Archives Discovery at The National Archives

The National Archives’ catalogue, Discovery – , is a great source for finding archives held at institutions across the United Kingdom. You can “use Discovery to search for records held by The National Archives and around 2,500 archives and institutions across the United Kingdom as well as a much smaller number of archives around the world.”

Discovery contains all the records catalogued at The National Archives. It is also shows whether these records have been digitsed and are available online. This is currently around 5% of the records it holds.

Discovery is a project that The National Archives has been working on for a number of years and has integrated some of the other services it offers:

Records held by other archives and institutions

You can use Discovery to search for records held by other archives and institutions. These will sometimes be full catalogue entries and sometimes a person, family, business or organisation with a brief description and where the records are held. These catalogue entries are made up of two previous databases:

Access 2 Archives (A2A) – This was a project that ran from 2000-2008. It was an archives portal for finding aids from archives across the UK. Most catalogues were added as part of a cataloguing project often with a theme such as family and estate collections. Some archives added more of their catalogues at a later date. Some archives submitted more catalogues than others, but not their entire holdings; so it is still worth checking with an archive, if they hold records you want, but you can’t find a catalogue on Discovery.

National Register of Archives (NRA) – The NRA was set up in 1945 and 1946 in Scotland, and was the responsibility of the Historical Manuscripts Commission. They collected or created lists of archives held privately across England and Wales. The NRA lists are mostly very basic box lists. The National Archives holds physical copies of all the actual NRA lists from England, Wales and Scotland, and you can view them at The National Archives in Kew.

In Discovery you will see the person, family, business or organisation the records relate to and a brief description with covering dates. Many of these records have now been deposited with an archive, but some are still held privately. You can see where they are held in Discovery and there is sometimes a link to an online catalogue.

You will probably see old references to A2A and the NRA on other websites, but they are both now integrated into Discovery.

Manorial Documents Register

Manorial records consist of court rolls, surveys, maps, terriers, documents and books of every description relating to the boundaries, franchises, wastes, customs or courts of a manor. They are covered by certain legislation, as they are the only proof to the title of copyhold land. This legislation ensures the preservation the records. The National Archives is responsible for the maintenance of the Manorial Documents Register under these rules. The register for many counties has been computerised and can be found through Discovery, using a basic search (there is beta testing for the MDR advanced search).

You can find out more about Manorial Documents Register here.

You can find which Counties have been computerised here

Find an archive

Find an archive on the Discovery home page gives details of archives and other institutions that hold records across the UK

You can search Find an Archive by map, country, region, county or by name. Some of the features it includes are listed below:

  • Contact details, map and website

(when this information has been sent to The National Archives there are also:)

  • Links to items in Discovery e.g. business, organisations, people and families
  • Links to the archive’s online catalogue
  • Links to the NRA catalogue references of records held by the archive.
  • Lists of new accessions by year

Find an Archive used to be called the Archon directory and again you may find old references to it on other websites.

Tagging records in Discovery

Discovery has a crowd sourcing feature where you can tag records for yourself to find later or to help others. The National Archives adds date and location tags to the catalogue entries, but anyone can add any tag to them after that. However just be aware, they are not checked for accuracy.

Accessions to repositories

Each year most archives send lists of all the new accessions they have received over the year. These are not yet in Discovery, but you can find them here: arranged by subject or on each archive’s page in Find an Archive.

Research guides

The National Archives has been working on a project to redesign their research guides and give them a more user centred approach. More about this work can be found in their blog

Their new look research guides are in the Beta testing stages. Take a look here and let them know…


Discovery is a great resource, but if you feel you need help searching it you can take a look at The National Archives free webinar – Using Discovery – The National Archives online catalogue.

This is on Tuesday, 7 April 2015 from 12:00 to 13:00 (BST), you can register using the below link.

Webinars are available, even if you miss the actual event:



Discovery Catalogue, The National Archives,   Accessed 4 Apr 2015

Manorial Documents Register, The National Archives,  Accessed 4 Apr 2015


Current initiatives, Manorial Documents Register, The National Archives, Accessed 4 Apr 2015

Find an Archive, The National Archives,  Accessed 4 Apr 2015

Help us tag our collections, The National Archives,, Accessed 4 Apr 2015

Accessions to repositories, The National Archives, Accessed 4 Apr 2015

Website redesign: help with your research by Paul Lamey and Matt Norman, The National Archives blog, Accessed 4 Apr 2015

Help with your research, beta pages, The National Archives, Accessed 4 Apr 2015

Webinars, The National Archives, Accessed 4 Apr 2015


Digital Dark Age Vs. Electronic Enlightenment

Digital preservation has been highlighted as an issue in the media over the last couple of weeks, after Vint Cerf, Google Vice-President and “Father of the Internet” said we are about to enter a ‘digital Dark Age’ .  He believes that we could lose a lifetimes worth of data because of hardware and software obsolescence.

