A historian is only as good as his sources

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Simon Fowler: a frequent writer on how to use Britain's amazing wealth of archives

Simon Fowler: a frequent writer on how to use Britain’s amazing wealth of archives

For our guest blog slot, history researcher and writer Simon Fowler explores the theme of the recent talk he gave to London Library members on “How to… Use the Archives” (part of our series of regular Member Events). Simon provides essential advice to anyone looking to navigate the unparalleled wealth of Britain’s archive collections.

“David Kynaston’s excellent piece in the Autumn 2015 issue of the Library’s Magazine reminds us of the treasures to be discovered in Britain’s archives.  Britain’s archival heritage is second to none with immense riches spanning the centuries. And their holdings cover almost every aspect of human endeavour and every corner of the globe. In short if you are writing on historical subjects, however tangentially, then you really should visit the archives.

Some archival material has already been digitised and online. That’s the good news; the bad news is that it can be hard to find. Certainly there isn’t a central list of what has been copied and where it is to be found. In addition many digitised records just contain the lists of names so beloved by genealogists.

There are over 4500 archives scattered across the British Isles. Some are immense like the UK’s National Archives at Kew, where they look after millions of historic records created by the British government.

But many are tiny. Researchers at the Baring Bank’s archives literally share a desk with the archivists. Woe-betide you if you come back from lunch smelling of garlic!

It’s important to stress that, although there is some overlap, libraries and archives are fundamentally different. Basically all archive holdings are unique and irreplaceable. They are arranged differently too – not by subject, but by collection (such as the records of a church, company or individual), and often further divided by type of record such as minute books, correspondence or diaries.

Even if the records are not yet all online, there are many indexes to be found on the internet. The best place to start is with The National Archives (TNA) website www.nationalarchives.gov.uk. Here you will find details of almost all British archives, short videos on using archives, and guides to using many of the records at Kew. But pride of place goes to the Discovery Catalogue that describes all eleven million records held by the Archives together with many records at other archives. However, it is easy to assume that if what you are looking for isn’t listed here, then it doesn’t exist. This is definitely not the case. You still need to look elsewhere.

There are two other consortia of record offices that offer descriptions of the holdings of a wide range of archives: AIM25 (www.aim25.ac.uk) covers many repositories across London, and the Archives Hub (archiveshub.ac.uk) provides links to archives at universities. You can do a search across all the member archives, say looking for all entries relating to Thomas Carlyle or St James’s Square.

All but the smallest archives now have online catalogues. They may not be complete, nor will they necessarily be easy to use, but they are definitely better than nothing.  If you get stuck remember to put all search terms, such as “Thomas Carlyle” in double quotes. And read the help pages: sometimes they are useful!

The national and copyright libraries all have major collections of archives. Every English and Welsh county, as well as many towns and cities, also have their own record offices, mainly covering the history of their local areas.  Google will take you to them.

If you haven’t got time – or feel nervous about doing research – there are many professional researchers who can help you find what you want. The best are the members of the Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives (www.agra.org.uk).

British archives are the most complete and easy  to use in the world. Like the London Library they offer a wealth of resources to anybody who visits them. What are you waiting for!”

Simon Fowler is a professional researcher and historian and has published many works on archival research. He has been a member of the London Library since 2000. For more information visit www.history-man.co.uk