How to look for records of... Understanding your search results

Discovery returns search results in lists, ranked according to the number of times your search words appear in a document description and its metadata. In search engine jargon this is known as ‘relevance’ but your idea of what is relevant may be very different to the results you receive.

If you get fewer than 10,000 results you can sort your results by date, reference or title rather than by relevance (see sorting and filtering).

Your search results are displayed in two lists, one for ‘Records‘ and one for ‘Record creators‘, but you can only view one list at a time, by selecting the appropriate tab at the top of your search results.

You can also download your results and view them as a spreadsheet or webpage but you can only do this once you have under 1,000 results. Filter your results if necessary and click on ‘export results’.

Exporting results like this is often an easier way to view a large number of results. It also enables you to sort your results in different ways, for example by former reference. Some people find this an easier way to browse a particular series.

1. Information displayed in the ‘Records’ search results tab

If Discovery finds the keywords you searched for within the description of a record (rather than in the name of the record creator), then your search results will be displayed under the ‘Records’ tab.

Each search result displays the following information:

  • the title and a short description of the record
  • where the document is held
  • the date range of the record
  • a unique catalogue reference – the format of the reference will be different for different archives and institutions but is usually the key to requesting and viewing records

2. Understanding a record description (from the ‘Records’ tab)

Click on a result you are interested in and this will tell you more about the record.

How to view the document itself

There are different ways to view records depending on which archive they are held by.

If the record is held at The National Archives:

  • you can see it (and sometimes make your own copy of it) if you are onsite
  • you can order a copy of it if you are offsite
  • if it is a closed record you will need to submit a Freedom of Information request
  • if it has been digitised you can view it online – frequently there is a charge

If the record is held at an archive other than The National Archives, follow the link in the ‘held by’ field of the record description to find contact details for the archive. If the relevant archive has its own website you can look for information including when they are open and how to view their records.

Downloading a record

If your record is held at The National Archives and is available to view online you can download it. To get a preview of what the record looks like click on ‘show images’. You can use the arrows on the image viewer to move between pages within the record.

If you are onsite, click on ‘download full record’ and follow the prompts.

If you are offsite then it will tell you how much it is to download. To download it click ‘add to basket’ and follow the prompts.

Please note, many larger digital records are delivered as compressed zip files which may contain multiple pdfs. Although zip is a well-established format we are aware that a small number of operating systems do not come with unzipping software or applications. (For example, the iOS mobile operating system from Apple.) If your device does not have unzipping software/applications you will need to obtain this in order to view the digital records.

The context of a record

Archivists replicate the original order of records or impose hierarchies when creating catalogue descriptions. This means that records in Discovery are grouped into sets, those sets are grouped into larger sets and so on, creating various levels. A record description includes information on where it sits within the catalogue’s hierarchy. This can help you to see if there are sets of related records within a collection which may be worth exploring.

To move up the levels click on the links within the context section. By moving up levels you can see what section the record was filed within.

For records held at The National Archives you can also ‘browse by reference’ – this will show you other records in that same set, known at The National Archives as a ‘series’.

Adding tags

To make the document easier to find for other people, you can add your own words as tags. Read our help on taggingfor more advice.

3. Information displayed in the ‘Record creators’ search results tab

Where the keywords you searched with appear in the name of the institution or person that originally created the record (often not the same as the institution or person that currently holds the record), the search results are displayed under the ‘Record creators’ tab. Each result indicates:

  • whether the original creator of the record was an organisation, business, person, family or manor (as defined by the Manorial Documents Register rules). For more help searching manorial documents see the accessing the Manorial Document Register section
  • the number of collections created by that creator and where they are now held
  • the covering dates of the collections or lifetime dates of an individual

4. Understanding a record creator description (from the ‘Record creators’ tab)

Click on a result to find:

  • descriptions of different collections associated with that creator
  • the archives where those collections are held
  • links to contact details for those archives
  • more detail on the specific record creator – click on ‘view details of the record creator’. This may include links to a biography or history of that creator or links to other resources (such as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and the Artists Paper Register) where you can find out more.
  • links to information about related record creators within Discovery and their records – for example, Winston Churchill and his father Randolph
  • other information including whether a paper list has been filed in the National Register of Archives in our reading rooms at The National Archives

5. Too many results

A search might get too many results if:

  • you search too broadly – such as searching just for ‘Churchill’
  • your keyword could appear in different sorts of documents for different reasons – such as if it is a surname and a place name
  • your search term also appears as part of a document reference – such as RAIL

Use the filters on the left hand side to narrow down (or ‘refine’) your results. There are a number of filters you can use – see sorting and filtering your search results for more advice on this. If you have less than 1,000 results you can also ‘export results’ into a spreadsheet. This can be a simpler way of viewing lots of records.

6. Few or no results

There could be a number of reasons why a search doesn’t return the results you expected:

  • the keyword you have used doesn’t appear in the record description
  • the record you want might not be described in any or much detail so that a keyword search doesn’t find it
  • the spelling used in the record description could be different to the one you are searching with.

Here are a few suggestions for improving your results:

  • check your spelling and try variations or wildcards (see search help)
  • try different keywords
  • use fewer terms – start with a broad search and increase or change words used

For help finding the records relevant to your research, see our research guidance on looking for a person, place or subject – note any suggested department codes or record series references that you can then use in an advanced search.

You can save searches using the bookmark option. You will need to set up a Discovery account to do this.

If you don’t have an account you will need to register. If you do have an account you will need to sign in.

Once you are signed in, click on the star in the top right hand corner.

Please note that results saved may vary over time as descriptions are improved and new records are added to the catalogue.

8. Other possible matches

This feature appears on certain records only and suggests links to other records which may be of interest. It focuses on individuals and so far covers 20 of our most popular series from the First World War.  Links are computer generated and an indicator shows the likelihood they are a match. This feature is in development – we are releasing a beta version so researchers can feedback and let us know their thoughts and any issues they find.