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Finding Archives: How to search

Guide to searching for archival material

“For there is nothing lost, that may be found, if sought”

Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene 

Where to start

It can be overwhelming knowing where to start when trying to locate archival material. However, there are four simple strategies that can help.

Begin by looking at bibliographies and footnotes in secondary material. After this, it can be helpful to use online archive portals, before consulting the online catalogues of individual repositories. If these first three steps don't turn anything up, it can then be helpful to ask the advice of archivists and consult source guides and indexes created by archive repositories.

Bibliographies and footnotes

Secondary material, where well researched, should cite references for the sources that have been used.

With this in mind, secondary reading can be a good place to begin searching for archival material. Not only can it provide background and contextual knowledge of a subject area, it can also provide useful pointers towards relevant archival material and where it might be held. Lists of archive collections used are often included in bibliographies. Footnotes can be even more useful because citations will usually provide document reference numbers, as well as the name of the repository in which specific sources can be found.

Whilst any good researcher will want to go beyond what has already been done, it is often a good place to start if an argument requires the reassessment of existing interpretations of evidence.

Online search facilities

Whilst using a Google search to try and find material might bring up references to particular subjects, it is unlikely to find specific archival sources. A better place to start is a number of dedicated portals which allow you to search for collections held by archive repositories across the UK. The following table outlines the most reliable portals currently available for locating UK based material. There may well be others that are subject-specific which individual course tutors can direct you towards.

Think critically about the types of searches you use and the keywords that might best help you locate what you are looking for. Try using variant person and place name spellings, as well as synonyms on a subject. Be aware that meanings of words have changed over time. Things that might seem politically incorrect to us from a modern perspective may well have been used to describe something from an earlier period. Throughout all, remember that what you are searching in these portals are archivists’ descriptions of records, not the actual text of original material.

Read the notes and guidance produced by each portal, this usually gives you pointers on how best to direct your searches. This information will also help you understand what categories of records are included in each of the individual portals, as well as helping you to narrow down to particular areas, subjects, or records creators so as not to overwhelm yourself with the results returned.

Best archive portals

Repository Catalogues

Most archives have their own online catalogues, which contain information relating to the collections they hold.

Once you’ve identified which repository is likely to hold relevant records for your research it’s always worth checking their catalogue. Hull History Centre's own online catalogue is best searched using 'any text' searching and limiting by date.

Hull History Centre catalogue

Further information about Hull History Centre's collections, which comprise the University of Hull Archives, Hull City Archives and Hull Local Studies Library, can be found in the 'Archive Collections at HHC' SkillsGuide, and on the History Centre’s website.

If you require any further advice on History Centre holdings, the Hull University Archives team are happy to help in any way they can. Questions should be sent to

Asking advice

Archivists have a great depth of knowledge about the collections in their care.

Take advantage of this, the University Archives team is here to help all students of the University. Ask questions to find out whether the type of material you are interested in might have survived, and where it might have ended up. Archivists should be able to provide pointers as to where to look.

It is worth mentioning that archives services regularly acquire new collections which need to be processed before they can be made discoverable online. There may also be legacy hardcopy indexes that can only be accessed in person at individual archival repositories. Archivists will be aware of both of these things and can advice you accordingly.

When contacting an archivist, it is helpful to provide as clear an outline of the intended research topic as possible (see the 'Helpful questions to ask yourself' box on the 'Where to start' page for tips).