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Digital Subscriptions > Family Tree > May 2018 > Get you r hands onhistory

Get you r hands onhistory

In the British Isles there are thousands of archives, housing millions of documents. This wealth of treasures spanning centuries of history isn’t just saved for posterity, it is very much accessible to us today. Helen Tovey explores a round-up of the nation’s key archives and their websites and shows the ways in which we can use them to find clues about our family’s history


What I particularly love about the record collections in the archives is the way in which so much of the whole messy story of the past is so carefully stowed away – from documents that have completely changed the course of history, to others that simply record a poignant insight to an individual person’s life.

In recent decades, people have been ever-curious about looking at this complete picture of the past (ie not just the accounts of kings, generals, prime ministers and so forth), and, as family historians, we couldn’t agree more. The lives of ordinary, real people matter – and make for fascinating research too!

While we will be able to pick up a biography of a monarch, say; if we want to discover the story one of our ancestors, the chances are that there will be no published book on the subject. The only way that we’re going to be able to piece together the tale of their life will be by examining original historical records. And this is where the collections in archives come into their own.

Increasingly archives are digitising selected records so that we can relish our research using whatever techy devices we have. Yet many more records are solely available at the archives themselves (or sometimes via bespoke record-copying services).

Looking at the range and scan quality of the archive collections that have been digitised makes for encouraging reading – and luxurious viewing – for remote researchers.


To locate an archive from among the 2,50 0 liste d by The National Archives go to

Exploring world-class treasures in our nation’s archives

Visit TNA’s website for downloads, guides and to order documents to view at Kew

The online catalogues meanwhile make it easy to track down undigitised records of interest, and pre-order them to the archive or library, ready for a productive day of study.

The National Archives’ (TNA) records cover all areas of the British Isles, former Empire and Commonwealth and it’s the largest of the nation’s archives. For further collections specific to Scotland, Wales and Ireland, the other national archives and libraries will need to be consulted. See the ‘Fact-files’ for details about the range of resources the archives’ websites and reading rooms have to offer.


The National Archives Visit the website to

• Search TNA’s catalogue: using the catalogue – called Discovery – you can search 32 million descriptions, and access downloads of 9 million records (some free, some paid, usual TNA fee £3.50 per download).

• Use Discovery to choose to search solely TNA holdings, or simultaneously search any or all of 2,500 archives across the country.

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About Family Tree

Where are you going to take your family history this spring? From planning a trip to The National Archives to a meander down memory lane, there are so many choices... I bet there are few among us whose hearts don’t gladden when spring is in the air, and this issue we’ve got all sorts of ideas to help you get out and about and enjoying your family history. Whether you’re going to pay a visit to the archives, or plan a day out or weekend away to the places where your family once came from, it’s sure to add so much to what you know about your ancestors’ lives. It’s definitely true – the more we look, the more we learn. Have fun!