What are archives?
Archives are records created or collected by a person or organisation in the course of their business and retained by them as evidence of their activities, or because of the information they contain.
Archives are inactive documents no longer needed for day to day business. An archive is not the same as a filing system: archive records have usually been chosen for retention because of their long-term importance.
Archives are usually unique items which cannot be replaced. Printed items held in archives may not be unique, but their existence in that archive can help you build up a picture of the kind of person who collected them.
The word 'archive' can also be used for the building in which the archives are stored, as can 'record office', and 'archive office'. The person in charge of preserving the archive is called an archivist. Archivists make archives available to historians and other researchers, who use them as a way to find out about the past.
Archives are primary sources, that is they were written during the period you are researching and can therefore tell you something about contemporary events and what people thought about them.
Manuscripts are, strictly speaking, any documents which have been handwritten. However, the term is often used to mean a collection of documents brought together by one particular person, or a series of correspondence, personal papers or other documents which perhaps have a common subject matter. They have generally been retained for the second reason in the general definition above: because of the information they contain.
Archives record what happened in the past, how it happened, and sometimes even why it happened....
During the Reform Riots of 1831 a 'mob' attacked and burned Nottingham Castle.
The castle was targeted because it was the property of Henry Pelham-Clinton, 4th Duke of Newcastle under Lyne, who was a staunch opponent of the Reform Bill.
The burning down of the Castle and the subsequent trial of the rioters are recorded in a number of sources, including the duke's own diaries and letters, providing different viewpoints of the same events.
Contemporary illustration of Nottingham Castle in flames, with a jubilant mob celebrating the scene
Letter from the High Sheriff of Nottingham to the duke, giving an account of the attack on the castle as he saw it developing, 12 October 1831 (Ne C 5004/1-4)
They can be single documents....
The Wollaton Antiphonal is a 15th-century service book associated almost since its creation with the parish church of St. Leonard's, Wollaton, Nottinghamshire.
It is very large and is beautifully illustrated. In the past it has suffered damp and other damage and is currently undergoing restoration with support from the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust, the Pilgrim Trust and other charitable bodies.
...or large collections
Large collections can be VERY large!
These archives may contain many different types of documents and may be held by a number of record offices, so it can be necessary to visit several repositories to see all their family papers.
For example, the archives of the Cavendish-Bentincks, Dukes of Portland, include papers of related families. The different collections within the archives were divided between a number of different libraries and record offices:
- The Portland (Welbeck) Collection (Pw) at The University of Nottingham contains over 428 boxes containing many different types of documents, including private letters, poetry, advertisements and even locks of hair
- The Portland (London) Collection (Pl), also at the University, contains over 1230 boxes and includes medieval deeds, accounts, surveys, maps and plans and architectural drawings
- Nottinghamshire Archives holds over 250 boxes of deeds and estate papers
- Hampshire Record Office holds more estate papers relating mainly to properties in that county
- The British Library and the Bodleian Library at Oxford also hold personal papers
All these Portland collections provide a wealth of research resources for a wide range of studies. Access to Archives (A2A) is helping researchers to find out about these scattered resources.
People often think of archives as being handwritten documents...
Palaeographic skills are required as early documents are likely to be in abbreviated medieval Latin, and even early English handwriting used different letter forms to those used today.
A well educated aristocrat would have taken pride in his illegible writing (as only professional clerks were trained to write clearly) and it was not until the late 19th century that spelling became standardised!
Archdeaconry of Nottingham presentment bill accusing John Walker of Newark of painting a Maypole on the Sabbath day (AN/PB 326/2/36)
'We the late Churchwardens ther whose names are under writen doe p[re]sent John Walker of Newark for payentinge a maye poole uppon Whittsonday last.'
Letter from Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle under Lyne to his brother, Henry Pelham (Ne C 1121)
It describes how his wife Henrietta collapsed with a 'hysterik attack' at the dinner table at the court of George II in Hanover. At that time, court life was so formal that even coughing in the King's presence was considered a social disaster.
...but archives can take many forms!
Detail of the Great Seal, a large wax pendant seal, attached to Letters Patent dated 26 November 23 Victoria (1859)
This seal is attached to a document which appointed Henry Pelham-Clinton, 5th Duke of Newcastle under Lyne as Secretary of State for the Colonies, and indicates that it was witnessed by the Queen herself. (Ne 5 Da 15)
Two items of clothing from the University archives
University College; cricket and hockey club caps, 1919-1921 (MS 520/1-2)
University College blazer of W.H. Hine, c.1925 (ACC 1808)
A lace item from the collections
William R Webb (1858-1928) was a lace designer who worked in Philadelphia, U.S.A. from 1892 to 1895, and then established his own business in Nottingham.
He was also an artist in water colours and was featured in local exhibitions. We believe that this is an example of his design work.
Our experiences today - recorded on disc, tape and other media - will be the archives of the future.
Technologies can become obsolete very quickly, as the BBC Domesday Project discovered.
The multimedia results of the 1986 national survey were effectively near-unreadable by the end of the 1990s and required an urgent salvage mission.
The length of life and durability of disks, audio and video tape, CDs and DVDs have not yet been tested by time in the way that parchment or even paper have been.
But the physical safety and longevity of a storage medium are not the only issues. Eventually the (once state-of-the-art) hardware required to access data may become obsolete and impossible to maintain, so an institution must make long-term provision for data migration to ensure continued accessibility.
What will be preserved for future researchers as more and more people use email and electronic formats for their work? Also, as technology develops at an ever-increasing rate, how will such data be archived and made available to researchers when that technology and those formats are no longer current?
Some examples of different types of documents found in archive collections:
Next page: Where are archives held?