In this post, Dr Mary Morrissey, Associate Professor in Early Modern English Literature at the University of Reading, offers advice to those who are beginning to work with historical archives.

Mary explains how to locate archival information, understanding how archival searching works, and when to contact the archivist for help. Below is a list of questions she has devised to consider when first planning a trip to the archives, which provides a useful checklist to help you maximise fully your time researching in archives across the country.


How do I find the documents I need?

The first thing you need to establish is whether the documents you need still exist (!), and if so, where they are and how can you consult them. You may come across a reference to a document in something you read, or you may read that the papers of someone you are interested in have been deposited in a particular place. That gives you a good lead, and the first useful step is to find if that archive has its catalogue online. If it does not, you will need to find the contact details for them to email them directly with a query. If you haven’t got a lead like this, check out The National Archive’s ‘Discovery’ website. Here you will find information about thousands of archives across the country. For more help, check the ‘Find Research Guides’ page and for a full list of Historical Resources online, go to the Online Collections page.


Flowchart explaining how to find a document reference. You need to find out if the documents still exist. If the document was mentioned in something you read, the reference should contain the name of the archive and the reference number. Then you can go to the online archive catalogue to search for the call number.

You may reach a stumbling block at this stage: either the call number you found in your reading no longer matches what the online catalogue says, or you can find no reference to the document you need in any catalogue. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the material doesn’t exist: it may be to do with the way the material has been catalogued.

Diagram explaining options if you can't find the call number. If the source of the reference is an old one, check the archives online, or contact the archive with a query. If an individual item has not been catalogued separately, you can note the references for the entries closest to what you need. If the item that you need is not extant, you can check with the archive, but may be out of luck!
Understanding how archives are organised

We have all watched programme’s like the BBC’s Who do you think you are?, where celebrities arrive at an archive and the documents they need are immediately produced. Real life is not like that! You need to do as much work as you can in advance, so that the archivist can give you the most effective help in the limited time that they have available. So make sure you look carefully through the information that they post online about how their material has been catalogued and how detailed the descriptions of individual items are.


Archives are not like libraries! In archives material needs to be ordered in advance. Catalogues use bespoke reference numbers, and items cannot be borrowed. In libraries, some material is on open shelves and can be browsed. They will be catalogued by a recognisable system (e.g. Dewey). Books are likely to be available on loan.


It can really help to understand how archives are organised, because they are very different to libraries. Almost all libraries catalogue their material by author’s name and title, possibly also with the publication details. Archives have far more miscellaneous materials than books, and that material arrives in the archive as part of a collection that often needs to be kept together. Often, there is so much material that it has not been possible to describe what is on every sheet of paper; sometimes only rough descriptions of boxes of documents are available. The archivist may not be able to tell you if a particular letter exists, but if you ask if there is a box of material covering the dates that interest you, then they may be able to give you an answer. Looking through the box will be your job, however!


Archives are organised in a particular way: Archives keep together materials in "collections", which provide the main organisational system. Archivists then organise the materials into series (by material, date, author, content) in the most coherent way. Groups of items within series are put together into files for ease of storage and retrieval for researchers. An item may be an individual sheet of paper, a page within a bound volume, a single image or object. Not all archives will be catalogued in detail at this level, and you may need to search through a file or a series to find what you need.


Accessing your document and visiting the archive

Many documents can be read in digital form online. Other documents will be read in a public reading room. You will need to arrange a visit to the archives to read the document. You may be allowed to take pictures as long as they are for private study, not commercial use.
Once you discover that the material you need does still exist and is available in a public archive (and having discovered that the material may not be available online), you may need to visit the archive in person. There is a thrill in touching the pieces of paper that have survived through all the uncertainties of human life, sometimes over hundreds of years, before arriving in their safe archival home!

But this does make these documents rather precious, and a great many are unique. So you need to treat them with great care. So before travelling to the archive, you will need to pack your archive kit. (Contrary to television history, you will not need white cotton gloves; indeed, gloves can make you more likely to damage materials because your fingers will be less sensitive to touch.) You will need an archive kit, and here’s what you should bring:



The image suggests useful materials to take to the archive. These includes pencils, a torch, magnifying glass, ruler, camera and USB drive.

Taking notes in the archive

Once you have arrived and are sitting at the desk, you will need to take notes on your document. If you have travelled a long distance to the archive, you will want to ensure that you have everything you need from this visit because you may not be able to return to check everything. So get into the habit of taking down the information you need before you start taking detailed notes.

1.  Reference

Make a note of where you found it: the catalogue reference, the box number, and the page number or item number (for loose items).

2. Transcription procedures

Note down the system you are using when copying out material from the document, so that your notes are clear on what the document looks like and says. You will need a system that uses characters that your writer doesn’t use in the document itself.

A fairly standard and easy system for handwritten and typed notes, goes as follows:

  • Original punctuation, spelling, and capitalisation has been retained
  • <deletions: anything the writer has crossed out in angle brackets>
  • >insertions: anything the writer has added within reverse angle brackets<

[This editor: You need a way to distinguish your notes from what your document says. Square brackets are good for early texts, as they are rarely used]. For twentieth-century typescripts, you may need something else: [if you are typing you could use a different coloured font, for example].

3. Description of item: Physical description and genre

You might want to write a brief description of what the document looks like: is it a loose leaf? How big is the piece of paper? Is there a date? If it is a letter, note the sender, recipient, date, and the addresses of both parties. If it is an administrative document, what kind is it (receipt, memo, invoice etc)? If the document has a heading or a title, note that down.

4. Noting the contents

Summarise the contents if you don’t have time (or don’t need) to copy everything out. If you do copy out passages, try to be as accurate as possible. This means noting when things are crossed out and when they are added using the transcription procedures you decided on.

5. Take a picture

If you are allowed to take a picture, do (but remember to turn off the flash!). Having a digital image will make it easier to check your notes for anything you missed. You must ask for permission before taking pictures, and there may be a charge. You will also need to sign a declaration confirming that you are using the image for private study only, and not for commercial use; if you wish to reproduce the image for commercial purposes, you will need the permission of the archivist.



About the Author

Dr Mary Morrissey is Associate Professor of Early Modern Literature at the University of Reading. A specialist in Reformation literature, particularly from London. she is particularly interested in Paul’s Cross, the most important public pulpit in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England. Her research also considers on early modern women writers, with a particular focus on women writers’ use of theological arguments.


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