Methods & Sources of Historical Research

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Notes from a course on methods and sources of historical research at IHR, 11 July 2016 - 15 July 2016

Interspersed by comments and notes which are mine own (DBBD!) and may not be representative of the archive's/IHR's views on the matter....


The Nature of Archives and Primary Source Material

  • Notion of difference between primary and secondary sources... but its quite fuzzy
  • Primary = unmediated access to past (not processed by another mind)
  • Newspapers = a report of what has been told. testimonies are primary but the reporter has chewed thru the material.
  • Historians make statements about things which should be believed - by people who don't have access to primary sources
  • Having looked at the primary sources = is the reason why people listen to historians
  • Does digitization undermine the authority of the historian who derives his/her authority on basis on having the ability to find the primary source material? - should not be - because the historian should define his/her role based on his/her ability to contextualise
  • Primary sources tend to be gathered and held in institutions called archives. historians tend to be interested in written material. others look at other types of materials , objects, material culture, etc.
  • archive - gatekeepers? destroyed by organisations because deemed not of interest?
  • uk? governments destroy 90%? of records - horrifying but also liberating
  • previously history was dead white male europeans, now there is a broadening of history
  • an archive is a set of staff to administer a procedure of cataloguing and ordering
  • the diff between archival and library catalogue is that libraries have certain systems which attempt to divide human knowledge into recognisable chunks
  • archive - institutional procedure orders it rather the dewey
  • archive - not published material
  • library - published
  • brick and mortar reality to an archive (not pure virtual)
  • talking about it in relation to organisation / but also there is question of power of access / gatekeeper
  • point is that we will need to apply a different method of accessing / searching when using archives (compared to libraries) as they are accessed differently
  • surrogacy: what is an original? today we like copies, we think of them as being useful.
  • digitisation processes
  • money, power, etc
  • archives -> state / nation building --> even church was doing this
  • newspapers - pdf ocr - things missed out: compositor (context of what was around this article, what else would be seen by a real reader of newspaper with many articles), marginalia, emphasis, etc
  • Qn to ponder: what is a public record?

Public Records

  • WHY ARE MOST BOAT RECORDS AT Greenwich , National Maritime Museum? - cos boat stuff seems more suitable there
  • WHY IS INDIA OFFICE RECORDS IN BL: Kew rationale that anything outside of English, Latin, French - they have no specialisation, so they gave it to British Library.

National Archives Research Guides

GUIDES! we have to think of it in terms of records being scattered to the wind and for various reasons being held at different places and we have to find out where these archives might be kept. Never give up hope!

TNA: Searching Example

What if i want to find something about Boots the chemist? What would be the thought process of how to start searching?...

  • would they be historically minded and keep their own archive?
  • would it be at wellcome collection cos its medical/pharma?
  • is there a chemist trade union and do they have a collection?
  • business archives council for business archives?

National Register of Archives

National Register of Archives (NRA) - a list of where to find records

Discovery at TNA is a combination of:

  • NRA, the National Register of Archives
  • ARCHON, directory of archives
  • A2A, Access to Archives
  • MDR, Manorial documents register

But how do we access this underlying database that is NRA?

Do note to use the Creator option.

Bootsplc.png Bootsplc2.png

Introduction to the Institute of Historical Research

Victoria County History


Also see: COPAC

Interesting libraries in the area

  • Institute of Archaeology (UCL)
  • Library of SOAS
  • Warburg
  • Heythrop College Library (for religious history)
  • Check out SCONUL (when i'm in school again....)

Senate House Library

  • SEE Special collections - - access i think is free for non-instituitional researchers
  • The Institute of Commonwealth Studies, founded in 1949, is the only postgraduate academic institution in the United Kingdom devoted to the study of the Commonwealth.
  • Senate House Library contact:

Visiting Archives

  • BRITAIN vs REST OF WORLD / Interesting locations of Scottish and Irish records - may be scattered due to politics - you are likely to spend time in several places
  • Going into british imperial holdings - the decolonisation moment. in most cases there was a transfer of records or archival system. but

"There is currently no single, unified online catalogue for searching across all archive collections in the UK..." :'-(

