However, if your ancestor left Britain pre-1837, there are two tacks to take. One is a visit to the County Archive where your ancestor came from, but this isn't always convenient if it's the other end of the country! The second is to visit the Society of Genealogists Library in the Barbican, close to the London Wall of the Old City of London.
This unique society started back in the early 1900's and since its inception has acquired books, microfilm, etc. to make it the largest library of its kind in the country.
It is still quintessentially very English, the open book shelves you can browse yourself simply "ooze" history.. There is nothing quite as stimulating to a genealogist as the smell of an old dusty book and what it may contain.
Principally a private membership society, via yearly membership (which incidentally is worldwide), it also opens its door to day visitors. You can visit by the hour, four hours, or by the day. It does charge, but it is very reasonable and the Society is a non-profit making charity.
To quote the Library, it states its object "is to promote, encourage and foster the study, science and knowledge of genealogy."
The Library has a charm of a bygone era very much still, yet over the last ten years it has embraced modern technology so that the basement library has all the latest acquisitions on CD, etc.
The Library is on three floors plus the basement. The basement could be described as the modern technology floor, the first floor being reception, offices and refectory tearoom. The next two floors are the library .The wonder of a day's research here is the fact that all the books and records are on open shelves for you to browse. The first floor is arranged county-by- county. It has the largest collection of county parish records in the country. For each county you will find an array of parish registers, lot already transcribed, poll books, monumental inscriptions for churchyards, trade directories, local history books and there's so much more to help us bring our family histories alive.
Apart from all this the society is very proud of the unique indexes it holds:
Sir Percival Boyds Marriage Index, of over seven million names.
The largest number of Monumental Inscription Books, the transcriptions of churchyards made by diligent genealogists throughout the country.
Boyds Inhabitants of London, made up of 238 volumes with 27 volumes of indexes!
The upper floor has row after row pertaining to Peerage, Heraldry, Schools, Universities, Professions, The armed services etc.
To name all is impossible, but the Library recently came "online" with its catalogue. It takes a bit of practice, but you can now access the catalogue and see what it holds for the area you wish to research.
If you are contemplating a visit, to make the most of your day do your groundwork first. The Library is essentially for records pre-1837, so bear that in mind.
An initial visit to any archive can be daunting, and isn't it just always the case that everyone else seems to know what they are doing except you! Especially faced with row after row of shelves of books. The Library online catalogue SOGCAT has a code, though, for every book and record, so it enables you to find what you want quite easily on the open shelves. Plus, there are always helpful librarians on each floor to guide you through, so you aren't left out on a limb. You can ask for as little or as much help as you need to get going.
The Library does do tours on Saturdays at 11:15, and its quite a good way to get your "sea legs" in this vast ocean of knowledge!
Overseas visitors should bring their passport as identification when they visit. You can come for an hour, four, or a whole day. To look at the SOG website: Society of Genealogists, UK. And to access the online catalogue SOGCAT: http://www.sog.org.uk/sogcat/index.html.
You can find the Society of Genealogists at the following address:
14 Charterhouse Buildings
London EC1M 7BA