Archives, unlike library materials, are unique items which means they can only exist in one location. Researchers wishing to use them will, therefore, have to travel to that location. To ensure preservation of this unique material, archival repositories exist across the UK. Repositories provide supervised access to archival material and staff are on hand to help you use the various finding aids that individual repositories will have developed to aid researchers in finding material.
The National Archives 'Discovery' site incorporates a directory of archival repositories in the UK which provides contact details and links to the websites of individual repositories.
Given the complex nature of where archives can end up, there are a number of search engines which have been created to help researchers find archives across the UK. These search engines allow you to search catalogue descriptions of archival material, not the text of original documents. You will usually not be able to see images of the original documents. For this, you would need to travel to the holding repository to access the original physical item.
The National Archives co-ordinates access to repositories all over the UK. Their ‘Discovery’ site features browse and search facilities allowing you to identify what archival collections are held where. It’s usually the best place to start.
Other ways into archives include the Archives Hub, which provides a gateway to archival material found in many UK repositories. Be aware that the Archives Hub started as a portal for collections held by universities and educational institutions, and so has a bias towards these repositories.
The Scottish Archive Network (SCAN) provides a search facility to find archival material held in Scottish repositories. If you are only interested in Scotland then SCAN is a better place to start than Discovery, as it will immediately eliminate results returned for repositories outside of Scotland.
There are also resources to help you locate archives overseas. Archives Portal Europe helps you find material from different European countries. It also helps you find information on archival repositories throughout Europe. The US National Archives (NARA) website includes a directory of American archive repositories which provide contact details and links to individual repositories and information on their holdings.
To help researchers understand what collections they have, individual repositories produce hardcopy catalogues and indexes. These resources contain a lot of information about individual archival collections, and describe the contents of an individual collection by using a hierarchical system. An example of an archive catalogue can be accessed below.
A key element of information within any catalogue is the unique reference number attached to each individual archival item. Unlike library materials which are referenced by subject, each archival collection will have a unique reference code (i.e. ABC), and each item within the collection will be assigned a unique number which will include this prefix (i.e. ABC/1). This is to preserve the 'provenance' of individual items so that they are never separated from the rest of their collection. When identifying archival material for use in research, always make a note of the reference number. This is how repository staff will find and retrieve the physical items for researchers to look at.
For more information on how to successfully locate archival material please see the below help guide.