Where have all the genealogists gone?

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I hate those people who have been on an overseas trip and go on and on about what they saw and did. I do try and not mention my trip, but sometimes experiences are just so pertinent they beg to be shared.

One thing I noted while overseas was the few people I saw in Archives and County Records Offices.  This was in stark contrast to what I encountered on previous occasions when I visited the areas where my ancestors lived. Then, I had to book a seat weeks in advance and share ‘popular’ records, such as parish records, with others.

In some places demand was so great that in larger repositories – such as Registry House in Edinburgh – you could only book seats for a morning session and were then required to go through the whole process of lining up and purchasing a ticket after lunch.

On this trip things were different; this time even large institutions such as the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland had few researchers in their Archives.

This was great for me and my novice assistant. Those records which could have been popular, such as parish records, were lying unbothered when we arrived at the Record Office – so we could uplift them and pore over the pages for hours.  Often, we had the added thrill of having the archivist all to ourselves – so that when we arrived we could pick their brains for records to consult. For me it was great as I was able to see behind the scenes to how they store they records.

It was a wonderful opportunity and something that really enhanced my trip. I was perturbed however at why such fascinating repositories were less full than previously. Those storehouses of knowledge and history seemed to have only dedicated researchers – people working on projects, not the family historians that almost plagued institutions when I first started my family history quest.

Where have they gone?

This is something we here in Ashburton, and throughout the country, have noticed. Where have all the genealogists gone? Do people no longer want to discover their forebears and so gain an insight into where they come from and who they are? Given the proliferation of soap operas on television, I can’t imagine that interest in people has waned.

For me what happened to real people relates to me. Even if it happened in another country, a long time ago, it is far more exciting than the latest romantic liaison on Shortland Street or knowing which desperate girl the bachelor will or won’t he give a rose to.

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Too busy?

My suspicion is that people may be too busy to visit an archive. If that’s the case, at Ashburton Museum we do carry out inquiries for people via phone, email or old fashioned letter, and we are always willing to consider out of hours visits.

Part of my planning for my trip was to familiarise myself with the archives I wanted or needed to go to, their location, opening hours and other requirements. I then emailed ahead to advise them I was coming, what records I would like to see, and a brief description of my topics of research.

As an Archivist, it does help if we know you are coming and what you might like to see; then we can ensure someone is available to meet you, and that we have the records you want brought out from storage. We may also be able to suggest other options or institutions with extra information.  Naturally, however, we are just as happy to see you if you happen to be passing and just want to browse our recently revamped research room.

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On the net?

Sadly, another suspicion is that people believe that this all on the ‘net or that a large payment to ancestry or some other website will, at the insertion of a name, see your whole family neatly displayed on the screen ready for download. Some people spend money on sending away their DNA to hopefully reconnect with long lost members of their extended family, or an identified ethnic group. It all sounds quick and easy.

Ah, if only it was that simple and comprehensive.  While such avenues may give you a list of names or genetic heritage, what is also interesting is the story of the people behind the names and dates.

You also have to be mindful that some of the ‘facts’ on these sites haven’t been checked and may not apply to your ancestor at all.  Only by consulting archives, libraries and other resources can you really understand the lives your ancestors lived.   We are always happy to assist people keen to explore their history, that of their homes, or any other aspect of history that interests them.

While it may take a little time and some effort, an occasional find brings a real thrill.

So we invite you to visit your Archive at Ashburton Museum and add colour and detail to what basic facts you may already have.

By Kathleen Stringer

Captions

  1. One of the souvenirs of my trip. This single item tells us so much about the Brown family of London – that John died and left a young family, and what he and his widow produced, from trunks to hat boxes; and even that they performed funerals (decently!). None of this is to be found through a quick surf on the internet but a well spent hour in an Archive has made this 1700s family come to life. While we may not be able to compete as far as age, our Archive collection still holds real gems for anyone doing local research.
  1. Robin Arnst talks with archivist Kathleen Stringer in the museum archives research room. ©Ashburton Museum.
  1. Song books and parlour games on exhibition in the revamped Archive Research Room at Ashburton Museum, tell the story of children’s and adults interests. ©Ashburton Museum.

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