How to look for records of... Searching for records using Discovery

There are two ways to look for a record using Discovery, searching or browsing. This section contains advice on both methods.

1. Should I search or browse?

You can use a simple search with just keywords or an advanced search with dates and other details if you have them.

When you search using keywords, you should use words which you think will have been used in the description of the record rather than in the content. Some records have very sparse descriptions where others have lots of detail.

If you don’t get meaningful results from searching, this might be because the descriptions of the records you are looking for are too basic to be picked up using a keyword search. In this case it might be helpful to browse.

Browsing might give you can idea of how record descriptions have been worded for particular sets of records.

Only a small proportion of records can be searched for by name or place. You will probably need to browse as well as search to get the best out of your research.

For more advice on whether to search or browse specific kinds of records, try looking at our research guidance – this will tell you the best way to find records on specific subjects.

You can get started by simply putting keywords into the search box and searching the whole of Discovery. This means you will be searching records held in around 2,500 archives and institutions across the UK as well as abroad.

Alternatively, you can select to search only those records ‘Held by The National Archives’ or ‘Available to download from The National Archives’.

Once you get your results you will see two tabs – ‘records’ and ‘record creators‘ – at the top of the results list. You can switch between the two tabs as often as you need to.

The results under the ‘record creators’ tab will list organisations, businesses, families, people and manors that match your search terms.

Using the simple search could find what you are looking for straight away, but:

  • you could miss other results that are useful
  • you could get too many results
  • you could get no results

If you understand how to choose appropriate keywords your searching will be more productive.

Choosing keywords

You need to find a balance between being specific enough to get meaningful results, but not being so detailed that you miss records that are not described with the exact terms you have used.

Discovery will search for derivatives of your keywords unless you place the word in speech marks – so if you search for the word marine, you will get results for the word mariner too.

On the other hand, a search for 6th Battalion East Lancashire will find records of military campaign medals, but it could miss war diaries where the description uses the term 6 and not 6th. A search for 6 Battalion East Lancashire will show results that include both 6 and 6th.

If you are searching for a record creator it may help to include more than one type of search term, such as a family name and a title, or a place name and a type of record.

Searching with Neville Chamberlain and field marshal will help if searching for Sir Neville Chamberlain’s records.

Searching with Gainsborough and Noel will help if searching for the papers of the 1st Earl of Gainsborough or the Noel family, Earls of Gainsborough.

Constructing a keyword search

Constructing your search carefully can pay off as your results will be more useful. There are some commonly used techniques, known as Boolean searches, that will help you to search more specifically. Use:

  • OR between words to increase your results – so Smith OR Smyth
  • “quotation marks” to find exact phrases (see also Advanced search options)
  • brackets for complex searches – so Inn AND (Southwark OR Lambeth)
  • NOT to exclude results – so Austen NOT Jane
  • an asterisk – * – to pick up variant spellings: Rob*n will find Robin or Robyn. Rob*n* will find Robbins, Robyns and Robinson
  • a question mark -? – to replace single characters eg Rob?n whill find Robin, Robyn, Roben and Robon

See the section on understanding your search results for advice on why a search has returned too many or too few results.

Advanced search has two tabs – ‘Records’ and ‘Record creators’.

Records tab

Advanced search allows you to be more specific about the search terms and records you want to use and search for than a basic or simple search.

Your search results will be more focused if you use specific search criteria, such as a date or reference, for example. This is particularly helpful if you are unfamiliar with Boolean search terms (see above), as the advanced search effectively inserts the Boolean searches for you.

Advanced search gives you the option to:

  • use combinations of key words
  • find an exact phrase
  • exclude certain words (for instance if you want to search for the name Austen but not to get results for Jane Austen)

You can opt to search records that are held at:

  • The National Archives
  • other archives
  • both

Options on the Records tab

The records tab has the following fields that you can complete to focus your search:


Find words

There are three sets of search boxes in this section:

  • All of these words: searches for results that match all of the words you have entered into the search box. This is the same as inserting “AND” between the words
  • Exact word or phrase: searches for results that match all the words in exactly the order you have entered them into the search box. This is same as putting quotation marks (” “) around a set of words
  • Any of these words: searches for results that match either one or more of the words you have entered into the search box. This is the same as inserting “OR” between the words

Don’t find words

Any words you enter into these fields will be excluded from your search. This is the same as inserting “NOT” between the words.

Search for or within references

Using this field you can target your search to a particular set of records if you know the reference which is used for them at an archive. You can enter any part of a reference or enter previous references that may have been used by the record creator or the archive in the past – you will sometimes find these references quoted in published works.

For records held at The National Archives, use our research guidance to find relevant department reference codes or record series references to get you started.

References will vary from one archive to another and you may occasionally find reference codes used by more than one institution. Some examples are shown below:

  • WO 95 for First World War unit diaries at The National Archives
  • RD.CS for Chester le Street Council records held at the Tyne and Wear Archives
  • MH is used for Ministry of Health records at The National Archives but also by the Imperial War Museum for Brigadier M Henry’s records and a number of other archival institutions for records of one kind or another


This function searches the range of dates that the record covers. Some records have very broad date ranges.

  • Search a date range: enter a range of years using the format YYYY
  • Search a specific date: if you need to be more precise, you can search for one specific day or month in a particular year using the formats  MM/YYYY or DD/MM/YYYY

If you prefer, you can choose one of the date ranges shown at the bottom of the Date section by clicking in the box next to it.

Some records do not have covering dates in their catalogue description. If you want to capture more records in your search, try searching without a specific date or date range.

