3. Where are the Records?
Did You Know?
The National Archives has undertaken a survey entitled ‘Accessions to Repositories’ every year since 1954. From this they produce thematic digests, for example, a guide to new accessions relating to World War One.
When archivists receive a new accession they have to carry out a number of tasks. They appraise the documents to see what is worth keeping, whether anything should be destroyed or sent elsewhere, whether anything should be ‘restricted/closed’, and the condition of the items.
They catalogue the collection and package the archives in the best way to prevent damage to them, label the acid free packaging and move the collection to the strong room.
People are sometimes surprised that archivists don’t keep everything. Remember, they can only keep what they have been given. Also, documents in archives are like shared memories. Just as you only remember significant events (e.g. not what you had for lunch last Tuesday), the same is usually true of archives.
Below are some photographs, showing an accession of personal papers of William Denis Browne as they were received by the Archivist at Clare College and after they has been catalogued. William Denis Brown was a composer and a close friend of Rupert Brooke's.
When the papers were catalogued, they were placed into acid free packaging which will preserve them safely. They were also given reference numbers, written on the files and on the boxes. The boxes are kept in strong rooms, which are full of boxes which look the same, where items are found using reference numbers.
That is why browsing is best done by catalogue rather than looking through boxes or simply describing them – you cannot quickly tell what the document is without looking at the catalogue description.
Every repository has a collecting policy outlining the kinds of records they will collect. Some of these policies can be found online. As a reader, you won’t need to worry about this but thinking about the association between a repository and their collections can help you to know what to expect when carrying out research.
There may be subtle differences in the ways various County Archives are run but they tend to have similar collecting priorities. The Cambridgeshire Archives and Local Studies Service collecting policy states the geographical area they will collect documents relating to (taking into account that county boundaries have changed over time) and mentions a number of classes of record they accept, including
Records of Cambridgeshire County Council and its predecessors.
Records of parish churches and of rural deaneries for which it is the appointed diocesan record office within the diocese of Ely.
Records of other public and private organisations, businesses, churches and other faith groups, charities, societies, estates, families and individuals whose activities are relevant to the history and life of Cambridgeshire.
The King’s College Archive Centre’s collecting policy is not published online but is briefly described at the beginning of the online catalogue (see link below). It can be summarised as follows:
Papers relating to the history of the King’s College. These include the papers of the governing body, administrative records, academic and tutorial records and the papers of clubs and societies etc. Among the administrative records are records relating to the King’s College site, its buildings and the estates the College owned throughout the country.
These are the papers of individuals, most of whom studied or worked at King’s College. Particular ‘collection strengths’ include the Bloomsbury Group (a group of friends, most of whom were writers, artists and intellectuals) and early 20th century economists.
Many readers who are researching a Kingsman (somebody who has been a member of King’s College) find relevant records in both the College archives and the Personal papers.
You will see from these two examples that the institutions these archives are associated with (a county council and a Cambridge college, respectively), have an impact on the kinds of records they preserve. Although both archives are based in Cambridge, they complement each other rather than collecting the same types of records. If a researcher wanted to know about what life was like for a student in Cambridge at a particular time, he/she might use both of these repositories.
If a person had associations with various places or institutions, his/her papers may be in more than one repository. Letters the person sent may also appear in the collections of other people, as we shall see later. This means researchers shouldn’t assume all the documents they need will be in one place.
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.
Did You Know?
There are 236,356 creators listed in The National Archives’ Discovery database (correct on 1 April 2015), which can be searched online. These include people, organisations and businesses.