  • MAJOR TIP: GET A WELLCOME LIBRARY CARD - great online resources
  • France - Biblotheque Nationale
  • Germany - many records lost due to berlin bombing, decentralised records due to federal govt system
  • papers vs material culture collections such as the ones at LAARC: material not usable by nonspecialist.
  • for that reason they tend not to have public facing catalogues as their material would anyway require specialists to handle or contextualise them
  • for maps, plans, ordnance survey - check BL first

Day 1 - Random thoughts

  • DEBBIE'S NOTES: copies of letters, drafted until perfect.... the originals i was so excited about are they original?
  • D.J. Cohen et al., ‘Interchange: The Promise of Digital History’, The Journal of American History, 95/2 (Sep., 2008), pp. 452-491
  • L. Putnam, ‘The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast’, American Historical Review, (April 2016), pp. 376-402.

Thinking about the origins of Singapore's National Archives

  • how similar is it to british system?
  • From NAS website While the establishment of the National Archives of Singapore (NAS) has a relatively short history, it can trace its roots back to the creation of the post of Archivist within the Raffles Museum and Library in 1938. Then, Tan Soo Chye was appointed to trace, record, organise and preserve the historical colonial records and to perform research and administrative work spanning both the library and museum. In 1967, the National Archives and Records Centre Act was passed, and NAS was established the following year in 1968. In 1993, NAS together with the National Museum came under the management of the National Heritage Board. Due to a reorganisation of government ministries and portfolios, the NAS has since been transferred to become an institution under the National Library Board on 28 March 2013.

Day 2: London Metropolitan Archive & Bishopsgate Institute

A visit to the London Metropolitan Archive

  • LMA is the largest archive in town
  • there are other sources of archives for things in london, for example business archives - huge corps like HSBC and Guardian have their own archive / educational: wellcome trust, kings college, LSE have their own archive / Charities like red cross have their own archive, and religion there is lambeth palace. So it is always worth checking with different institutiions if your request is regarding a specific instituition or individual from an instituition
  • LMA's collection policy is mixed, composed of 3 archives
  • Example of what will be archived: let's say there is a business in wandsworth. if the business only serves wandsworth, it won't be put into the LMA's collections. if the business serves all of london from wandsworth, then perhaps it will be stored with LMA.
  • Extent - in metres - size of the things in their boxes... in a line....
  • There are also uncatalogued items. most archives have uncatalogued items about 10-15% apparently.

What's in the LMA

  • London County Council (LCC), Middlesex County Council (MCC) , Greater London Council (GLC), Pan-london charities, organisations, businesses
  • Diocese of London - parishes were encouraged to give their registers to this archive, but it was not required. this is often used in family history searches.
  • Welfare: Board of Guardians, Hospitals
  • Bomb damage maps are also popular


Bishopsgate Institute

  • Bishopsgate Institute opened 1895.
  • The original aims of the Institute were to provide a public library, public hall and meeting rooms for people living and working in the City of London. The Great Hall in particular was ‘erected for the benefit of the public to promote lectures, exhibitions and otherwise the advancement of literature, science and the fine arts'.
  • improving reading and literacy for the Working class - in the east end.
  • handles on the side of the bookshelves (original) which were used to allow people to climb up and access the higher shelves. however, the women felt the men could see their ankles and up their skirts so asked to ahve a seperate Women's reading room. the main reading room in the library today is the men's reading room.
  • Beautiful glass roof. Survived bombings. Librarians continued working. After war, the glass roof was miraculously standing. However, the librarians were concerned by a weird sound of clinking on it. Later they found out that workers from nearby buildings were bored and throwing small things at the glass to see if it would break, so an additional cover was constructed over it.
  • a lot of the special collections were built up by Charles Goss. Born in Denmark Hill, in South London, in 1864. He worked in Birkenhead and Newcastle public libraries, before becoming the first librarian in Lewisham (beating 300 other applicants to the post). He was forced out of this post apparently for not turning up enough to the job, but left to become the librarian at the Bishopsgate Institute until his retirement. While there, he campaigned to raise the status and pay of library staff, and established some of their special collections in London history, labour history, freethought and humanism by going on extremely long lunch breaks and buying insane amounts of books by the wheelbarrow.
  • library painted in a neutral calm colour so it wouldn't incite riot. a lot of socialist texts housed - fears of mad revolt sparked by books.
  • George Howell and Marx in the International Working-Men’s Association - - the minutes book is held at Bishopsgate. allegedly hailed as the birth of socialism, but actually not a very interesting meeting followed by an argument between george howell and karl marx. due to popularity (even stalin wrote to ask to see the book) the book was moved to bank for safe keeping for 20 years.


