A Beginner’s Guide to Archives is a guest blog post by Alistair McGowan, professional genealogist and owner of bespokeGenealogy.com.

Originally from the UK, Alistair now lives in Ontario, Canada, where he runs his genealogy business & research services. Alistair is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists and has a Postgraduate Certificate in Genealogical, Paleographic and Heraldic Studies from the University of Strathclyde in Scotland. 

If you have any UK ancestry, be sure to follow Alistair on Pinterest, where we connected. His images are beautiful and his posts are filled with useful family history resources, travel tips, and such detail it’s hard to believe he spends any time in Canada. His blog and Pinterest images have inspired me to plan a Heritage trip to the UK! 

My thanks in advance to Alistair for his willingness to share his knowledge. Now, on to his guest post, A Beginner’s Guide to Archives.


It used to be that the only way you could do any genealogical research yourself was to visit at least one archive. That’s all changed of course with the growth of the internet and the emergence of the large database sites like Ancestry and Family Search; so researching your family tree has never been easier. However, I read somewhere that less than 10% of genealogical records are available online, with the balance sitting, un-scanned, in archives. Therefore, if you want to move beyond vital records and census returns etc and add some real depth to your research, you’re going to have to use archives, either directly or indirectly via a researcher. This post then, looks at how to make the best use of an archive and what the options are if you can’t get to it.


I remember the first time I visited an archive; it was 1980 and I was a student at Leeds Polytechnic in the UK. As part of our Local History studies, we had a field trip to the local repository. Our tutor encouraged us to browse the card catalogue (nothing was computerized then) and pick out some items that interested us. I chose some documents relating to the building of the impressive Victorian Leeds Town Hall. I discovered that there was some controversy over the construction of the clock tower which sits on top of the building. I hadn’t realized that it wasn’t part of the original design and that there was a lot of opposition to the additional expense. The civic leaders wanted to make a statement and have a more impressive Town Hall than their archrival, Manchester.

Image of Leeds townhall clock tower

After my 1980 visit, I was hooked and would often visit archives just for the pleasure of browsing the card catalogue and finding unusual random documents to read. I especially liked looking at early maps and seeing how places that I knew developed. Later, I used archives for actual research; at first for local history projects and then more recently for genealogy. If you’ve never been to an archive, I encourage you to visit your local one if you can. Check the catalogue (they are often online now) and chose some documents that take your fancy, even if they have nothing to do with your family history. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the experience.


What Records do Archives hold?  

Archives hold many different types of records, anything that is considered to be in the public interest to hold on to. The records are usually unique, unpublished, rare and often one of a kind. Some rare, published material will also be kept in archives. Examples of the type of material of interest to family historians include:

  • Historical maps

  • Correspondence

  • Photographs

  • Civil birth, marriage and death records

  • Church records

  • Militia muster rolls and other military records

  • Electoral registers

  • Legal records

  • Early telephone books and directories

  • Divorce records

  • School records

  • Health records

  • Land records

  • Employment records

  • Historic newspapers

  • Wills

And much more!


What are the different types of archives?

Any individual or organization can have an archive. I’m sure most of us have built up archives relating to our own family history, although our collections are not usually open to the public! Having said that, some of us may later donate our archives to a local or family history society or to an organization like the Society of Genealogists; and then the records would be accessible to all. So, the main types of archives are:

  • National archives. Most countries have central repositories, usually based in their capital cities holding documents relating to the central government as well as culturally significant items and books. Some countries, like the UK, separate their national archives and library into separate organizations, whereas others, like Canada have a combined collection.

  • Local government archives. Most Western countries will have regional archives which may be at state, province, county and municipal level or a combination of all of them. Canada, for example, has archives in the provinces and territories as well as some of the larger cities. The UK has archives in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as in most counties and some larger cities.

  • Religious archives. Many faiths will have central archives and/or collections at places of worship. These collections may only be accessible to members of that faith, or they may be open to the general researcher.

  • LDS. Not really fitting into the category above, special mention should be made of the Family History Library, in Salt Lake City, Utah, run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). This library contains millions of genealogical records from around the world, mostly on microfilm. The LDS also has Family History Centres dotted around the globe.

  • Academic institution archives. Universities and colleges usually have archives relating to the history and academic work of that institution. Many will also have “special” collections, often donated by individuals or organizations and deemed to be culturally or historically important. These collections may then have been expanded by the addition of further work. A good example of this is the Scottish Business Archive held by Glasgow University. This collection has material going back to the 18th century and focuses on companies and industries (like shipbuilding and textiles) that were based in the west of Scotland.

  • Corporate archives. Some companies have been around for a long time and may have built up a significant archive, especially if they have acquired other businesses along the way. An example of this type is the General Motors archive, based in the GM Heritage Centre in Sterling Heights, Michigan. Company archives may have limited access and researching can only be done by special arrangement.

  • Museums, especially larger ones, often have significant archives. The Museum of London, for example, has a huge archive with material dating back to the early days of the city.

  • Historical Societies have often amassed collections over the years and are usually accessible by members. Some examples include the Etobicoke Historical Society in Toronto, the Florida Historical Society and the North Yorkshire Moors Railway Trust.

  • Genealogy Societies may hold archives. The Society of Genealogists in London, for example, has a very large collection containing genealogies of hundreds of families as well as other related material. Some local family history societies have also built up archives containing, for example, family histories and transcriptions from church records.

  • Trade union and professional associations. Examples of these organizations with significant archives include the Teamsters in the US and the Royal College of Nursing in the UK.


How do I find an archive?

A good place to start is OnGenealogy as there are links to many archives on this site. In the Resources section of my website, Bespoke Genealogy, I have links to all the county archives in England, Wales and Scotland (in the parish register guides).

You can use the Archives Grid to search millions of collections held in archives throughout the World as well as locating them on a map.

Using Google to find archives is also very effective.


How do I plan for a visit to an archive?

If you are visiting an archive to do some family research, the first thing to do is determine exactly what records it holds and what information you are likely to get from them. This is quite easy to do if the archive’s catalogue is online. If it isn’t, it’s advisable to call or email the archive to check whether they hold the records you are looking for.

Check the guidelines for visiting on the archive’s website. You may need to make an appointment to book a seat, there may be limited opening times and there will be restrictions on what you can bring into the reading room and the number of items you can take out at once. You may also have to reserve the items you want to see in advance as they may have to be brought in from another building.


What are my options if I can’t visit an archive?

You may not be able to visit an archive containing the documents you want to see because it’s thousands of miles from where you live. You will therefore need to get someone to look at the document for you and, if possible, make a copy of it. Very often, the archivist can do this and will charge a fee. They often have a standard rate charged per half hour, with half an hour being the minimum charge. If they can’t do it themselves, they may be able to recommend a local researcher who can.

Failing that, the local family history society may be able to provide someone to look up a document, again for a fee. Organizations like the Association of Professional Genealogists, AGRA in England and ASGRA in Scotland have members that can do research in archives. Their websites have directories where you can find genealogists that are local to the archive. Their rates will probably be much higher than if the archivist did the work though.

Good luck with your research!


Please pin this image for future reference:


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.