An Archive is not a Library
Sometimes I am reminded that family historians can make assumptions that others understand what we mean when we refer to records and archives.
I was talking to a man at a bar recently and with a drink in hand he asked me to educate him a bit about this genealogy pastime of mine.
It was when I had got to the bit where I was explaining about records and how they are kept in archives and other repositories and he said to me:
“So when you go to one of these libraries, how do you know if they have the records that you are looking for?”
That was when I realised that, in his mind, he saw an archive as just a sort of library, with loads of dusty records sitting on the shelves just waiting for us to go in browse a little and then find our ancestors within the files.
Notwithstanding that some archives share a building with a library (I am thinking of Portsmouth and Birmingham to name just two) I had to explain that they were really very different beasts. It is complicated by some major libraries having collections of records that are relevant to our ancestor research – the likes of universities, the British Library and so on – but generally a library and an archive are not the same thing.
This conversation reminded me of something I had read in Chapter 9 of Tracing Your Pre-Victorian Ancestors by John Wintrip. His explanation is that:
‘Archives resemble retail catalogue showrooms, in which customers use a catalogue to identify the items they require, which are then fetched from storage areas by members of staff.’
I so loved the analogy of browsing a sort of genealogical Argos where we select a record collection in which to research our ancestors. Inevitably I used it in my conversation and immediately saw a realisation cross the face of my friend at the bar.
I gave him an example of a recent visit I made to The National Archives. I used the Discovery catalogue to look for a particular person, whom I was researching, and found that TNA held his 1919 divorce papers. I was able to select it from the online catalogue, book myself a seat at a table in the reading room and then wait for the archive staff to bring the file of documents to be collected from the locker.
By now examining the bundle of papers I was able to understand that my subject had been divorced by his wife as he would not return home to her after fighting at the Somme in the First World War. Who knows the exact human details of the case, but the court ordered him to return to her or his marriage would be legally ended. The result was that he refused and so they were divorced; but happily they remarried at a much later date.
By also ordering up his service papers I discovered that, as he waited to be demobbed, he was being treated for depression as a result of his experiences in the war.
So my drinking acquaintance now understood that it was not simply a case of browsing down the shelves of a library, where all the books are arranged alphabetically by subject to find what we required, but that records were catalogued by reference in an archive and that we order up what we want from the strong rooms in which they are held.
The subject of how archives reference those records in their catalogue is another matter altogether. If you want to learn more then you could do a lot worse than reading the chapter on Archives in Tracing Your Pre-Victorian Ancestors by John Wintrip.
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