Our online catalogue contains nearly 400,000 entries relating to the archives and local studies collections we hold but it is not necessarily the easiest or most user-friendly site to search. We’re working on several improvements and in the meantime, here is a short guide to how to use the catalogue to find information about individuals – but the advice works for whatever your search might be.
The first thing to know is that the catalogue describes what records are held in the record office not specifics of what is in the records themselves.
It is a bit like buying a book online – the online catalogue tells you the book’s author, title, publication date and gives a brief summary of what the book is about, but you have to actually buy the book (or borrow it from the library) to find out exactly what the book says.
There are thousands of records containing lots of names (not just at Derbyshire Record Office, but also at The National Archives, and other archives around the world). Whilst some of these records have been digitised, shared online and made searchable by name – the most popular being the census returns, birth marriage and death indexes, church registers, pre-1914 school registers and military service records – there are many more that are only accessible by searching through the original archives.
Searching for other sources
If you want to find your ancestors – or indeed a non-relative – you will need to search the catalogue for the records they will be mentioned in rather than searching for the person themselves. Often the best way to do this is to search for the archives of the organisation that will have created the records in the first place. For example:
1. When was my ancestor married?
Search the catalogue for the church where the wedding took place – if it wasn’t a church ceremony, we don’t hold the records. The catalogue for that church will list the marriage registers available, and you will then need to browse the original register (or ask us to search for you) to find the specific details.
Tip: type church and the place name in the Title field (e.g. church Killamarsh) and select Fonds from the Level drop-down menu – click the top result as this will give you a link to the full catalogue
2. Where did my ancestor go to school?
Search the catalogue for the name of the school (or possible schools) they might have attended. The catalogue for the school will list the records available, including any admission registers.
Tip: the catalogue entry for each collection (i.e. each school, business, etc.) which usually gives a brief history of the organisation and summary of records also includes a link for you to browse the whole list of available records.
3. Where did my ancestor work?
Even more so than with school records, the difficulty with this search is knowing which company (or sometimes industry) the person was employed by (in) so as to be able to search for the right records. If you do know – or at least have an rough idea – search the catalogue for the business name or family estate (i.e. if they worked for a landowning family). If they worked in the coal or lead mining industries then our other research guides may also be of assistance (follow links in text).
All of this is good advice for whatever information you might be searching for –
Search the catalogue for the type of record that will contain the information required not for the information itself.
This is also the reason (or part of it) you can’t search for a postcode in the catalogue either.
But… it is usually worth searching for a name, just in case
Although the vast majority of names cannot be searched in the catalogue because it doesn’t contain lists of those mentioned in the original record or book, it is often worth searching because some entries do include personal names.
Tip: Sometimes it might be worth just searching for the surname rather than the full name.
Some records can only really be described by including the name of the person to whom they relate, for example the will of Jane Smith. Some records have been catalogued in more detail than others, so some parish poor relief papers – such as apprenticeship indentures and settlement certificates – might list each record individually (others will just indicate that a bundle of indentures exists).
You may also find that a relative (perhaps from a different branch of your family tree) has donated material to the record office – whilst most families haven’t, some have. If not, it could also be that your family had a connection with another family whose archive is at the record office, perhaps writing a letter to them.
This is also true for material in the local studies library – where the comparison is even more similar to buying a book online. If a book or an article has been written about an individual person or family, the catalogue is likely to include a reference to that person. However, if a book or article about a town includes references to named individuals in the text, then their names won’t appear in the catalogue, you would need to read the book.
Of course, the difficulty is knowing in the first place that the book, or article, or archive is worth looking at in the first place. For this you will need to use your judgement and decide how much time you want to spend searching for information that provides context to an individual’s life.
There are lots of records that include information about people, and the best way to find out what is available is to start with our family history research guides. Remember, don’t search for the information you are looking for, search for the record that is likely to contain that information.
With thanks to Celia for her help in writing this guide.