Skip to main content

Finding Archives: Some basics

Guide to searching for archival material

“Our archives are treasure troves - a testament to many lives lived and the complexity of the way we move forward”

Sara Sheridan 

What do we mean by 'archives'?

When researchers talk about archives they are usually referring to unique historical records that have been preserved, and which can be interrogated as evidence for research purposes.

However, such records were not usually created for this purpose, and were more likely to have been created with an immediate purpose in mind; such as business need, creative output, or legal necessity. Records become archives when they are deemed to have historical value by society and are kept for the evidence they provide.

Archives can be created by anyone in society: from private creators such as families, estates and individuals; to organized groups and official institutions such as charities, societies, businesses, churches, schools, councils and governments.

Traditionally, archives might take the format of handwritten and typescript records on paper or parchment, audio and video recordings on film, or still images on photographic supports such as glass or paper. From the late 20th century, archives might increasingly take the format of digitally created records in a vast range of electronic file formats. Record types can also vary hugely, however, we might commonly find the following within archival collections: letters and email accounts; diaries, journals and blogs; press cuttings and online articles; photographs and AV material; minutes and reports; accounts and financial statements.

Therefore, any record, in any format, created by any individual or organisation, has the potential to become archival and contribute to the preservation of society’s collective memory. Unlike published library materials, which have many duplicates, archives are unique and can usually only be found in one place. They give us a unique and original perspective on the past, and without them we would have no real sense of history and where we have come from.

Where are archives kept?

Taking the time to think about where material is likely to be held is a good starting point when trying to find archival material. It allows a researcher to make better directed enquiries by email or phone.

Archives are held in hundreds of repositories across the UK. Repositories, in this sense, are simply buildings where archives are kept. These buildings can be operated by private organisations, such as charities and businesses. They can also be operated by public organisations, such as universities, schools, museums and local authorities.

The type of material held in a repository is determined by the collecting policy of the organisation responsible for running the repository. Collecting policies define the boundaries of what an organisation preserves as archives. They can be driven by statutory requirement, business need, research interest, and ethical responsibilities to individual communities. An organisation responsible for an archive repository will usually make their collecting policy publicly available on their website, see for example Hull History Centre's collecting policy.

The following are some general rules of thumb relating to what categories of archival material researchers are likely to find in different types of repositories:

  • All counties, and most large cities, have record offices which collect material relating to their geographical area
  • Businesses and charities collect material created in the course of their own activities
  • Museums and other specialist organisations collect material relating to the particular subjects around which they were created
  • Universities collect a mix of material including internally created records, as well as records relating to specific research specialisms

Trying to identify whether specific records have survived and where they might be found can be difficult. Material relating to private organisations may well remain with the creating organisation until it ceases to function, at which time the material may be donated to the closest local authority record office or university. A major difficulty is often found when trying to locate the papers of individuals. The final location might be dependent on personal ties, or working relationships, which that individual had with a particular place or organisation. Alternatively, the material may remain in the hands of family members or executors, or may end up in specialist repositories based around a subject which the individual was known for. A good place to start is the record office for the geographical area you are interested in.

Helpful questions to ask yourself

When starting a research project, take the time to understand the boundaries set by the research.

It can be useful to think about the following areas: what time period needs to be covered; what geographical area needs to be focused on; who the individuals, groups or organisations are that might be pertinent to this research.

Having thought these areas through, it will then be possible to undertake a search for archival material based on date, place and person / group / organisation. This step is important because the three categories of information are a key feature of how archives are described in finding aids. These categories of information inform the questions an archivist will ask a researcher in order to identify potentially useful material for them.

It can also be useful to break the main research question down into smaller parts. In doing this, it is easier to think about what type of information is needed to answer each part. Taking the time to do this preliminary thinking will make it easier to identify relevant archival material.

Using records appropriately

Different records can be more or less helpful depending on the type of information a researcher is trying to find.

Consider that, when a person creates a document to record information, they will use the document type which most suits the purpose.

For example, if an individual wishes to privately record their own thoughts and feelings, they will mostly likely do so in a diary for their eyes only. However, if a person wants an opinion publicly known, they might write an article for a newspaper or publication. If an organisation wishes to understand a particular area of their activity better, they may commission an investigation, the results of which will likely be recorded in a report.

With this in mind, it can be seen how diaries and letters between private individuals are more likely to contain undoctored opinions, whilst newspapers and other publications might contain more restricted opinions. It can also be seen how official reports and accounts are more likely to record factual and statistical data from the perspective of an organisation or group rather than an individual.