When you carry out research, thinking about who might collect the papers you are interested in is a good starting point but there are problems with this approach,
- What if you don’t know what institution might have the relevant collection?
- What if there are relevant papers in more than one repository?
The easiest way to find out where records are held is to use online registers or hubs. These are gateways to the catalogues of various archives, allowing you to search across several repositories at once. They tend to link to catalogues on the websites of each repository or give an overview of what each collection contains, rather than the hub having full catalogue entries itself. This means it should be considered as a starting point for your research, rather than an exhaustive guide to archives.
Sometimes the only way you will be able to find a particular collection is through using online registers or hubs, unless you ask an archivist or fellow researcher. For example, local historians in Kersey, Suffolk, will find many useful documents in the King’s College Archive Centre because the College was a major land owner there until the 1920s. It’s not obvious you should come to King’s College to do local history research on Kersey. They would have to use online registers or hubs to find this out.
The National Archives
The National Archives maintain a resource called the Discovery. On this website you can search records held by The National Archives and over 2,500 other repositories. It also contains various research guides.
There is a basic keyword search on the homepage but if you click on ‘advanced search’, just below the main search box, you have the option of searching for ‘Records’ or ‘Record creators’. When searching for ‘Record Creators’, you should only get one result for each individual or organisation. By clicking on the entry for the ‘Record creator’, you can access a list of records created or collected by that ‘Record creator’ and held in various repositories. By clicking on the repository named under the ‘Held by’ heading, you can access details such as how to contact them, their opening hours and whether appointments are required. It is worth scrolling to the bottom of the repository page to the ‘Other finding aids’ section, as this may link to the repositories own online catalogue, which may be more up-to-date than hubs or shared catalogues.
Alternatively, if you already know which repository you are interested in, you can use the ‘Find an Archive’ search box, which can be found on the Discovery homepage.
The Archives Hub is a particularly good resource for academic researchers. As its audience is primarily academic, this will be more useful for somebody writing an undergraduate dissertation than a genealogist or local historians. The Archives Hub also includes a blog, highlighting interesting collections, and guides on how to use archives (intended mainly for undergraduates).
There are also similar registers and ‘hubs’ for particular areas of research, including the next example.
Location Register of English Literary Manuscripts and Letters (Location Register)
The Location Register is intended for those studying English Literature. It was originally a British Library publication but the resource is now hosted by the University of Reading. Although it is hosted on the website of one institution, it searches for archives in various repositories.
Resources like these may have been developed by those with particular expertise in that area or by several archives working in partnership.
Advice: Look around and don’t expect to find everything in one place. If you follow a link to an entry in a catalogue, finding out about the provenance of the collection can give additional information.
It is good to explore registers, hubs and catalogues, as this will prepare you for your research. In section 4 we will look at the structure of catalogues and how to use them.
Some archives, such as community archives might not be included in the online registers or hubs. Why not try using search engines, if you haven't already? Remember, this may give you a lot of 'hits' so be careful what terms you use when searching. A general search may not always give the context which catalogues offer, although it may help you to find a catalogue which is only available on the repositories website.
Most authors cite the sources they used when preparing a book so looking at the references in such secondary material can sometimes give clues as to where you should conduct your research.