Sunday, 22 November 2015

From the Top - Explore Archives

This week the annual Explore Your Archives campaign launched here in the UK. Remember only a tiny fraction of historical materials have been digitised and made available online, so archives still hold many treasures genealogists need.  Learning to use an archive is really important.

I am prepared to bet that most of us were taught how to use a library sometime in childhood, but we learn to use archives as adults by trial and error. Libraries organise their books and other materials and have catalogues to help you find what you want. Archives also organise and catalogue their holdings, but do so differently.

Archives are organised using a hierarchy with several levels. Cataloguing archives, in four very easy steps illustrates the four main levels with rather natty photos. The levels are:
  • Fonds or Collection
  • Series
  • File
  • Item
Genealogists often focus on the single item, and forget the context in which it was created, used and preserved. Much valuable information about an item is in the higher catalogue levels, so explore them all.

Archivists start at the top level and don't always have the resources to fully describe lower levels.  The best way of discovering what an archive holds is to look at the fonds level. The National Archives (TNA, the UK one) has over 400 fonds, which is somewhat overwhelming. According to the published guide 'Tracing your Ancestors in the National Archives' these are the fonds most commonly used by family historians:

I would like to see a summary like this one posted on every archive's website and displayed prominently in every search room.  I am sure UK researchers are familiar with some of the contents of the fonds HO, RG and WO. Have you looked at other fonds, and other series within fonds?  Take a close look at RG 101.

Sadly, online archive catalogues do not make examining fonds level entries as easy as it should be. To display all fonds in Discovery, TNA's catalogue, use the Advanced Search. A search term must be entered so I used the wildcard *, meaning everything.  Then I scrolled down the page and selected 'The National Archives' under Held by, which brought up further options. I scrolled a long way further and selected 'Department' under Catalogue Levels.  TNA confusingly uses the terms Department for Fonds and Piece for File. Once you have identified a Fond of interest, you can search using the reference.

Now it is your turn. Have fun exploring an archive!

Bevan, Amanda. 2006. Tracing your Ancestors in the National Archives. The National Archives: Richmond. pp 4-7.


  1. As I commented on Twitter, the best way to see all departments in Discovery is to use the Browse functionality, rather than search. Below the search box on the main page of Discovery ( you'll see the text "Need more search options? Use our advanced search or browse". Both "advanced search" and "browse" are links. Click on "browse" and you'll go to The browse page is essentially divided into four areas. Top-left is the Browse for the records held by The National Archives themselves, under the text "Records of The National Archives - Organised by government department reference" - this also explains the use of Department rather than fonds - each lettercode represents a particular government department (or former department, "Machinery of Government" changes over time mean that an actual functioning department may administer the records found in a variety of department codes, for example WO {War Office}, ADM {Admiralty} and AIR {Air Ministry} would now be administered by the current Minisitry of Defence, records created since the amalgamation of the 3 "service departments" into a single Ministry of Defence are typically found under DEFE). The remaining quadrants give various options for browsing wider archival holdings, either by listings of their holdings supplied by the individual archives (top right - formerly the separate catalogue known as Access to Archives); by name of archive (bottom right - formerly the separate catalogue called ARCHON); and browsing through the list of "record creators" (bottom left - formerly the separate catalogue called the National Register of Archives), this lists families, individuals, companies etc who have created archives, and then links to the description of holdings of these records in individual archives.

    To find yourself at the beginning of the list of Departments, click the A (on a round green background) in the top left quadrant, or if you happen to know the first letter of the department code, but not the exact code, click on the appropriate letter. This will take you to eg Then use the scroll up and down the page to see more, and use the navigation controls above the list to move on through the list. On the right hand side of the screen you'll see the list of series within that department (again there are navigation controls to see more than the initial 30 that are presented). If you click on another department, you'll see the series for that one instead, or if you click "details" anyway it appears, you'll be taken to the full catalogue description.

    1. David

      My intention was to help people understand the nature of archival catalogues and encourage them to explore the information in the catalogue.

      I restricted the demonstration my post to search so that it did not become too long and complicated. I think your explanation of browse has confused rather than helped.

      I disagree that using the browse function is the best way to view all fonds. For me, the browse facility does not highlight the catalogue hierarchy. Browse is an alternative to search. Researchers need both search and browse to make the best use of the catalogue.

      The National Archives is primarily the archive of the UK government, so many fonds relate to government departments, both current and former. The use of 'Department' as the top level is not helpful because it does not follow international standards. Please help researchers by using terminology that is consistent with other archives in the UK and internationally.

  2. Wow, that is like Greek to me, probably why I have been procrastinating researching family in the UK. I know it isn't hard, just unfamiliar.

  3. That's the user friendly web site? I'm with you, Fran.

  4. Fran, was it the blog post or davidunderdown95's comment that is Greek to you?

  5. I agree we learn archival processes through trial and error - I certainly did decades ago. Fortunately archives are becoming more user friendly and producing guides so that their records are less confusing. Using these records is such a vital part of expanding our families' stories so we do need to take up the challenge. Thanks for insights into TNA.


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