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Archives

What are archives?

Old photo of a child in a hospital bed reading a book, with a nurse beside them.
Child in the Bentley Memorial bed at York County Hospital, published in the 1907 annual report (Ref: YCH/1/2/7).

Archives are unique collections of information – known as records. They tell the stories of people, places and events from the past. Archives can exist in many different forms, including meeting minutes, letters and correspondence, business papers, photographs and films, and digital and sound recordings. They could also have been created at any point in time – from before the Norman Conquest through to yesterday – and cover pretty much any topic. That’s a lot of potential sources just waiting to be explored!

You can find out more about archives, what they are and why they are important in this short film from the Archives and Records Association (UK).

Confusingly, the term ‘archive’ is also used to describe the physical places those records are kept in, and the act of storing things long term. To make things easier in this guide, we’ll use the term ‘archives services’ for the places, and ‘archives’ or ‘records’ for the collections contained within them (and we won’t use ‘archiving’, as it’s not an actual verb).

Why use archives?

Archives are unique records, so they are particularly useful for conducting original research, often on topics that have never been explored before. They can give you new perspectives on people, places and events, which can be invaluable if you are working on larger-scale projects such as a dissertation or thesis. You might also come across references to archives in academic literature and want to have a look at those records for yourself – to see whether you reach the same conclusions as the author, perhaps, or to see a quotation in its original context.

An medieval archival document, that looks like a large old book, with a hand pointing at it.
Researchers using a medieval Archbishop's Register, 2016.

Archives are the actual ‘thing’ – the letter that was sent, the document which was signed, the photograph that was taken or the oral testimony which was recorded on tape. As with any other elements of research you sometimes have to be a bit wary rather than taking everything at face value (was that photograph actually staged by the photographer, for example?). The number of proven counterfeit documents in archives services is incredibly small, though. Identifying archival provenance – information about where documents have come from to prove their authenticity and chain of custody over time – is a key element of the work of an archivist.

The fact that archives are historic records means you’re more likely to use them if you’re researching in the humanities, but they also have broad and wide uses beyond that. University of Reading, for example, recently used historic rainfall data to help climate scientists create better modelling systems for the future, and film and television production companies often use archives in their broadcasts and research. They can also be used as inspiration for creative projects. Have a look at our past projects for Digital Creativity Week, our Environment and Natural History microsite, or our collaborative project with PhD student Rachel Feldberg, ‘Bringing the Rowntree Leisure Surveys to Life’, for some recent examples. Archives are definitely not just for historians!

How to find archive services

The exterior of an archives building, the Borthwick Institute for Archives at York, with pale brick walls and a nice blue sky.
Borthwick Institute for Archives, c.2005.

Archives are everywhere! They are held by archives services all over the world – at a national level, at a local authority or regional level, in businesses, country houses and museums. Some archives services collect records relating to a particular region, whereas others collect records on a theme (e.g. railway records).

The UK National Archives’ Find an Archive directory contains contact details of every archives service in the country, which will help you find their websites and catalogue information.

Many archives services will have their own public catalogue which you can use to search what they have (although for some private archives services, such as businesses, you might need to contact them directly to find out what they hold on your research topic). A number of archives services are also now exporting details of their collections to larger, aggregate archives catalogues. These include The National Archives (UK) Discovery database, Archives Hub and Archives Portal Europe. As records for your research topic are unlikely to all be in one place, these sites – whilst they don’t contain everything – are again useful starting points.

The main thing to remember is that not all archives held by an archives service will be catalogued yet, so they may not appear in online catalogue searches. It’s worth contacting relevant archives services to ask whether they hold any additional materials of use in your research. Archives services are also still collecting, with new records arriving all the time, so it’s worth checking back every so often to see what’s new.

Archives and digitisation

Isn't everything now available online?

