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Finding Archives: Where are archives kept?

Guide to searching for archival material including where archives are kept, search strategies, archive catalogues, online portals, research guides, and visiting repositories.

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

Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene 

Where are archives kept?

Across the UK alone, there are over 2500 archive repositories. These are the places where archive material is kept, either physically or in digital format on servers.

To use archives, you will generally need to travel to the repository where the material you want to use is held.

Different types of archive repositories

Broadly speaking, there are six categories of repository as highlighted below. Follow the links to explore examples in each category.

What is kept by different types of repositories?

Use the tabs below to explore the types of collections and records that you are likely to find in each of these categories.

Key focus: national, government records of central government

In the UK, there are statutes governing the retention and long term preservation of certain categories of records, which have been created by governmental organisations and instruments.

The National Archives was established as the Public Records Office in the 19th Century to serve as a place of deposit for such records.

As such, The National Archives houses records created by government departments and offices, in the course of activities governing the running and oversight of the country.

Many countries have established national archives of their own to serve a similar purpose.

Key focus: local, includes government records and deposited records of various types, can cover wide variety of locally significant subjects

In addition to preserving the records of national government, there are statutes in the UK that govern the retention and long term preservation of records created by local councils.

Local record offices have been established throughout the country to serve as places of deposit for records created by local councils.

In addition, local record offices often serve a community function by taking receipt of records created by local businesses, charities, societies, civic figures, families and notable individuals.

Such deposited collections enhance the official records created by a local authority. They do this by providing unofficial perspectives on a vast range of locally significant subjects, such as leisure, sport, commerce, industry, changing urban and rural landscapes, literary and artistic culture, etc.

Key focus: local and national, subject coverage is dependent on function and purpose of individual organisations

Private organisations, such as businesses, charities and campaign groups create a lot of records relating to their activities. Such activities usually include administration, project planning, accounting, staff management, promotion and publicity. Other activities relating to the core purpose and ethos of an organisation will also be documented in records.

Similarly, large landed estate holding families create a vast number of records. They do this in the course of managing various aspects of the estate, such as land transfers and sales, rentals, extent surveys, staffing and household management. In addition, large volumes of personal records are created by such families, including correspondence between individual members or with friends and business acquaintances, photographs, scrapbooks, and household recipe books.

If financially and administratively able, private organisations might create their own archive repository, rather than depositing their records with a local record office or special interest repository.

Key focus: Local and national, subject coverage determined by educational and research specialties of individual universities, and includes operation of higher education institutions

As the core function of universities is to provide higher education and undertake academic research, many universities have established their own archives and special collections departments to provide resources for students and academics undertaking research projects.

These departments collect and manage archive material relating to various subjects and individuals of relevance to teaching and research strands with which the university is engaged.

In addition, universities create their own records, which document their own activities and operations. Such records are also preserved alongside deposited research collections.

Key focus: record type specific, can cover any geographical area and subject

Records can be created on a wide range of support media. Traditional use of paper or parchment to record information poses very few problems for archivists charged with preserving and providing access to these materials.

Other types of support media pose more of a challenge. As an example, photographic material requires storage at temperatures colder than is required for paper and parchment based records. If an archive repository cannot create the correct storage conditions, the preservation of photographic materials cannot be guaranteed.

This is also true of film material. However, in addition to this challenge, specialist equipment is needed in order to access information stored on film. Such equipment can be expensive and hard for more general archive repositories to acquire.

Therefore, format based repositories have been established, in various instances, to manage and preserve materials with special requirements.

Key focus: subject specific, can cover any geographical area and record type

Rather than being founded to preserve the records or a particular organisation, type of organisation, or format of record, some archive repositories have been established with a core function of collecting, managing and providing access to material on specific subjects.

Such repositories are usually associated with museums founded to explore particular subjects, or special interest groups involved in raising awareness of a particular theme.

It is always worth searching to see if there exists an archive repository dedicated to the subject on which your research is based.

Find an archive repository

The National Archives website includes a search feature that allows you to Find an Archive in the UK.

You can use this to find contact details for a particular archive, but you can also use the search to explore what archive repositories there might be nearby. Where available, search results link through to the websites of individual repositories and their online catalogues and finding aids.

Starting here can be helpful if you want to use archives and:

  • Don't have a clear idea of subject and want to explore what repositories might be within travelling distance.
  • Have a clear idea of subject and want to see if there are any repositories dedicated to that subject.
  • Know that you'd like to use a particular type of record and want to see if there are any dedicated repositories.
  • Want to use the types of collections that are usually deposited with a particular type of repository, and want to see if there are such repositories nearby.