Free online sources
Digitised primary sources which are freely available online.
There are a large number of digitised primary sources available online for free, and this is just a selection which you may find useful.
If you are searching online for primary sources, ensure that you are looking on reliable and reputable websites. Use websites which belong to archive services or universities which make available material held in their own repositories, or check one of the content aggregators listed below. Don't rely on reposted images on social media sites, forums, or family history sites - they may not include the correct information about the source of the document.
The National Archives
The National Archives holds the official records of the UK government. It has a large number of digitised records, which are made available either through the online catalogue Discovery or through partnerships with Ancestry and Find My Past.
Records which are made available through Discovery are currently available to download for free if you register for an account. You can download up to 10 items at once, up to a maximum of 100 in 30 days. You can download further items on payment of the normal charge.
The digitised records cover a range of subjects including the First and Second World Wars, wills, military personnel and service records, crime and prisons, and the papers of Anthony Eden. Discover more about the records in the Online Records Research Guide.
One of the most wide-ranging selections of material is Digital Microfilm, where runs of records have been microfilmed and the microfilm digitised. This includes records relating to the Admiralty, Coastguard, Air Ministry, Board of Trade, Foreign Office, Home Office, Security Service, Royal Mint, War Office, and the investigations into the Titanic disaster.
National Library of Scotland
The National Library of Scotland provides access to a number of digital resources, including digitised images, films, maps, and data collections. The digital gallery includes collections you can browse relating to a number of subjects including war, literature, poetry, music, art and design, theatre, sport, and social history.
The NLS also provides access to historical Ordnance Survey maps of the UK, alongside coastal charts, estate maps, town and county maps, military maps (including First World War trench maps), and more.
The Archives Hub collects together archive catalogues from repositories across the UK. You can use the Hub advanced search to filter for digitised items. Some are available directly on the Hub, such as this image of a windmill from the Mills archive, while others link back to the holding repository's own website, such as this letter from the University of Salford's collection.
The Wellcome Collection is a free library and museum with collections centred around health. It has extensive archive collections, focused on individuals and organisations related to health. Many of its collections have been digitised, and it funds cataloguing and digitisation projects for other repositories. The collections support research into many aspects of health and human experience, ranging from 18th-century admission papers for The Retreat hospital in York, to Rosalind Franklin's research on DNA.
You can search its catalogue and filter for archives and digitised material. Many of the digitised items are part of Wellcome's collections, but others are from other repositories which have been digitised as part of a Wellcome project.
Europeana contains digitised content from thousands of archives, libraries and museums across Europe. Content includes photographs, documents, film, and sound recordings. If you're looking for something specific you can search from the homepage and filter your results.
Europeana also includes many curated collections which you can browse by topic, ranging from aerial photography to zoology, via the First World War and many others.
Imperial War Museum
The Imperial War Museum holds millions of objects and documents relating to modern war and conflict, including the First World War and Second World War, and around half a million of them are available digitally on the IWM website. The majority of the digitised items available from the IWM are photographs, although there are also some archive documents and printed material. You can search the collections or browse by type.
The IWM also holds a large number of sound recordings, some of which have been digitised. Try searching the sound archive for "Hull" to find oral history recordings of local people who served in the armed forces or civil defence, or who experienced the war in the city as children.
The British Library has a selection of digitised material available on its Digital Collections page, including selected maps of London, the UK, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas; watercolours, drawings and prints; manuscripts and archives, including Beowulf and Leonardo da Vinci's notebook; documents digitised through the Endangered Archives Programme; illuminated manuscripts; and early photographically illustrated books.