Held by

  • Search all – this will search the catalogues of The National Archives and other archives – this is the default search
  • Search The National Archives – this will only search for records held at The National Archives
  • Search other archives – this will only search for records held outside The National Archives. To search within a specific archive, type the name of the archive into the search box in this seciton. To search all other archives outside The National Archives, simply leave the search box blank.

If you select ‘Search The National Archives’ then the following options will appear below (note: if you use any of these options you MUST first enter a search term, date or reference as described above):

Records available for download

You can choose to only search through records that have been digitised and can be downloaded from our website.

Records by government department creators

Type in the name of a government department and see what The National Archives’ reference code is for that department.

Catalogue levels

Click in the box to show which catalogue levels you want to search within. You can chose more than one option. Sometimes you might want to search only for specific, individual records (pieces and items); other times you might want to search sets of records (department, division or series) to find what collections relate to the subject you are interested in.

Record opening date

Click next to the relevant time period if you only want to find records opened on a specific date or within a date range.

Record closure status

Click in the relevant box if you want to search for records according to their closure status. You can choose more than one option.

Exclude from search

Click in the box if you don’t want your search to pick up keywords in the titles of documents.

If you select ‘Search other archives’ you will be able to select a specific archive to search within – to do this, just type in the name of the archive and then select it. If you want to search within multiple archives, simply type in the names one at a time and select them.

Options on the ‘Record creators’ tab

Use the ‘Record creators’ tab if you want to search for an institution, family or person that created a set of records (often not the same as the institution or person that currently holds the records). This tab features the following fields to help you focus your search:


Find words

  • All of these words: searches for record creators whose name or locations contain all of the words you have entered into the search box. This is the same as inserting “AND” between the words
  • Exact word or phrase: searches for record creators whose name or location contain the words in exactly the order you have entered them into the search box. This is same as putting quotation marks (” “) around a set of words
  • Any of these words: searches for record creators whose name or location contain either one or more of the words you have entered into the search box. This is the same as inserting “OR” between the words

Don’t find words

  • Any of these words: any words you enter into these fields will be excluded from your search. This is same as inserting “NOT” between the words

Creator type
You can use the drop down list to restrict your search to one of the following types of record creator:

  • organisation
  • business
  • manor
  • person
  • diary
  • family

Similar kinds of institutions are not always defined as the same creator types so you will need to be careful when you are choosing to limit your search this way. For example, some theatres are listed as organisations but others as businesses, depending on their size and structure.

Some creators are defined as two or more types. For example, creators of personal papers may be defined as families, and therefore catalogued under the family name, but also as a person, and catalogued under an individual’s name too.

Though a search with either creator type would be successful, a search under the family name may reveal greater numbers of relevant results.

If you are searching for the records of a person, depending on who they are, it might be useful to search under the family name too (and vice versa). This would be particularly relevant for members of landed families, whose papers may have been catalogued together as one collection and may also be within other collections scattered across the country, reflecting the location of their estates.

It is also a good idea to search under ‘diaries’ for records of a person. ‘Diary’ is a term Discovery uses for individuals whom we may not know a lot about, sometimes not even their lifetime dates.

Selecting the business or organisation creator types will allow you to select a number of categories and sub-categories. For example, select business, then the category ‘Transport and communications’ and then the sub-category ‘Railways’.

Unless you are confident about only wanting results relating to a specific record creator type then it is probably best to carry out a more general search. If you get too many results to make sense out of, you can filter them using the options on the left of the screen.

Using ‘Find an Archive’

This tool, located on the Discovery homepage, allows you to search for archival institutions in the UK and beyond, and find out about the kinds of records they hold.

It replaces what was previously known as the ARCHON Directory.

See the separate Discovery help section ‘Find an archive

4. Browsing from Discovery homepage

There is a link from the Discovery homepage to the Browse page. From here you can browse records held by:

  • The National Archives – by the government department who created or inherited the records
  • other archives and institutions who have taken in the records

Browse records of The National Archives

Records held at The National Archives are organised by the central government department from which they originate. There are letter codes for each department (for example, DEFE for records of the Ministry of Defence, or KV for records of the Security Service).

Using the alphabetical chart you can browse the departments by their reference codes – but note that the letter codes don’t always correspond alphabetically to the department names. The descriptions usually give you an overview of the records in that department, with links to their component parts, known as divisions and series.

Browse records of other archives

Use the letters to find records held by archives around the UK by browsing through alphabetical lists of archive names.

Clicking on the ‘Details’ link for each archive will provide descriptions of collections held by the archive.

At the moment you can only browse the content of around 400 archives’ records in this way. This is because only the detailed catalogues previously hosted on the Access to Archives service have been integrated in to Discovery. We have plans to extend this type of content in Discovery so that it includes more archives’ records in the future.

Browse other archives

Browse the alphabetical lists of archives found around the UK and beyond. You may need to experiment a little with the names of archives before you find the alphabetical listing.

For example, the archive at Queen Mary University of London is listed under ‘L’ because its full listing is ‘London University: Queen Mary University of London’.

Each entry provides:

  • contact details
  • access information including opening times and wheelchair access
  • summary information about collections and finding aids

Browse record creators

You can also browse by the family, person, organisation, business or manor that created the record.

Each of these record creator types is listed alphabetically with details of the collection and biographical and historical information where it’s available.

Unlike ‘browsing by archive’, creators have a ‘sort name’ applied to them which means that you will find Roald Dahl under ‘D’ and not ‘R’ and John Lewis Partnership Ltd under ‘L’.