This week we spoke to Mark Pearsall, Principal Records Specialist for Family History at the UK’s National Archives, and author of The Family History Companion, as well as several family history articles.
The National Archives store historical documents for the UK going back 1,000 years, and have a lot to offer the family historian with roots in the UK. Mark talked to us about the archives, as well as about family history more broadly.
MH: A lot of people talk about the growing popularity of family history over recent years. Is that something you’ve noticed at The National Archives?
MP: Oh yes, very much so. I’ve worked at The National Archives for over 20 years, and family history has always played a large part in our work, but the number of family historians coming in has steadily gone up.
The numbers rose in the 1990s, and went sky high in the early years of the 20th Century, mainly because more and more records are accessible now than there were 20 years ago. More and more records have been indexed, digitized and made available online, and it’s much easier now for people to start for that reason. Years ago you sometimes had to take time off work, you had to be prepared to go into records offices and spend days ploughing through records trying to find information. It’s now much quicker to actually get the basics and get started, so it’s much more popular, and much easier to do.
So the growth in popularity stems from the growing ease of access to these records?
Yes, and it’s also the fact that family history is much more in the media now than it used to be. Who Do You think You Are? and other shows and mentions, on TV and radio, have really driven awareness of the hobby too. So it’s now more in the public domain, and more and more people aware of it, and that and the fact that it’s now easier to get started has just encouraged more people to take it up as a hobby.
A lot of people nowadays do their research primarily online, and indeed The National Archives has a good deal of information online, so why would someone actually need to come and visit The National Archives itself?
Well, it’s largely because only a tiny proportion of our records are available online. We try to make more popular records available online, either on our own website or through licensing with commercial companies, but it’s still only a small proportion of the records we have. The vast majority of our records are still originals, paper and parchment, going back to the Medieval Period of the 13th and 14th century. And until we get all the records digitized, which will be many many years, there will still be a need for people to visit The National Archives to look at original records.
When you’re starting out – looking at birth, marriage, and death certificates - you don’t necessarily need to come into The National Archives to begin with. It’s once you’ve started to put the family tree together, and you discover people in the army, of government, or other areas where we have documents that you would want to come in and actually consult original records.
Yes, and I would imagine that when people get to the stage where they need to look at these records, they’re often so interested in the hobby that a visit to an archive is not such a big undertaking for them.
That’s right, and they’ve usually started to get a bit more experienced, they’ve found their ancestors on the census and got some idea of their occupations, where they lived and so on, and then they can start looking for other records that can put the flesh on the bones as we say. And then it makes a visit The National Archives worthwhile.
And when people come along, what sorts of records do they most commonly look at?
Well, the most popular records are the military records by far, usually army records but also navy as well. But people also come in to look at records for merchant seamen, people that were in government service, working with customs and excise, anybody that worked as a civil servant or the crown service of sorts. Then there are also records relating to land ownership and legal records, so when people entered into legal disputes or even sometimes just bought and sold property there might be a record of that.
Our records of emigration and immigration are also quite popular. A lot of our visitors are people of Commonwealth or American descent who have ancestors from England and Wales, so we do get a lot of interest from outside the UK as well. In the summer we get a real mixture of people coming in from overseas, lots of Americans and Australians and people from elsewhere.
Finally, do you have any tips for those getting started in family history, or anything you wished you knew before you got started?
Well I suppose one of the best tips – and it sounds fairly obvious but people don’t do it and get into bad habits – is to keep good records. You need to keep a record of what you’ve looked at, what you’ve researched, even if the search has been unsuccessful. If you’ve looked at a particular record, make a note of it and record it. You have to be systematic about it early on, otherwise once you get further into this you’ll accumulate information and re-do searches you’ve done before, and potentially get into a mess. Whether on paper or online in electronic form, you need to have some sort of systematic way of recording what you’ve done.