What are archives?

Archives are collections of information – known as records. These come in many forms such as:

  • letters
  • reports
  • minutes
  • registers
  • maps
  • photographs and films
  • digital files
  • sound recordings

The National Archives is the largest archive in the United Kingdom, but there are many other, smaller archives that may have records to help with your research.

Some archives are created by official bodies such as governments, businesses or professional organisations. Others are private collections.

Archives can contain records with a local focus or specialise in a particular theme such as railways.

Personal archives range from those relating to a well-known public figure such as Churchill to your own collection of family letters, photographs and memorabilia.

Find contact details of many of these archives using Find an Archive.

Is an archive like a library?

Not really.

The books in a library are often secondary sources of information, whereas the records in an archive are primary sources. Archives provide first-hand information or evidence relating to historical events or figures.

Library books are arranged by subject and author, whereas information in archives is arranged according to the person or organisation that created it. This means that you will probably need to look at records from more than one source, or more than one archive, as you gather information.

This can make it difficult to know how or where to start, but reading our tips on how to use archives will save you time in the long run.

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