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|By Ryan Taylor|
Many archives have problems with old buildings. The Borthwick Institute's problem was worse than most.
"It's difficult to adapt a 15th century guildhall to modern archival standards," said Chris Webb, Keeper of Archives.
The Borthwick is the best-known genealogical resource in Yorkshire, England. It had been located for many decades in a charming old building, just the sort of place North American genealogists want to work in when they travel overseas.
The Borthwick staff probably saw it a different way, as they ran out of space and had concerns for their archives' safety.
Late in 2004, they left their old building for a purpose-built space in the library at the University of York. Genealogists, opening their eyes for the first time in the reception hall, might imagine themselves in the special collections area of any university worldwide.
Founded in 1953, the Borthwick held the archives of the archbishops of York, which has documents back to 1120. Despite its august associations, the Institute has always served everyone. "Genealogy has been a feature since the beginning," observes Webb, "Our first researcher was a professional genealogist."
When the genealogy boom began in the 1970s, the Borthwick's clients emphasised pushing their family knowledge back through the years. Now, they want to know more about their ancestors as people, so more time is spend working with subsidiary documents.
The Borthwick has a great many parish registers, which are the most heavily used part of the collection. It is famous for its many wills and marriage bonds as well. Much of the collection is on microfilm, and can be found in Salt Lake City as well as York.
Although the Borthwick has only a limited online catalogue, they are active participants in A2A, the union catalogue for archives in Britain. Its entries on A2A are described at the collection level (not down to individual document details). They do have detailed finding aids for hospital and family archives, however.
The future of archives lies in eletronically digitising their collections. At the Borthwick, the number one priority are the wills. "We'll start with the nineteenth century wills and work back," said Webb, "That's where the demand is. Wills are a good way to find intimate family details."
The wills are held here because it is the archbishops' archives. Until 1858, wills in England were probated in church courts.
Because of the size of Yorkshire (it is England's largest county) and its many large cities as well as the county government, there is no one central archives. Since it was around first, the Borthwick is the closest thing to one, but there are other government archives in Northallerton, Beverly and Wakefield. It can be confusing for outsiders who are not sure where to go, but I would recommend starting here.
Their good website includes the text of a number of their guides, including listings of genealogical resources and parish registers, and a handbook for finding probate records. Before you visit, you can print or download copies of the guides to help you prepare. Webb has said that the material on the website is an attempt to show that everyone is welcome here.
When I was a new genealogist, the idea of visiting the Borthwick would have intimidated me -- such a serious place, and in that famous 15th century building. Visitors in 2005 will find a welcoming and comfortable archives, with easy access to the documents and helpful staff. It makes me wish I had Yorkshire ancestry so I could spend some serious research time there.
If you would prefer more traditional communication methods, you can write to the Borthwick Institute at University of York, Heslington, York, YO10 5DD, UK or phone +44 (0)1904 321166.
Column copyright © 2005 Ryan Taylor