25 REASONS TO VISIT THE ARCHIVES
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The UK and Ireland are home to more than 2,000 archives where our ancestors’ history is preserved in mostly paper form. If you’ve only ever dipped into online records, you’re missing out on a multitude of documents that could greatly enrich the interpretation of your forebears’ lives.
The 1838 Public Record Office Act ensured the safeguarding of key government and legal papers. Ancient rolls kept at the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey were transferred to a purpose-built Public Record Office (PRO) on London’s Chancery Lane, and in 1977 a larger building opened in Kew. The National Archives (TNA), as it became known in 2003, is now the official repository of records created by the UK central
government ( nationalarchives.gov.uk).
Only about five per cent of government records are deemed worthy of permanent preservation, but many contain information on ‘ordinary’ individuals in the armed forces, merchant navy, civil service, or who came to the attention of the government for some other reason. Whether your ancestor was a teacher, criminal or spy there may well be a record of them, and the guides at
nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research explain what’s online and what’s not. The estimated 80 million documents that have been digitised are just a fraction of the total records lining 185km of shelving.
The British Library was formed in 1973, and in addition to collecting a copy of almost every book, newspaper and map published in the UK, it acquired the India Office collections and holds rare manuscripts ( bl.uk). The National Library of Wales performs a similar function, preserving Welsh cultural heritage, which extends to family and estate papers ( llgc.org.uk).
The kingdom of Scotland maintained its own archive, though some material transferred to London during times of war with England was consequently lost. What survives is now held at the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh ( nationalrecordsofscotland.gov.uk), complemented by material at the National Library of Scotland ( www.nls.uk).
The National Archives of Ireland similarly preserves records that survived fire damage during the Civil War in 1922 ( nationalarchives.ie). It houses paperwork of the modern Irish State and non-governmental records created by solicitors, estates and prominent individuals. The National Library of Ireland, also in Dublin, holds more estate papers, maps, newspapers and manuscripts ( www.
nli.ie). The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) ( proni.gov.uk)k was established in 1923 but some older records were transferred there from Dublin.
In England, Wales and Scotland, records of local government, businesses, estates and families are usually deposited in county archives and smaller local studies archives. We’re also lucky to have access to specialist institutions, such as the Royal College of Physicians’ Archives where WDYTYA? discovered a letter from Charles Darwin to Frank Gardner’s ancestor ( rcplondon.ac.uk/archives-and-library). Here are 25 reasons why you should visit the archives.
Who Do You Think You Are?
Who Do You Think You Are?