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Things you need to know about archives


What are they?

Records created, used, received or assembled by organisations, families and individuals in the course of their activities"

Most archives started life as working documents. They were created and acquired to do a specific job at the time: to communicate and to preserve information; to protect rights and interests; to justify actions; to get people to do things, or at least to influence them.

They are things like correspondence, minutes, reports, registers, accounts, plans, publicity material and even e-mails and databases.

They are records which are usually no longer needed for their original purpose but which still contain valuable information.

They record a vast range of interactions between people: formal, official, political, financial, legal, commercial, educational, private and personal.

They are one of the raw materials from which an interpretation of the past can be built up.

They tell us about the people who created and used them, the people they came into contact with, and about events, issues and trends.

And they are not just 'very old stuff'. Some archives were created centuries ago, but many, like a lot of those in the Modern Records Centre, are of much more recent date.

How should I use them?

Remember the who and the why"

Archives are not neutral sources. They were created, not to provide documentary evidence for future researchers, but to perform a specific task - this could be anything from conveying personal thoughts to a friend in a private letter to arguing for policy changes in a government memorandum. To use primary sources effectively you need to ask a series of key questions to put them in context and assess their reliability as evidence:

  • Who is the author (and are they writing in a personal or official role)?
  • Why are they writing this document (i.e. to provide information, to attempt to persuade someone...)?
  • What was the intended audience, and how might this change the contents and style of the document (is it a private or public document, will it have a wide circulation...)?
  • How accurate is their view of the subject likely to be (do they have access to privileged or first hand information, do they have a vested interest, are they biased for or against...)?

So it is down to you to interpret them, and it helps if you know who created or acquired them and why. In other words, their context.

What is an archive "collection"?

In the same way that an archaeologist is able to put a find into context by seeing what has been buried in the ground next to it, a researcher can get an idea of the context of a single document by looking to see what else has been filed away with it, and what archive collection the item is contained in. If archive material is received from a single organisation or individual it will be catalogued together in one distinct collection. Researchers can therefore get a better understanding of how an organisation or individual worked by looking at the collection (and its catalogue) as a whole.

All archives from a particular source are catalogued together in a way which reflects their original use, and any known information about their source is given in the catalogues. This differs from the way books are generally catalogued by being slotted into pre-determined subject classification schemes.

Most archive catalogues, including ours, are arranged in descriptive 'levels'. This is a key idea, so find out more here and see these examples from the Modern Records Centre catalogues: description of a whole collection; description of an item showing the collection it is part of.

A note on citation:

When citing archives, you need to provide enough information for a reader to (a) know what you've been looking at, and (b) be able to find it themselves.

One method of citing sources is:

Letter from Harold Macmillan to Richard Crossman, 15 December 1943; Richard Crossman Archive, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick; MSS.154/3/AU/1/96.

[What the source document is; The name of the archive collection it is from; The repository where it is held; The reference number of the source document]

The bare minimum information needed is the name of the archive repository (e.g. Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick) and the document reference number.