Unfortunately not. Digitisation is an incredibly expensive process to get right, and has conservation impacts. The archives are first checked by a professional conservator to ensure they are fit to withstand the digitisation process. In some cases, interventive conservation work is then required to repair damage to archives ahead of digitisation, which takes time and requires specialist skills and materials. This is before the images are even taken, and they need to be created and stored so that they are available for anyone to use, on a range of IT platforms, for years to come. Many archives services are creating digital copies of their collections, though, and information about this can often be found on their websites. For information about what digitised collections we have at University of York, see our Online resources page and the Digital Library.

A person with a large camera taking images of a large medieval document for digitisation.
Digitisation of Archbishop's Register, c.2014.

An effective Google search is the best place to start in terms of tracking down digitised archives, but it would be best to use the Google Advanced Search. That way you can narrow down what you are looking for, and you can ensure you’re looking at the ‘original’ digitised image on the archives service website.

Archival issues

A decorative letter on a medieval letter.
'Illuminated letter from 'Postilla super Epistolas Pauli', c.1400 (Ref: TAK/1/28).

How easy archives are to access really depends on four main factors – the language they were written in, the handwriting they were written in, their current condition, and their age and sensitivity. It’s also worth remembering that in a lot of cases, the records you really want might not have survived at all.

Language

The vast majority of archives created in what is now the United Kingdom are written in English, but our use of written English has changed over time. There was no standardised spelling of words before the 18th century, so many people just wrote down what they heard, meaning even common words were often written a number of different ways (sometimes even in the same document!). Add to that the fact that some words have altered in meaning as the years have gone by, and it can sometimes be difficult to decipher what a document is trying to say.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that due to changes in society over time, some language we would now rightly deem to be offensive can occur in archives. We can’t alter these unique documents, or the context in which they were created, but we can and will make notes on archives catalogues to flag where offensive language has been used. Archives services are working on this nationally, however given the huge quantity of records to be checked and catalogue entries to be updated, this is taking a bit of time.

Before the 18th century, records created in England could be written in Middle English or Latin, and even sometimes in Old English or Anglo-Norman French (if you go back far enough). Documents were also regularly written in Scots, Irish and Welsh in the other nations which are now part of the UK. Archives services can hold records from all over the world, so you might come across a number of different languages, depending on your research topic.

Handwriting

In recent times more and more records have been created using a typewriter or a computer, so deciphering the writing isn’t really an issue. The vast majority of archives, though, are handwritten, and styles of handwriting have changed over time (in case you’re interested, the academic study of old writing is called palaeography!). This, in addition to the language issues above, can make them particularly difficult to read without help. There are, though, some useful online courses to help with this, including from The National Archives (UK).

Conservation issues

All archives have a history – they’ve been accidentally torn or spilt on, moved around on a King’s progress through his lands, been stored in a room with a smoky coal fire, got wet in a flood or been chewed on by mice in the loft. This means that every single record is in a different state of preservation. Sometimes archives services aren’t able to supply you with what you need as documents can be too fragile to handle, or they may need extensive conservation work to repair them before they can be viewed.

Archives services always give advice to researchers on how best to handle the collections, to ensure the records in their care are kept as safely as possible for generations to come. We can’t change what’s happened in the past, but we can stabilise documents and do our best to ensure they don’t deteriorate again in future. Advice does vary slightly between each service, but our conservator Catherine Firth has created a video covering the basics.

Age and sensitivity

Archives produced in the United Kingdom are governed by national legislation, including the Data Protection Act 2018. This means that if archives contain personal or sensitive information about people who may still be alive, access to those records will be restricted.

As a researcher, you can apply to see records covered by the Data Protection Act. This will mean that the records can only be consulted for anonymised statistical research, and cannot be used to identify potentially living individuals.

The difference between an archives service and a library

Isn’t an archives service just another library?

Not exactly! Libraries generally contain published (and sometimes unpublished) secondary sources, with the collections catalogued by subject and by author. Archives services generally contain unpublished unique material, which is arranged according to the organisation or person who created the records.

You can find out more about our online catalogue, Borthcat, and how it works, in our training video.

Further resources on archives

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