access to archives varies depending on the organisation managing them and the funding available for facilitating access. Most have their catalogues online and many allow researchers to order a copy online and have it sent to them. However, due to the difficulty in describing archival records and limited indexing, it can be challenging for a researcher to determine whether it is worth paying for a copy without first viewing the record.

Some archives provide access to digital images of their records online. However, digitising is an expensive and time-consuming process. In 2021, the National Archives of Australia reported that it had only digitised 4% of its collection (ABC article). And digitising is just the first step. Making the digital images available online requires additional resources that may be out of reach to smaller archives.

So, the message here? Archival records are essential when researching your family history. Learn about the collections that they hold, how they describe them in their catalogues, how to search their catalogues – and then visit them in person. By visiting an archive in person you can view materials before purchasing copies, view materials that have not been digitised and seek help from archivists.

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