There has been, what I am going to call, an electronic enlightenment over the last 30 years, with very rapid changes of software and hardware. Smartphones now can do more than early computers. When you consider digital storage, a floppy disc couldn’t even hold one image taken on a digital camera today. Yet now you can get external hard drives, as small as a pack of cards, which can hold a lifetimes worth of photographs. Technology is still advancing at a rapid pace in all areas – bigger and cheaper storage, AI, robotics, TV screens you can roll into a tube and things like Google glass. There is potential to record and save data about absolutely every second of your life, if you wanted, but would this data survive even during your lifetime?

The answer is yes, if you managed it properly. Many archives have successfully been working on solutions for digital preservation for many years. Several of these institutions have responded to Vint Cerf’s interview, detailing their work. Jeff James, Chief Executive of The National Archives talked to BBC Radio 4 about safeguarding digital records in their custodianship using ‘parsimonious preservation’. The British Library talked about their work, in such things as the UK Web archive, in this blog post.

Why a ‘digital Dark Age’? Why did this not happen with paper records? One reason is volume of data (records and documents). The electronic enlightenment has made it easy and cheap to produce and store a very large amount of digital data in a very short space of time. When you think of other inventions such as paper and printing presses, costs of production and limited storage space would have had an effect on what records were created and kept. This meant choices had to be made and often only the most important documents to people of the time have survived.

Management of the data produced is also vital. Digital storage is relatively cheap making it easy to store everything and then rely on keyword searches to find it in the future. This has been the preservation strategy for many a company, but one that could lead us to a Dark Age. This is the equivalent to our paper based ancestors throwing everything they have ever written into a room and someone else coming in years later to find a specific item. This would be no easy task even with a limited amount of paper records with no context (e.g. a ledger full of unnamed accounts), index or anyone to interpret the records. Paper records can also become unreadable (obsolete) through flood, fire, acidification, mould or insect damage.

How do you prevent a ‘digital Dark Age’? The principles for preserving digital records are not really much different from paper records. The most important step is managing your data – knowing what you have got and recording/indexing data so people would be able to interpret it with no assistance. Technology we already have available, can then be used to care for them and make sure they are preserved for the future. Several industries such as pharmaceutical and engineering have, for regulatory and other reasons, successfully preserved their digital records for many years. There are even commercial companies that specialise in offering digital preservation systems, such as Preservica and Tessella.

Should we really be keeping everything? The answer is no.  Even if we did save everything and it did happen to survive; it would be a truly epic job for our descendants to look through and consider it all with no interpretation. Choices should be made about what records are important and valuable to us and truly reflect our society, culture and world events (e.g. tweets during the Arab Spring rather than about people’s tea); even if this does raise other issues such as objectivity and the right to be forgotten. On a more personal level, we would probably want to save our digital photographs and blogs rather than say our online order receipts or utility bills. It is our job to preserve the records that will show future generations what was important to us and that truly reflect what living in today’s world is really like.


Google’s Vint Cerf warns of ‘digital Dark Age’ by Pallab Ghosh on BBC News 13 Feb 2015  Accessed 21 Feb 2015

Parsimonious preservation: preventing pointless processes!, Tim Gollins.  Accessed 21 Feb 2015

Preserving our digital heritage, how are we really doing? By British Library Collection Care blog.  Accessed 21 Feb 2015

Valuing Archives – What is it worth?

‘What is it worth?’ Is a question I have often been asked, while working in various archives. This has always been asked in a monetary sense. My reply has always been that archives are unique and irreplaceable and so have no monetary worth. The value of archives is in knowledge they give us about the people and society of the past and the lessons we can learn from that.

When archives are given monetary value for such things as insurance claims this is rarely for the purchase of a replacement, due to their uniqueness. Most insurance valuations are for the cost of conservation work and repair if archives are damaged in a fire or flood. If archives are lost or destroyed, they are gone forever.

