I'm a professional genealogist based in the UK, near London. That means that I can easily travel to the National Archives at Kew (TNA) and many of the other archives, record offices and libraries that are in and around London.

Many of the records that we are all familiar with (birth, marriage and death indexes, census returns and so on) are available online and I use those for research too. But sooner or later you come to the end of the line in terms of online records, and that's when a look at the original documents (or at the very least a paper or microfilm copy) is essential.

For example on my last visit to TNA I was looking up records of an Army officer in the eighteenth century. The records I needed were regimental muster rolls, which have never been indexed or copied. The only way you can read them is to open up the dusty archive box, untie the string or tape that by the look of it was last untied about 100 years ago, and carefully unfold parchment sheets about 3 feet (1 metre square), covered in eighteenth century handwriting. And that's just the start - there are hundreds of names on each sheet to be deciphered, and you may need to go through 10 or 20 sheets before you find the person you are looking for - if you find him/her!

Luckily for me (and my client) I found what I was looking for, and some hours later, somewhat dusty but triumphant, I emerged from the building clutching my trusty digital camera containing photos of the document I had found. In this case it was vital that I had an idea of which document might contain the information I needed, and where to look for it - that isn't always straightforward and it's one of the reasons you might consider using a professional researcher in your family history quest. Frequently the information isn't quite where you might expect it to be, and I think one of the most important talents for any genealogist is to be able to think "outside the box" - the archive box of course!


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