Saturday 19th November 2016 is the start of a weeklong ‘Explore your Archives’ campaign organised by The National Archives.  This annual event helps to highlight, many of the thousands of different records that are held in local archive centres in the UK and Ireland. 

Although there are numerous family history records available online, this is still only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the Archive Centres hold.  Sadly the internet culture is encouraging the armchair researcher who rarely visits their local archives, let alone takes the time to visits those in the area of their ancestors. It is these researchers that lose out on the riches that can be found inside the vaults, and the enormous expertise and experience of the archive staff. 

During the 30 plus years I have been doing family history research I have visited many archive offices across the country, and have never failed to be impressed by them. There is a phrase ‘use it or lose it’, which is particularly true to these wonderful places. Too many archive centres, which house much of our historical heritage, are reducing their opening hours, or are being closed completely, frequently due to budget cuts and few visitors.  In this day and age it is unrealistic to expect such places to stay open and pay the high costs of lighting, heating, staff wages, security measures, as well as insurance policies, when only a minority of people use them.

Most family history researchers know that their research should include more than births, marriages and death records, and census returns.  Local archive centres have a bewildering array of records, often dating from the medieval period to the 20th century, that can help you build up a picture not only the lives of your ancestors but also placing them in context with the times, locality and events they experienced.

Archive centres are not just tasked to safely house the documents, many of which are extremely valuable, they also have to give the public reason access to them, whilst still protecting them from damage. For this reason many have conservation areas, which may be hidden from the public.  I am lucky that the East Riding of Yorkshire Archives, in Beverley have a conservation workshop with a viewing window so the public can watch the conservators at work.  The centre also runs classes and tours which include being able to enter this important area. Archives also have the responsibility to educate us in how to use, care and preserve records, and what archivists actually do. To this end many hold regular events and classes, for adults and children. Contact your local centre to see what they offer.   

Many archive centres now have an online catalogue of their holdings, some of which may have indexed some of the people involved.  A few centres have images of selected records online, such as the Lincs to the Past website which is part of the Lincolnshire archives.  

Some archives are also using social media to interact with the public, using Facebook, Twitter, Flickr or other sites.  Sadly not all archives have the staff to regularly update these sites, and some Councils’ appear to disapprove of their centres having a dedicated social media presence, for various reasons. It appears that more centres have a twitter account, which is probably why the ‘Explore your Archives’ campaign is being run using the hashtag #explorearchives on Twitter, but not on Facebook. The Register of Qualified Genealogists (RQG), however, is running their own Facebook campaign – My Favourite Archive’ to compliment the official one, to support our local archives, and uses the same hashtag.

Most of the archive centres also offer a lookup or short research option. If this does not suit your needs, contact a reputable professional genealogist to visit the centre for you. The archive centre may hold a list. Leaves Family History Research Services has easy access to the archives in Kingston upon Hull, East Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, so contact me if you need help in these areas.    

The Explore your Archives campaign may only run for a few days, but you can support them throughout the year in a variety of ways. If you live close to a centre try to drop in regularly to support the events they run, otherwise join their social media sites and share their posts with your friends. The official Explore Your Archives website lists some of the events taking place across the country.