DAY 2: Finds

  • - The Archives Hub is a free service describing physical and digitised collections held in higher education, specialist, local authority, business and other research archives. It is updated every week with new content.


  • National Archives - a purpose built building for the archives, several floors down of strongrooms
  • There are some records in Cheshire but all things have to come to London to be used in the reading rooms
  • Contains materials from the Domesday Book (1085) to 1980 Government records (British Isles, Empire, etc)
  • Many are government, are organised by government department prefix. eg home office HO
  • Although over 11 million records are here, these form 5% of the special government docs to be kept. 95% is destroyed (not very useful actually)
  • Everything that is here can be searched in Discovery
  • Most docs: 20-30 Years after creation - closed
  • Personal docs: 75-100 years after creation.
  • But FOI - technically must be available - high success rate of request, but may take several weeks
  • 45 min for each order at TNA - before 5pm of working day (so order your materials by 4.15pm for 5pm closing days)
  • Contact licensing department for use of images (maybe £40 for 20 images?)
  • PRO guide on the first floor on the right! A very useful index in 3 parts.
  • At TNA archives you can see the document and even print it off in some cases (not possible at home)

TNA: Searching example



  • You can search bye keywords
  • apply archival logic ( who might have created this kind of document?)
  • Go to see it at TNA on the network (your computer would only show general searches) and then top up card with machine and print out (swipe card)
  • Remember that discovery shows all archives including ones outside of london so you should filter for TNA records if you want TNA records
  • If wanting to order - IMPORTANT: write down the number of the things you are interested in ON PAPER before pressing ORDER NOW because the next screen doesn't automatically transfer your number over - you'll have to retype it in again!!
  • Anecdotal comment from researcher: if you send back documents they sometimes go into limbo for 2 days

TIPS: Search or Browse

Example: lets say you know you want to get a record from the War office which you find out is WO.

Tna tip 1.png Tna tip 2.png Tna tip 3.png Tna tip 4.png Tna tip 5.png

  • Discovery can be too smart for itself putting two and two together so beware. Example of searching sackville knole estreat roll (court document which is used to impose a fine) which finds a sackville family living in knole street instead!
  • Archon which seems to be pronounced AR-KON is a fixed number for all archives regardless of their name change. archaic but used for classification in discovery.
  • NRA refers to paper catalogue which provides more detail in the open reading area
  • want to know when it was transferred or entered into an archive? check for ACCESSIONS: when the records enters the archives -

Other Search tools

  • The National Archive's reference library:
  • Copac: - union catalogue for major research libraries

Better Boolean

  • Double quotes for exact match - "public health", "censored" (will not return censor)
  • Question mark for single character - mald*n will return malden or maldon
  • Asterisk for any number of characets - censor* will return censorious and censorship
  • Boolean AND to find both terms but not exclusively - austen AND jane returns Austen, Jane, Jane Austen
  • Boolean OR to find either - cow OR cattle
  • Boolean NOT to exclude - churchill NOT winston
  • Round bracket to group terms - (film OR cinema) AND censor*

See also

  • Exporting results as CSV


  • Labs:
  • Wait a moment, did i see UFO and witchcraft as taxonomy subjects??? and downstairs i saw in the moving screens pictures of UFO...
  • question: is there a "discovery" for academic papers?
  • the TNA staff also mentioned about usability. 70% for computer, 15% for tablet, 13% for handphone. why won't it be 100%?
  • why is CO413 not used?
  • merchant shipping map routes
  • airconditioning sound > flapping of sheets in a storm > low ceiling > crusht by weight of administrative burden > dust storm > colonies distant and obscured from view
  • MUSTER ROLL: for relief of distressed sea men - rolls with name address, details of engagement, and discharge (pensions)
  • ADM55 - log books of ships
  • CO956 - there's an empire marketing board? - marketing empire products 1926-1933
  • CO975 - far eastern reconsruction - colonial correspondence on the 'far eastern reconstruction' they were going to do (but did they?)
  • readers.web.local - the url when you are at TNA

