Using The National Archives

Time Travel Guides Resources for local and family history

Using the National Archives for Local and Family History Research

Time Travel Guides: Resources for Local and Family History » Using The National Archives

The National Archives has a vast collection of records that can provide insights into all kinds of experiences from the past. Some of these records are available through genealogy websites, but others can only be accessed by visiting the archives in person.

How to Access

The National Archives has a searchable online catalogue called Discovery. It lists all the documents that are held at the archives (and those at many local archives around the UK). Most entries have short descriptions of the contents and some have more detailed information such as the names of people or properties mentioned in the documents. You can search for specific words or browse through the catalogue to find different types of documents.

Some documents have been digitised and can be downloaded, but there may be a charge for this. It is also possible to request copies of documents that have not yet been digitised, but this will cost more. You can also visit the archives in person to see the original documents for yourself.

The National Archives website has detailed advice on local and family history research. The guides to individual sources are particularly useful if you want to find out more about a certain type of record and what kinds of information it contains.

What Material is Available?

The National Archives is the official archives for the UK government and England and Wales. The collection includes records from government departments such as the Home Office and Foreign Office as well as from major courts of law. It has the original copies of the UK census and some military records. The National Archives has vast and growing collections of modern documents, but it also holds material dating back to the Medieval period and beyond.

The Discovery catalogue includes entries from many other archives around the UK, but you will need to contact or visit those archives directly in order to access these documents. Being able to search all these archives in one place can be very useful for identifying which local archives hold the documents you need.

When to Use The National Archives

Many of the most useful records for family history at the National Archives (such as the census) are available through genealogy sites such as Ancestry or FindMyPast. If you have a subscription to one of these sites then you will be able to search for and see these documents there. Some digitised documents can be downloaded directly from the National Archives website, but it is worth checking whether these are also available from a genealogy website. If you want to see more than a few items, it can be cheaper to take out a subscription than to pay for each item. Downloads from the National Archives are free while access is restricted due to COVID-19, but it usually costs £3.50 to download a single will.

The National Archives also holds a lot of material that isn’t available anywhere else. The further back in time you go with your research, the more likely you are to need this material. Genealogy sites tend to focus on 19th and 20th century sources, but the National Archives holds material dating back much further. You may also find the material you need at the National Archives if you’re investigating a very specialised topic or doing in-depth research using official records. You could follow a 16th century family legal dispute through the Star Chamber or find out what was traded through a specific port during the 18th century. If you need to see these documents for your local or family history research, then you may be able to download them, request digital copies, or see them on site.

Tips on Using The National Archives

1. Searching The National Archives

The main page of the Discovery catalogue has a simple search box, which might be enough to find the documents you need. You can narrow down the results by date or document type. It’s also possible to restrict your search to the National Archives or any of the local archives that are covered by the catalogue. The Advanced Search provides more options for limiting your search so it can be helpful if you’re getting too many results.

Searching in Discovery is a bit different to using a genealogy site. The information isn’t structured, so rather than looking for a name or location, the search will check for matching terms anywhere in the record. For example, if you search for “Smith”, you will see results about blacksmiths as well as people with this surname – the Discovery search can’t tell the difference between names and other words. Restricting your search to the right record type or date range can help. It’s also a good idea to use wildcards or try alternative spellings as these may not show up in the results.

Another point to be aware of when searching in Discovery is that the level of detail in the catalogue entries can vary. Some records have been thoroughly indexed or transcribed, while others only have a basic title, date, and record type with little indication of the content. If the information you’re looking for is in one of these less detailed records, then it may be necessary to see them in person to find out which one contains the information you need.

2. Downloading Digital Copies

If the record you need has been digitised then you may be able to download it from the National Archives site. Some records are free to download, but there are charges for downloading others. You can view an online version with a watermark before you download anything, so you can check that the document contains the information you need. You’ll need to add the documents you want to your basket and check out, even if they are all free. The documents can be downloaded directly, but you’ll also be sent an email link so you can download them later. Your access to the file will expire in 30 days, so it’s important to save a copy of the document before this happens.

It is possible to ask the National Archives to create digital or paper copies of documents that haven’t been digitised. You will need to pay a fee and agree to the copyright terms. Copies can only be made if it won’t harm the original document.

3. Visiting The National Archives

Sometimes the only way to get the information you need is to visit the archives to search through the documents in person. The National Archives website has detailed information on what to expect when you visit, including the ID documents you will need to provide to get a reader’s ticket and the items you’re allowed to take into the reading rooms. It’s vital to check this advice when planning your visit to ensure you’ll be able to see the documents you need.

One item that you can bring into the reading rooms is a camera (or a device with a camera). Unlike some archives, the National Archives doesn’t charge when you are taking photos for personal use, but there will be fees if you intend to publish the images and you’ll need to check the copyright status of the documents. Taking pictures is the best way to record important documents as you’ll be able to take another look at the original without having to visit the archives again. It can also be helpful to zoom in to get a clearer look when the writing is small or difficult to decipher.