Because of their unique nature, archives are generally only found in one location, meaning that researchers wishing to use them have to travel to that location. Archives are usually deposited with dedicated repositories with some level of public access.
Such archive repositories might be run by local authorities, as with East Riding Archives in our area. They might also be run in partnership between different groups, like the History Centre partnership between Hull City Council and the University of Hull. Universities might establish their own repositories, as with the Borthwick Institute at the University of York. Or businesses and charities might keep their own archives, such as is the case with the British Red Cross Archive in London.
Where archives end up can depend on a number of things. If the creating body has its own repository then chances are its archives will be sent there. So the records created by a local council and its predecessors should end up at the local authority record office. Similarly, the records created by a university will end up in its own library and special collections department. Records created by local organisations, societies, charities and businesses might also end up at local authority record offices if the creating organisation doesn’t have their own repository. However, it might be that there are specialist repositories for collections on a particular subject (for example the Imperial War Museum) or in a particular medium (for example the Yorkshire Film Archive), and so archives from one geographical location might end up in a repository somewhere else.
Using Search Engines
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.
The National Archives co-ordinates access to repositories all over the UK. Their ‘Discovery’ site features browse and search facilities allowing you to identify repositories, find contact details and addresses, and see 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. The Scottish Archive Network (SCAN) provides a search facility to find archival material held in Scottish repositories.
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.
Catalogues and Reference Numbers
Most individual repositories will have a website with information about the types of archives they hold. Some will have an online catalogue with search facilities allowing you to access detailed descriptions of archives. Have a look at the Hull History Centre website to see what information is typically available. It is always best to have a look at these resources before you travel to a repository. If you have any questions you can then contact the repository ahead of your visit.
When you arrive at the archive repository, you will also be able to access hardcopy paper catalogues. These catalogues contain descriptions of individual collections that the repository holds. The catalogue will start with a description of the collection as a whole, and will then go on to describe individual items. Details provided include a title, a physical description, a description of the subject matter and content, as well as an indication of how much material you can expect to find.
Unlike with library materials, archive collections will always have a unique reference number. If you find something you want to look at whilst looking through catalogues, make sure to note the reference number down. Repositories will use this to find individual items, and to retrieve them for use by researchers.