– notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Opinions expressed are the author's own.

Q&A – complaints and returns department

Q: Your response to my enquiry is not what I hoped for. Please check the records again and give me a different answer.

A: Readers may be astonished to learn that I regularly receive this professional insult, generally in response to a negative result of a search for an individual possible member of Balliol. As all researchers know, to be certain of a negative result normally requires considerably more research than to confirm a positive, which may only need checking one source. In order to be sure that no record of an individual exists, one has to check several series of potentially relevant records.  I will then do my best to provide possible explanations for the lack of evidence, and to suggest further avenues of enquiry.

Enquirers are kindly requested not to ask me to research an enquiry again unless additional relevant substantive information is provided which was not included in the original question.

If I am not overly forthcoming in my explanations, it may be because I know that enquirers do not wish to hear, unless they are true researchers as well as family historians, that the information they have has probably been fabricated, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, in knowledge or in ignorance, by misleading, misinterpretation or misunderstanding. In the majority of cases it happens through garbling of family narrative down the generations rather than deliberate deceit, but the latter is not unknown either.

If I am asked to reply to the same enquiry again, I may do so, pulling the enquiry to bits and pointing out the full range of inconsistencies and impossibilities inherent in it.  I will also be frank about any evidence of deliberate fabrications; they do exist. This is constructive for the researcher, but not always pleasant.

I often feel that I am a professional exploder of family myths, but I take some little consolation in the knowledge that if my well informed, carefully researched and considered responses to enquiries are not quite the ones the enquirers expect, they will simply be dismissed, and the myths remain intact.

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