Using archives for university and college research
Archives hold a wealth of material for academic researchers and students at undergraduate and postgraduate level, particularly those carrying out historical research. Archives provide original source material for the historian; many records of great value have never been used in the course of academic research, while others offer great potential for re-interpretation.
Before you start
- Most academic research sets out to answer a question or a set of questions. Archives can provide an excellent source for answering such questions, but when framing enquiries it can be helpful to carry out preliminary work to establish whether relevant records exist and whether they are easily accessible. This is particularly important for undergraduate dissertations, where the time available to carry out research may be limited.
- Be realistic about how long the research will take. Very few copies of original records are available online, so you will need to visit the archive repository to consult material there (and unlike libraries, you cannot ’borrow’ records). Using archives is fascinating and can provide you with much useful material, but you may find that it takes longer than you expect; and remember that most archive repositories are open only during ’office hours’ in the working week.
- In some archives, you will be able to carry out photocopying yourself, or use a digital camera to take photographs of documents. In others, copying can only be carried out by staff, and it may not be possible to do it immediately on request. Charges for photocopying may be higher than those usual in university libraries.
Finding records relevant to your research
Archives, unlike library material, are not arranged by subject. They are arranged by ’creator’ – all the records created by an individual or an organisation are kept together, as the archive of that individual or organisation. The archive of a public body (a local council, for example) will contain material relating to a range of subjects, as will the archive of a business, a landed estate or a prominent individual whose personal papers have been deposited in an archive repository. If you are researching the activities of the council, or the business, the landed estate or the prominent individual, you will probably need to look at all the records within these particular archives. However, you may want to find records on a particular subject which will involve using records from a number of different archives – if you are researching the development of public health services, for example, you may need to look at some records from the archive of the local council, some from the archive of an individual involved in public health reform, and others from a number of different individual archives.
There are a number of ways to find archives relevant to your research:
- It is often helpful, before you start looking for specific records, to find out who may have created relevant records. What organisation was responsible for the particular function or area you are researching? Did this change over time? Were a number of different organisations involved at the same time? Might there be incidental information among the records of other organisations or individuals? Standard works on particular topics should help you to discover who is/was responsible for carrying out a particular function, and how this changes over time.
- Detailed information on archive sources can often be found in published works on the subject of your interest. Books written for an academic audience should give full details of any original sources used. They may be listed in the bibliography (sometimes with a helpful introduction), or in footnotes or endnotes. Examine these carefully. Don’t just note what the records are (’plans of schools’) but note the body which created or received these records (’submitted to the Board of Education’), and where the records are now held. The records may not be exactly the same as those you are looking for, but they may be similar and give you guidance on what to look for.
- For some subject areas, for example women’s history and political history, books have been written which list the original sources that are available, and where they may be found.
- Searching the Internet via a general search engine can be helpful, but make sure that you are aware of the credentials of the website you are using, and that the information it gives is reliable.
- Using online archive catalogues can be very effective, but note that:
- Some online catalogues contain detailed information, describing all the items in the archive collections. However, others do not – they give only ’top-level’, summary descriptions of each archive as whole. The catalogue on this website gives only such ’top-level’ descriptions.
- Searching using subject terms only may produce limited results, depending on the level of detail in the catalogue and the subject terms used in compiling it.
- If you don’t find what you are looking for in an online catalogue, contact the relevant archive repository. Many have more detailed paper catalogues which are available only in the repository, not online.
- Always ask for advice from archive staff, who will be happy to discuss what the repository holds and to suggest sources that you may not have thought of. In some archives, you may be able to make an appointment for an in-depth discussion.
Central government records
For some research subjects, you may need to look at central government records. For Wales, as for England, these are held at the National Archives at Kew, London – there is no separate Welsh ’public record office’ holding central government records relating to Wales.