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Archives: Understanding and Using Archives

Information relating to archive material held both in Hull and across the country

Challenges of Archives

When working with archives, especially for the first time, you might come up against some interesting challenges. It helps to think about what these might be before you start to look at documents, so that you're prepared and can make the most of your time in the searchroom. But don't worry if you come up against an unexpected challenge - all archives have staff on hand who will be able to help you, so don't be afraid to ask!

Archives as Evidence

When thinking about where you might find evidence to substantiate your research, it can be helpful to think about the sort of details that different types of records contain. For example, if you are interested in how the look of a building has changed over time you would most likely find evidence of this in visual records such as architectural drawings, photographs and illustrations. However, if you were concerned with the history of thought and opinion on a particular subject, you are more likely to find evidence of this in personal records such as essays, letters, diaries and emails.

It is also important to remember that an element of 'survival of the fittest' can be attached to archives. Think about whether surviving material is representative, whether further material might have existed but has been deliberately or accidentally destroyed. Think about what gaps there might be in the evidence as a result, whether particular voices are missing from the historical record, and what that might mean. Remember, archives are records that have been created by individuals or organisations for a particular purpose. With this in mind, they are inherently subjective in nature, and are rarely representative of 'statements of fact'.

Reading Archives

It might seem a strange thing to say, but one of the major challenges of working with archives is being able to read them correctly. A number of factors can affect our ability to read archives.

Language can be an issue when using archives. It is useful to be aware that the majority of early and medieval documents will be written in Latin. Even into the early modern period, it is still possible to find legal documents, deeds and court records written in Latin. Often these types of documents have standard phrasing and it is possible to find your way through them by learning some of those set phrases. Resources for understanding Latin documents can be found on the website of the National Archives.

Even when the language used is English, some of the vocabulary may be unfamiliar to modern readers. Local studies libraries and archives repositories will usually have some reference works that can help you look up historical words. You can also use the Oxford English Dictionary.  

Much like language usage has changed over time, with some words falling out of use and new words coming into fashion, so too have handwriting styles. Older forms of handwriting may at first glance look illegible. However, whilst they may appear to be very different to what we are used to, these styles use set letter forms. Its just a case of learning what these are. The National Archives delivers online modules in the study of paleography (that is the study of handwriting). Further online resources for the study of paleography can also be found on the website of Nottingham University.

It's useful to be aware that those who created archives often used abbreviations when writing common words. Guidance on the use of abbreviations in historical documents is available from the National Archives. Please also note that standardised spelling of words was not common until the late 18th century. This means you might well come up against some unusual spelling choices, the trick is to think phonetically!

Dates and Figures

When dealing with archives that were created before the mid 18th century you should be aware that the UK and Ireland used to operate a different calendar. This has implications for researchers wishing to correctly interpret dates. Whilst we currently work from the Gregorian calendar (running 1 January to 31 December), prior to 1752 we used to operate under the Julian calendar (running 25 March to 24 March).

It is also common to find dates on official and legal documents given in the form of Regnal years, for example 'the first year in the reign of George III' instead of stating '1760'.

To help you interpret dates correctly, you can to C.R. Cheney's reference work, Handbook of Dates For Students of British History. Copies of this work can usually be found in most academic libraries and archive repositories.

The way we calculate weights and measures, as well as monetary values, has also changed over the centuries. Whilst we now use the Metric system, prior to the 20th century the Imperial system was more common. When using archives, tou may, therefore, come across measurements and currency values with which you are unfamiliar. Nottingham University website contains useful guidance on understanding historical measurements and money