Often when helping researchers, we run to the end of the line with what is directly available online through images and databases. Even local library resources may be finite. It is at this point that records which have not been digitized must be examined. They may not even be available in microform.
All too often, when meeting up with this situation, researchers give up. The most common response I hear is “My ancestors lived in [insert name of location hundreds or thousands of miles away here]. It is too expensive and I cannot afford to visit there.”
Let us put aside for the moment the fact that many people simply assume that it will be too expensive and never actually investigate the possibility. Now let me tell you a story of how quickly, and relatively inexpensively, I discovered records not available in the United States and obtained copies of them.
In preparing for a research trip to England, I have been searching catalogs and finding aids from the Northamptonshire Record Office and the Oxfordshire History Centre. I am creating lists of materials I wish to examine on my research trip. As part of that preparation, I found entries that referenced some seventeenth-century letters as part of a collection of family papers located at the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies in Aylesbury. The family owned property in both Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire, which is why the records were cross-referenced.
These letters were supposed to have been written by Thomas Franklin, an uncle of Benjamin Franklin (part of my Franklin project). He was acting as an agent for the property owner, and the letters discussed various people renting property at Ecton (where Thomas lived).
I went to the website for the Buckinghamshire County Council, of which the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies is a part. Although some records (such as copies of civil registrations, wills, and parish registers) can be ordered directly online, the letters were not listed as available. I sent a blind email through a form. I informed the recipient that I live in America, and was trying to obtain copies of the letters, and asked that the process should be. I included the reference numbers and descriptions for the letters.
I sent the message over the weekend, and first thing Monday morning I got a very friendly letter from the archivist. She information me that I could purchase either digital or paper copies, and told me what the fees were for each version. The next step would be for me to tell her my choice for receiving the documents. She would then information the accounting department for the county council. Unfortunately they are not equipped for online billing, so paper invoice needed to be sent to me for payment.
I told her that digital images were fine with me, and I looked forward to receiving the invoice. I sent that email last Monday afternoon. On Tuesday morning another email from the archivist was waiting in my inbox. Attached to the email were digital images of the letters. She informed me that the invoice was being processed. the invoice was cut the following day, and I received it in today’s post. Fortunately, although not set up for online billing, the county is set up for online payments. I immediately logged in and payed the bill.
The images were £2.50 each. There were 9 images, for a total of £22.50 (about US $36). I now have copies of the three letters, dating to the 1670s and 80s. On opening them I realized immediately that they belonged to the correct Thomas Franklin, as he had a very distinctive signature which I recognized immediately.
The moral of this story is that whether or not you think you can visit a place in person, it pays to keep your mind open. You will not always be able to find digital images of what you need online, but they may be just a few mouse clicks and emails away. In just a few days I had images of records with valuable information, and for far less than a trip to England. But it did take a lot of digging and using catalogs. Obtaining the records, however, was quite simple and easy.