Researchers spend a lot of time looking for documents. In fact, they may spend more time on this than on reading what they have found. It took me more than 20 years to find my great-grandfather’s birth certificate, but only a few minutes to read it once I had tracked it down. Not that I spent every waking minute of those 20 years in hot pursuit, but I did devote many hours to the problem during that time. It took quite a bit of creative thinking and the use of some less than obvious record sources to get there, but I made it in the end, and felt very pleased with myself as a result. The fact that the answer to one question presented me with another bigger, and so far unresolved, problem is neither here nor there.
Many kinds of research lend themselves to the use of standard sources which provide the essential information in most cases. Genealogists in particular use various birth, marriage and death records, census returns and probate records to work their way back through the generations. This works fairly well much of the time, but when you can’t find the marriage or the census entry you want then you become stuck. But when the direct approach doesn’t work there may be another way. Think about it; when you say that you need to find a death certificate, or a census entry, what you really mean is that you need the information that you would expect to find in that document, rather than the piece of paper itself. So if your search is unsuccessful, think about the specific information you want, and then consider whether you might be able to find it from another source. Sometimes you will find that there is more information in the alternative source than you would have found in your first choice.
PCC Will of Colin McKenzie 1808, en route from Jamaica to England
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So the Opening up Archives programme is in its eighth month – we’ve passed the halfway mark and over half of us trainees have blogged here in our very own Trainee Tuesday slot. We’ve had posts on digital preservation, augmented reality, and we’ve learnt about projects and collections within our hosts’ archives, in Leicester Records Office and in London Metropolitan Archives. Oh, and we also learnt that one of our fellow trainees likes to masquerade as a frustrated 18th century spinster online. Well, to each their own.
A lot of collections we’ve seen so far are rooted in the 20th century onwards, but my traineeship goes back a little further than that. I and my fellow trainee, Amy, are based at the Borthwick Institute for Archives undergoing a traineeship that could easily be titled ‘learning to read really old things’. In fact that’s how I describe it to people who ask. Ours is the only traineeship which focuses mainly on these more ‘traditional’ skills: palaeography (the writing), diplomatic (the format), and Latin (the dead language).
And it makes sense really, when you think of the Borthwick’s holdings: an enormous collection of ecclesiastical records including parish registers, visitations, church court records, vast collections of diocesan records and probate records. Many of the documents we are interested in date back to medieval times. Don’t get me wrong, we do have records which date from – gasp – this century; we have a digital archivist and we even have a twitter account! However, in order for us to get anywhere in our traineeship we definitely need the skills we are learning.
In order for us to learn these skills we have to practice, and we’ve found that the best documents to practice with are Cause Papers and wills. The Cause Papers in particular feature a variety of English and Latin, follow a set format and often they can feature narratives which could rival a soap opera’s.
PCC Will of Anne Slack 1843 PROB 11/ 1977
Researchers and writers use documents from The National Archives a lot. You will find references to these documents in the footnotes of many a scholarly volume, and we even have a guide to Citing documents in The National Archives.
But some of the documents we hold are fakes or forgeries, and sometimes the fact that they are fakes is what makes them interesting.