Recently there have been a couple of fires in repositories holding records. On 31 Jan 2015 there was a fire in a Library in Moscow, Russia, which contained some rare texts and documents, some of which dated from 16th Century. The fire damaged 1m historic documents and was described as a cultural “Chernobyl”

On the same day a large fire destroyed 4m boxes of records in a repository in Brooklyn, New York, US . The warehouse contained records from local hospitals, administration of children’s services and local court records. If none of these were backed up in digital form, then this would be a tragic loss of information about peoples’ lives that can never be retrieved. A blog post, by John Surico on discusses ‘How much history was lost in the Williamsburg storage facility fire?’ and its implications

Two other stories from the last couple of weeks focussed on the monetary value of archives, even though they are both worth so much more. In Chicago, US, Johnson Publishing is planning to sell the photograph archives of Ebony Magazine, which they estimate to be worth $40m, to raise capital. The archive contains 5m images detailing African American history, culture and life since the early 1940s. Johnson Publishing Chief Executive, Desiree Rogers told Reuters “Nothing exists like it. It’s almost like an African American Getty”. Yet it could end up being sold into private hands and hidden away from the world.

A Magna Carta edition from 1300 was discovered in a Victorian scrapbook in a Kent, UK archive. On its discovery many of the major newspapers led with the fact it was worth £10m. I am not sure how this estimate was reached, but to the academics studying the Magna Carta it is worth a whole lot more.

One of my relatives has said in the past “a house is only worth what someone will pay for it”. I do think the same is true of archives. It is a sad reflection of society that the monetary value of archives often seems to be more important than the knowledge and lessons that can be gained from their contents.


Fire in major Russian library destroys 1m historic documents, by AFP in The Guardian, 31 Jan 2015 Accessed 13 Feb 2015

Fire rips through Brooklyn warehouse Saturday, burning city and state records, by Barry Paddock in New York Daily News, 31 Jan 2015 Accessed 13 Feb 2015

How Much History Was Lost in the Williamsburg Storage Facility Fire? by John Surico on, 6 Feb 2015  Accessed 13 Feb 2015

Ebony Selling Photo Archive, The ‘African American Getty,’ Worth $40 Million, by Reuters in Huffington Post Black Voices, 28 Jan 2015  Accessed 13 Feb 2015

New original Magna Carta discovered in Kent, by Sophie Ambler on Magna Carta Project blog, 8 Feb 2015 Accessed 13 Feb 2015

Preservation – Parchment, Paper and Pixels

Last week the four Magna Carta documents dating from 1215 have been on display at the British Library and another copy from 1300 was found in a Kent archive. It is amazing to think that these documents have survived for 800 years. How have they survived this long? Would paper or digital records created today still be around in 2815?

Parchment is made from animal skin (sheepskin in the case of the Magna Carta documents). To make parchment, the skins were soaked in a bath of lime or sometimes urine for several days. They were then stretched over a frame while damp and the hair scraped away with a large knife. When they were dry they were treated with chalk or pumice and cut to size. You can often still see skin blemishes and hair follicles on bits of parchment. Parchment is very durable as long as it isn’t kept in excessively moist or very dry environments, and of course away from fire and water. Important documents like the Magna Carta were probably kept in a large locked chest, offering their own protected environments, helping to ensure their survival. It is also interesting to note that most of the records that have survived from before the 14th Century are important documents, such as charters and deeds proclaiming rights, and not something like a baron’s household accounts.

Paper has varying longevity depending on when it was produced. Early paper produced in the 13th and 14th Centuries was made of cotton or linen rags and tends to survive quite well. From the mid-19th Century paper began to be produced from wood pulp. The raw materials, processes and additives of wood pulp paper cause acid to form in it over time, turning it brown and making it become very brittle. Its survival depends on the quality of the paper and how it was produced.  This is why some 18th Century books look pristine, but a newspaper from the 1980s can have disintegrated into dust.

Digital records have the shortest lifespan, even though today they are probably the format in which most records are created. Digital records are subject to numerous threats such as obsolescence, decay or inadequate capture. Many digital records have already been lost even though they were barely a decade old. CDs and DVDs used for storage of digital records, also only have a life span of barely 10-20 years. Archivists are working hard to design systems and processes to ensure that born digital records are preserved complete for future generations, even if this has meant printing them out on paper sometimes!

Is the format of the record irrelevant? Could it be that records have survived because of their importance to the people at the time, rather than the fact they were on parchment? I don’t imagine the barons of the Magna Carta were particularly concerned whether it would still exist in 800 years. Even if recordkeepers work hard to preserve all the records in their care, from the documents of government to the diary of Joe Bloggs, will it be only certain records that stand the test of time?


‘Paper’ and ‘Parchment’ from Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, British Library. Accessed 1 Feb 2015

The Deterioration and Preservation of Paper: Some Essential Facts, Library of Congress. Accessed 1 Feb 2015

Digital preservation: a time bomb for Digital Libraries, Margaret Hedstrom.  Accessed 1 Feb 2015

Parsimonious preservation: preventing pointless processes!, Tim Gollins.  Accessed 1 Feb 2015