What Kind of Information Is Available at the National Archives UK?

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The UK National Archives house over 11 million documents. Devoted to preserving historical archives, most are over two decades old. Some are hundreds of years old.

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The majority of documents are from court or central government. Records from high courts of law in England and Wales can be found in the National Archives. They do not house law records for Northern Ireland or Scotland.

National Archives UK

Documents are archived once the government department responsible for creating the records no longer has regular use for them. These departments include:

  • Home Office
  • Treasury
  • Department for Education
  • Ministry of Justice

However, there is not a record of every document that has ever existed; there simply isn’t space. Government departments work with the National Archives to decide what should be held for future reference. About 5% of government documents produced are archived.

There are other ways documents may find their way into the archives. For example, many photographs reach the archive through the offices of copyright.

Documents are often in the form of official reports or records but the archive holds information in many formats, including:

  • photographs
  • letters
  • newspaper reports
  • artwork
  • maps

Types of Research Guides Available at the National Archives UK

The National Archives have many research guides available to help find the information you’re looking for. They offer guidance on finding records and obtaining access to records as well as advice on how to understand the record.

There are research guides for an enormous range of subjects, including:

  • historic events
  • famous and influential people
  • architectural history
  • intellectual property
  • UFO sightings

Some research guides, however, have a broader scope. For example, using the ‘Photographs’ research guide will support searching for and finding individual photographs, or collections, from the millions on record.

Another example is the research guide for ‘Birth, marriage and death certificates. Birth, death, and marriage certificates after the year 1837 can be found at the General Register Office, rather than the National Archives.

So, there are research guides for specific subjects and guides on how to find, access, and use specific kinds of records, even if those records are not held by the National Archives themselves.

How to View Your Records at the National Archives UK

Obtaining records held by the National Archives could be for educational or academic purposes, a work-related project, personal interest, etc. Many people may be searching for information about themselves or their family.

The National Archives publish many historical documents through Discovery, on their website. A free account offers access to these records from home. However, some digital records are not available through Discovery, instead held by websites which require payment, such as Find My Past or Ancestry.

The National Archives allow users to download up to 100 documents within 30 days, so long as the information is used for non-commercial purposes. The most popular records are available online, but this is only about 5% of overall records.

Adding Your Own Tags To Records Found at the National Archives UK

Documents are tagged with words or short phrases to help us locate them. When we search for keywords, documents tagged with our search words will be found.

Tags are important to help us find and return to documents, but they’re also useful for helping us find information from documents which may use different language from the modern researcher.

The archives hold millions of individual documents. Not all of the documents are tagged and it’s really helpful if researchers add their own relevant tags.

To add your own tag to records found in the National Archives:

  • Create an account and sign in
  • Find the record you want to tag
  • On the ‘record detail’ page, select the option ‘add a tag’
  • Enter your tag/tags and submit

It’s important that tags submitted to the archive are:

  • Written in English
  • Under 100 characters
  • Relevant, appropriate, inoffensive, and legal
  • Written in alphanumeric terms

How To Ask For Advice in Your Research at the National Archives UK

Advice can be sought from the National Archives through their website. Between 9am and 5pm from Tuesday until Saturday, there is a live chat option available. This is designed for asking brief questions.

If you require more detailed advice, an email enquiry form is available. They will respond within ten working days, although usually will reply after around four days.

Additionally, the National Archives have podcasts and videos as well as blog posts which offer further advice.

Regional information

Although the National Archives do have documents relating to Northern Ireland and Scotland as well as England and Wales, there are also regional archives for these countries:

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3 thoughts on “What Kind of Information Is Available at the National Archives UK?

    1. Andrea, the best way to resource public records in any country is to find out what is publicly available. Many countries do not have the freedom of information, or laws that make it possible for citizens to research government collected information. The UK and USA are unique with what information can be accessed online

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