Neophyte asked people about their first experience with the archives.

I was finishing a junior year study abroad in England, and for the next year, I planned to be writing a thesis and applying to graduate school. So I decided to do a little research for the thesis, since I was in England, and I figured saying I had archival experience would look good on my Statement of Purpose.

For three, maybe five, separate days, I took the bus to London, the Tube to the Public Record Office at Kew, and spent the day in the archives (except for the day I randomly ran into a girl I hadn’t seen since high school in California in my same tube car, and blew off the archives to see Kew Gardens with her. Still makes a good story, when I tell it right).

Now I look at 20-year-olds in the archives and wonder why there are there, but at the time, it seemed normal. I felt intimidated, certainly, but the PRO has a lot of 70-year old genealogists using a computer for the first time, so it’s designed to be friendly to newbies. I mean, hey, I didn’t need the instructions on how to use a mouse.

For my thesis, I knew I was looking at a particular moment in a particular place, but wasn’t totally sure where I was going to go with it. So I just started with the main government volumes from my beginning year, figuring I’d be able to show off a footnote from those no matter what.

Now, I hadn’t done a lot of preliminary reading before this point. I’d looked at a couple books, and I had read a novelist’s presentation of that moment, which focused on this court case that became a cause célèbre. Very sexy case—concubines with lovers on the side, missing gold pieces and torture….the novelist had all sorts of dialogue—-“the torturer demanded: ‘tell the truth!'” but I figured, hey, novelist, made that up.

Oh no. In the archives. Word for word—the questions from the prosecutor, the answers from the girl, her lover/accomplice, her other lover/boss.

It was like magic. I had no idea. Voices, leaping off the page.

Then, officials defended themselves, and I touched the same paper, the same ink, and it brought me closer to my story.

I love the archives.