DAY 4: Clothworker's Hall, House of Lords, and Lambeth Palace

every single place starts with a fire warning on what to do if there is a fire

Clothworker's Hall Archive

  • one of the great 12 livery companies
  • there are over 100 livery companies today, new ones being created.
  • a livery company is like a guild
  • records here survived the Great Fire (2 September to Wednesday, 5 September 1666), the great hall burnt totally but the fireproof vault survived. this is a 1958 rebuild you see today.
  • formed in 1528 (which, in the scheme of livery companies, was quite late for one ot the great 12. (actually it is also the 12th in the 12 live of greats - some started 1100...)
  • the clothworker's company was formed of fullers and shearmen company being combined
  • London's medieval guilds evolved into corporations responsible for training as well as regulating their respective trades, such as wage control, labour conditions and industry standards.
  • cloth workers basically responsible for the finishing of the cloth
  • the term "tenterhooks" comes from this - cloth workers hanging things from hooks - there is a tenter alley in london - it dries and stretches the cloth
  • teasle used to scrap cloth to make it plush!
  • role of the clothworkers company - manage apprentices, settle squabbles, protection from unfair competition, and also levvying a fine for poor workmanship
  • made "free" means to be allowed to work in the square mile of the city - what is the history of this term???
  • industrial revolution in 1800s - meant cloth production moved north
  • but little actual clothwork records are in the archives.
  • it is really also a social history - records of almshouses, education, charitable work, trustees of charities (they are trustees of over 100)
  • they also own land, give our scholrships, trusts (eg: one was for boots and blankets for the poor in islington - by 1980 no need for this)
  • giving people capital to set up busness
  • gifts of property were given to the company, so today they are huge property owners
  • property portfolio > $ from that maintains this grand hall and staff of the archives > but main money goes to charitable cuases
  • women's education, visual impairments, cloth innovation in textiles, leeds, bradfood
  • fancy dinners for mastres, honorary, 1558, 1639
  • courts - all of the community in one place - they dispute resolutions, 1551 funding of a uni scholarship, property lease issues, complaint of an apprentice whose master didn't teach him
  • clothworkers needs transcription, 1500-1600 accounts, hannah jessica,
  • books we saw follows here:
  • 1500s lease claims - early apprentice records also in labour
  • city map
  • gregory collections (victoriana collections)
  • 1806 dinner book of culinary history
  • 1914 school mag - online index but not much digitised

House of Lords Archive

  • tally sticks jewel tower - fire 1834 - resulted in loss of records
  • lords records since henry 7th 1497
  • commons records since 1547
  • eary 1900s still had reports of people coming to the archives with torches and kicking rats
  • acts are written on vellum - sheep goat skin, iron gall ink
  • over 60k rolls
  • earliest one is from 1497
  • la regle la roue - the queen wishes it
  • official records of parliament - acts, jouranls, deposited plans, appeal cases, peerage claims, laid papers
  • other parliamentary collections - architectural
  • printed materials - sessional gap hansard
  • 20th c personal papers - very full up now so they don't collect any more but these have papers from lloyd george
  • local and family history, private acts


  1. portcullis
  2. parliamentary papers - house of commons (BL subscription only)
  3. historic hansard up to 2005, modern hansard 1998 nov
  • eg search 'tracy' - naturalisation - private act
  • eg: search 'kennet and avon' - it searches all text.... including putting two and two together on its own (wrongly most of hte time)

what we saw

  • death warrant of king charles I, 1649
  • bill of rights 1689, draft declaration of rights
  • petition of from manchester in favour for abolition of the slave trade on paper
  • future of the archives? - archives accomodation program
  • parliament building promise.
  • currently in tiny space and lifts which accomodates 4 men - fire risk, needs to reduce this fire risk
  • decisions will be madei n late 2016 / 2017
  • a move is probably more like 5-10 years away after this decision

