FFHS - supporting family historians for over 40 years

How to get the most from using original records

Archives provide the building blocks for family history research. They are collections of original or rare materials produced by people and organisations, whether or not they realised that their work would interest future generations.

A large proportion of the archives that you will need to consult for family history research are held in local record offices or The National Archives. Archives may also be found in places such as university libraries and museums. However, in some cases it may not be necessary for you to make a personal visit to obtain the information you seek.

References to "record offices" appearing below also apply to libraries and other places that hold archives.

Archives and Beyond

Archives can be consulted and searched in a number of different ways.

Original Records

The original source may take various forms, including a single sheet of paper, a book, a photograph, a film or a large bundle of parchments that are sewn together and folded into each other.

Accurate Copies

These may be available as microfilms, microfiches or scanned digital images. If skilfully created in ideal conditions, such copies can be as reliable as the original item. An added advantage of an electronic image may be the ability to "zoom in" on sections that are hard to read. However, the technical quality of some films and fiches is poor and images may be in a negative format (i.e. "white on black" writing). Sometimes, pages have been omitted from filming, been only partly filmed or filmed in the wrong order.

Many collections of scanned original documents, such as details of people recorded in censuses for the British Isles and USA, are available online.


A substantial number of key original records, such as parish registers, have been transcribed and either published or remain as a typescript or manuscript. Numerous transcription projects have been undertaken by local family history societies.

The largest collection of parish register copies is at the Society of Genealogists' library. Record offices also often have collections of transcriptions of some of their holdings; it can help to have these available for comparison when you consult the original records.

Many, but by no means all, transcriptions include indexes and/or an explanation of the editorial principles used.

"Systematic" Indexes

These are indexes that specify exactly which records are included and the timeframe covered. For example, "all the marriages between 1558 and 1837 in the parish register for the parish of Norton". Some indexes cover a very large range of records, such as those to national censuses or of all the marriages recorded in a particular county for a lengthy period.

All indexes should be treated with caution. As well as errors and gaps in the original records, the indexers themselves may have introduced mistakes. This is particularly true if an index has not been double-checked or if the people who did the work were unfamiliar with local names and the contemporary handwriting.

"Lucky Dip" Indexes

These are indexes where the types and range of sources covered is either not known or is not readily understandable.

The largest example is the International Genealogical Index (IGI), which is descended from a mixture of baptisms and marriages that were systematically extracted from parish registers and bishop's transcripts plus specific entries and assumptions resulting from individuals' personal research. "Lucky dip" indexes share the potential shortcomings of systematic indexes, with the added disadvantage that it not known exactly which records have been used to compile the index.

Free Online Resources

Although you have to pay to view some online archives and indexes, that is not always the case. Don't forget to visit our list of Free Databases

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