An Introduction to UK Archives
This page is part of: Using Archives: A Guide for the Inexperienced
The UK has a long tradition of record keeping and a rich accumulation of archives, manuscripts and other records dating back over a thousand years.
The records of our Westminster government form the longest continuous series anywhere in the western world and the UK also has extensive archives and records that have originated within the Church, landed estates, institutions and corporations, business and industry.
The wealth and range of our collective ‘archival inheritance’ from past centuries is a substantial proportion of the UK’s written heritage today. It records the interactions of our predecessors and their relationships with the various administrations, organisations and influences that affected or guided their lives. It is a priceless and irreplaceable asset for future generations. We need to care for our writen heritage, and also endeavour to ensure that our own activities are documented and included to form part of the archive of the future.
It is difficult to know how many repositories or record offices there are in the UK, especially if you count the many and valuable community archives. Certainly they number in the thousands and include universities, colleges, learned institutions, businesses, charities, local authorities, museums holding archives, and a large number of often small specialist repositories, usually subject based (e.g. medicine, theatre, architecture).
Patterns of custody and administrative responsibility are complex, with a variety of agendas and funding streams. There is no statutory responsibility for archives other than Public Records, which come under the Public Records Act. The Keeper of Public Records is the Chief Executive of The National Archives (TNA) which is responsible for safeguarding our public records. TNA is the UK government's official archive. There are separate national archives for Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Local or county archives services are the responsibility of local government. These record offices can be vulnerable to cut-backs and are often run with a small staff and budget, yet they maintain and provide access to a huge amount of our history and heritage, especially archives relating to the local area, such as estate and business archives, as well as parish records (births, marriages and deaths). Universities often hold fine collections of archives, manuscripts and rare books, commonly referred to as 'special collections'.
Specialist repositories usually collect archives on the basis of a subject area, but it is always worth being aware that they may hold a wealth of material covering a surprising range of subjects. This is a reflection of the way archive collections are not 'pre-defined' or consciously created for researchers; they were created for other purposes, and so the archive of an architect or a writer or a physicist is likely to reflect all their life's work and personal interests. Business archives are often maintained within the organisation and may or may not be openly accessible. They often provide a view political and social history as well as the business itself.
Archives are often used for historical research, and thought of as a part of our cultural and heritage. But they can also form a vital legal source of evidence and document key political, economic and social decisions. They may also be invaluable to a business in recording its corporate history, and are often used to help with branding and identity.