Lambeth Palace Archive

  • not much medieval fabric, deemed by blore (buckingham palace) to be unsuitable
  • morton's tower 1497, audience chamber (taht's where we sat)
  • access to here was via horseferry (does this explain the horse in the playground opposite????)
  • 16th century buildings weren't built to hold archival documents really
  • 2nd largest garden after buckingham palace,
  • archives for the official residency of archibishop of canterbury
  • lambeth is one of the earliest public libraries in uk / 16th c)
  • raises question of what consitututes in a public library esp in 16th c - it just has been in use since 1610
  • idea of creating repositories of knowledge - bodelian was also set up in the same period - you could say the idea was fashionable at the time
  • bancroft bequeathed his library and so did various people and archibishops
  • there was just a cut off at 1830 when its perception changed to that of a library of national, historical propoertions and then the archibishop didn't feel like they were responsible for being the individuals adding on to them
  • in 16th c thoguh few had thep ower and money to collect books beyond the archibishop
  • 2 main types of matter
  1. maniscripts numbered 1, 2, ,3, ---
  • first 600 were bequeathed by bancroft - considered treasures today
  • early numbers - it is possible to tell who bequested what exactly
  • closures after 30 years - more sensitivities rather than personal reasons for closures
  • carey 1991, misundersstanding of what constitutes records - if not printed, not record - but what about internet time??? emails? so they printed a ton of emails
  • church of england
  • complicated relationship hierarchy
  • apriasal process - what researchers are liekly to want in future? deplicated info?
  • sion college material, bob roy, like a private gentlemen's club, with a huge theological library

Day 5: LAARC

  • guided by dan nesbit
  • open 1976 - london museum + guildhall museum, see museum of docklands as well!!!!!
  • this building - old steel tubing warehouse, looks anonymous, ahrd to find, moved here when they outgrew their previous building in the late 90s (rent went up and size not enough)
  • most planning permission in london has some archaeology involved
  • MOLA, wessets, AOC, etc, all materials evetually comes back here. anything with M25. all archaeology centralised into the LAARC
  • sections in the building including
  1. social and working - objects donated, like car, telephone, painting
  2. history collection
  3. LAARC
  • MOLA has 30+ material specialists who know everything about human bone, animal bone, etc
  • LAARC is by appointment only
  • MIMSY search catalog
  • looking into the use of DeepStore in the Cheshire salt mines as alternative
  • we saw a big telephone exchange - which was at buckingham palace - princess ann recognised
  • flood / drainage problem still
  • SGP / 15 (road ref / year the dig began)
  • context number - the higher the deeper
  • wood - wet - anarobic, so samples are kept in baggies with water
  • soil samples also taken in a dig
  • human remains
  • wash / dry (air / oven) > is it general find or registered find (marked by man)
  • a registered fine will be given a site code - it usually has context, unique, displayable
  • ownership of item depends on landowner - some loan for 20-50 yerars, some donate
  • 99% will sign object over to museum , is case by case situation
  • mortimer wheeler's animal vegetable mineral
  • london society library (reference)
  • yello registered fine
  • in baggies with staples - tyvek paper label, foam, clear bag - as easy to access as possible
  • more money in city = more building works = MORE ARCHAEOLOGY!!! (eg 80s)
  • the peaks and troughs of london's financial market

things we saw

  • medieval ice skates
  • tiny glass miniature roman tear catcher when tears evaporated you can stop mourning
  • 16th c green man tile?? or people drawing funny portraits of each other
  • PATU - james cook, joseph banks, 40 bronze maori patus, but never went, 35 lost, 1 and BM, 1 at SMIH,
  • burnt brick - peninsular house on pudding land - great fire


  • each archive stands as different classes of archives
  • don't worry about pagination and determining quotable page number for original source. don't invent your own pagination. just signpost it as well as you can.
  • if using a specialise archive, go to the specialist journal and see its cirtation style guide
  • for oral history, sound archives at BL
  • software - zotero is gree and awesome
  • BBIH
  • Royal Historial Society
  • check other biblos
  • ' there's a glut of medieval history phds, so rates are good for translation if you can't read it yourself'