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Using Archives In Your Research: Archive Catalogues

I have an idea for research - now what?

The first thing to do will be to consider your research question. Too vague or wide ranging and you will struggle – there will be too much to look at. There is nothing worse than when a researcher contacts the archive with a very unfocussed question – “I’m interested in the 19th century, do you have anything?” or “I want to look into the history of the army”.

You might come to DMU Archives to answer the question “how do universities use marketing?” You would be offered a large range of sources to look at including photographs, press cuttings, leaflets, posters and administrative files. It might be hard to create a strong argument or tell a particular story using the evidence you gather. Perhaps it would be better to ask “How did DMU use prospectuses to market itself to prospective students from 1992 to the present?” This question narrows the focua specific date range and a specific set of records, which would be much easier for you to consider.

It is important to begin your research by considering the secondary sources first. Reading existing histories will help you to identify what research has already been done and work out where your research fits in. It will give you background information that will be very useful when you first start using archival material. People may not explain what they are referring to or use people’s full names. That way if you are reading a letter from Charles to Andrew that refers to their friend Fred you will have more chance of understanding who Fred is! Similarly if a report refers to an incident without elaboration, knowing that the reader will know what is meant, your reading would help you guess what this incident was.

Secondary sources will also help you to identify which archives will have useful information. Look at footnotes and bibliographies to see which sources the author used. It may even be that the archives have been published already, for example in a calendar (a book which brings together transcriptions of archive documents) or as a critical edition (for example the collected letters of a noted author).

Published editions of letters will stop you needing to visit the archive to view the originals

Using archival catalogues

Archives are kept in collections according to their creator. An archive collection can be anything from one volume to hundreds of boxes full of papers. Each collection is catalogued using a hierarchy to sort it into manageable sections. As far as possible archivists base this hierarchy on ‘original order’ - the way the collection was kept by the person or organisation who created it. For example, if the administration division of a company had a large number of reports which were kept in sections according to type – sales reports, production reports, HR reports – the archivist would keep those sections in the catalogue.

The top level of an archive catalogue is called the fonds-level description, or sometimes the collection level description. This gives an overall view of the content of the collection. You might find some or all of the following information:

  • Reference code: this is a unique number assigned by the archive to distinguish a collection, e.g. DMU/033
  • Title: e.g. Personal Papers of John Smith, Doctor
  • Dates of creation: the dates of the material
  • Level of description: this tells you where you are in the hierarchy, e.g. fonds, series, file, item
  • Extent: the size of the collection, often expressed in linear metres
  • Administrative/biographical history: historical background to the collection
  • Scope and content: a summary of the material
  • Source of acquisition: where the collection has come from
  • System of arrangement: how the archivist has arranged the collection
  • Conditions governing access: any restrictions on use of the material
  • Conditions governing reproduction: any restrictions on copying of the material
  • Language
  • Related material: e.g any papers held in other archives or any related publications

Underneath this top level summary the archivist will usually divide the collection into sections, called sub-fonds, series, sub-series, files and finally the item. Depending on the size and complexity of the collection this might be very detailed and involve many sections, or might be quite simple and only include a few items.

Here is a (made up) example of a quite complicated catalogue:

D/050: Records of De Montfort University Netball Club (Fonds level)

     D/050/A: Organising Committee Minutes (Sub-fonds level)

     D/050/B: Correspondence

          D/050/B/01: Correspondence with team members (Series level)

               D/050/B/01/01: 1995 (Sub-series level)

                    D/050/B/01/01/001: Letter reminding of next match (item)

               D/050/B/01/02: 1996

               D/050/B/01/03: 1997

           D/050/B/02: Correspondence with DSU

           D/050/B/03: Correspondence with league officials

     D/050/C: Team Rosters

     D/050/D: Financial Accounts

          D/050/D/01: Cash books

          D/050/D/02: Annual accounts

     D/050/E: Photographs

So you can see from the example above how the collection has been divided into sub-fonds according to the type of record (minutes, correspondence, photographs) and then within each sub-fonds divided further until the catalogue drills down to a single piece of paper, the letter from 1995.

Many archives have their own websites which host their catalogues. There are also several websites which bring together the catalogues of many archives allowing you to search for one subject across many archives (see Links and Resources section). This is useful if you don’t know where material might be held.

Please bear in mind that many archives are behind with their cataloguing as it is very time consuming and labour intensive. Some archives may put up the fonds-level summary description, but they may only have a rough list of what is in the collection. It is always worth checking with an archive in case they hold material of use to you that is not yet listed online.

Archive Hierarchy Explained

Why can’t I just look at everything online?

There is an increasing trend for archival documents to be digitised – that is, scanned as a digital image and made available online. Websites like Ancestry contain thousands of scans of documents like census returns, parish registers and birth, marriage and death certificates. The National Archives allows users to download military service records, wills and registration cards. Most of these documents are provided commercially, that is, you will have to pay for them. Some archives provide scans of photographic or visual material such as London Metropolitan Archives’ Collage website.

So why don’t all archives just scan their documents and post them online? There are many problems with this approach. Scanning records to go online is time consuming and expensive. The documents need to be catalogued at item level first. They need to be prepared physically for the scanning process. Scanning itself takes time as does ensuring the scans are of good quality afterwards. And then there needs to be server space for them to be stored and a good website to host them. Archives hold thousands of documents – it just isn’t feasible to go through this process for each collection.

Think of it this way – imagine if you just uploaded every single photo on your phone to Facebook, without tagging, without captions or comments. Your friends wouldn’t want to sift through loads of blurred and upside down photos or an accidental pic of the inside of your pocket. They would rather you took the time to upload a handful of good quality images and tag them properly. Archives are taking the same approach.



Many catalogues will include indexing to assist your searching. Adding these indexes is very much like adding hash-tags to a Tweet: if you add #DMU then anyone clicking on #DMU will see your Tweet. Standard index terms are person, corporate name, place and subject. For the example above, some index terms might be:

  • Person: Smith | Melissa | b.1964 | netball coach
  • Corporate: De Montfort University Netball Club
  • Place: Leicester | England | UK
  • Subjects: Netball, Sports, University Sports, Teams, Coaching

Therefore anyone interested in university sports would find the collection by clicking on that index term.