Tuesday, 31 July 2012

An under-used resource?

I was recently contacted by a client in America who asked me to look into a family story that one of her forebears - from Malta - had fought and died for the British in the Boer War. I was flattered to be asked but had to explain that I have no particular expertise when it comes to military records; this did not seem to bother her unduly and she asked me to proceed and see what I could find. Preliminary research - more necessary than ever in this case - suggested that extracting anything at all about an individual's participation in the Boer War from the records at Kew would be difficult, but a cursory search of TNA's library catalogue threw me a lifeline. It transpired that the library had copies of the following excellent books, both of which were of obvious significance but completely unknown to me:
  • Alexander M. Palmer, The Boer War Casualty Roll 1899-1902 (Perth, 1999)
  • Steve Watt, In Memoriam: Roll of Honour Imperial Forces Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902 (Natal, 2000)
As it turned out I did not find the man in question (a number of explanations for his absence suggest themselves), but the point I wish to make is that TNA's library is a rich - but I would argue under-used - resource that can be called on to orientate initial enquiries or breathe new life into an investigation that is in danger of meandering. I say under-used because I am always struck by how few people I see tapping its resources (even allowing for the fact that it is rather tucked away on the first floor at TNA). The probable reason is straightforward enough, I think: many people visit TNA to experience the incomparable thrill of discovering and handling archival material that contains information unavailable elsewhere; that is, of course, perfectly understandable, but focusing so squarely on the records themselves can mean that people pass quickly by a fantastic collection of published finding aids and catalogues, and other works of great practical use. 

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