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What are archives and records?

Archives are collections of materials (including documents, papers, books, electronic files, records, films, objects) that are deemed historically, culturally or socially important to preserve for future generations. Archives are a little bit like libraries, and libraries sometimes have an archive, but there are differences.

Take a look at the ten questions below to find out a bit more about archives and discover how you can go about visiting an archive.

What is an archive?

Where are archives?

What sort of things are in archives?

So, do archives just keep everything?

Who decides what to keep in an archive?

Can I see archives online?

Can I visit an archive?

Why should I visit an archive?

I am interested in a particular subject, where should I start?

Can I work in an archive?

 

What is an archive?

An archive is a place where archival materials and records are kept. Archives are responsible for:

  • preserving these materials in special conditions so that they will not deteriorate
  • conserving damaged materials, undertaking sensitive repairs in order to protect the materials from any possible further damage, and ensuring they can be safely accessed so people can come and view them
  • engaging people with, and educating them about, their collections. Making them accessible to people who are interested in seeing them (in ways that still protect the materials)
  • collecting relevant materials and adding these to their archive
  • interpreting and understanding the material in the archive, ensuring all items are catalogued in ways that mean they are easy for archive users to find

You can find out how we help archives across Scotland with preservation, conservation and education.

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Where are archives?

There are archives right across Scotland and UK. Many local councils have an archive, as do Universities and businesses. Take a look at our Archives map to find your local archives.

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What sort of things are in archives?

Archives can contain nearly anything!

These are just a few examples of the amazing things in archive collections. Imagine what you could discover.

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So, do archives just keep everything?

Archives keep physical records and objects in special environmentally controlled rooms and digital records in secure servers, both of these systems can cost money to maintain, and space can be limited, so they have to make decisions about what is important to keep, and what can be destroyed.

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Who decides what to keep in an archive?

Things may end up in archives in a variety of different ways, they might be donated, rescued or purchased by the institution. And not everything kept in archives is old! Some archives are legally responsible for keeping newly-created paperwork and digital files safe. This may include such things as information about people in care, census records or business decisions.

The length of time these records need to be kept for before being destroyed is written into the law, in the Public Records (Scotland) Act 2011. Discover how we have been supporting archives and records to meet their legal obligations.

Archives may also have a collecting policy, which outlines the type of materials which they will take into their collections.

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Can I see archives online?

Many larger archives have digital copies of parts of their collections online.

Even if the material has not been digitised you can often search the catalogue online and identify the record you wish to view before you arrange a visit.

If you are not sure which archive has the records you are looking for, there are several sites which collect together catalogues from many different archives, such as:

  • SCAN, Scottish Archive Network Online Catalogue
  • Archives Hub, UK catalogue including over 200 institutions
  • Aim25, catalogue including institutions within the greater London area
  • Archives Wales, search catalogues of institutions across Wales
  • Irish Archives Resource, search archival collections across Ireland
  • Europeana, explore archive collections from across Europe

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Can I visit an archive?

Yes you can! If you would like to visit an archive, start by checking their website. This will have information about opening times and the process for arranging your visit.

Archives are similar in some ways to libraries but with several important differences. The books or documents may not be out on shelves for you to browse but there will be a catalogue. You will use this to search for and request your items. The archivists will then bring the materials out of storage for you to view in the reading room.

The archive will have some rules in place to ensure that the material is well protected and kept safe while being viewed. The rules will be clear and easy to follow and if you have any questions there will be people available to help you.

If you would like help finding materials, or want to discover more about the collection, remember that you can ask an archivist! Archivists are knowledgeable about their collections and will help you to get the most out of your visit.

If you would like help before you visit, get in touch with the archive service before you go. They will be happy to help.

View our Archives Map to see contact details for your local archives (not all Scottish archives are listed yet, so do search wider if you can't find what you're looking for).

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Why should I visit an archive?

Lots of people are interested in materials in archives for many different reasons, these might include:

  • Family or local history research
  • Journalistic research
  • Scholarly research
  • Authors researching a particular period of time, community or location for a novel
  • Artists or crafts people looking for inspiration

Almost anyone with an interest in a particular subject will be able to find an archive to interest them!

Why would someone visit an archive rather than just researching online?

  • Not all archival material is available digitally
  • Some materials may be stored with other objects which can shed light on the material which you wouldn’t see without viewing it in person
  • Sometimes the digital record published online will not include the whole object (like the back of a photograph) and this can only be seen in person
  • Archivists are hugely knowledgeable about their collections and by visiting in person you will get the chance to speak to the people who work there and ask questions, they will be able to guide you to find more relevant material that you may not be able to find alone

You can read a PDF copy of 25 Reasons to Visit the Archives, published in the Who Do You Think You Are magazine, to learn more.

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I am interested in a particular subject, where should I start?

For Scottish Ancestry and Genealogical research, start with the family history section of the National Records of Scotland: http://www.nrscotland.gov.uk/research/family-history

For folk songs and stories, see the School of Scottish Studies sound collection: http://www.ed.ac.uk/literatures-languages-cultures/celtic-scottish-studies/archives

Or take a look at the Tobar an Dualchais/Kist of Riches project which the School of Scottish Studies has contributed to: http://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/

For teachers looking for educational material, see the Historic Environment Scotland’s Scran website (teachers can log in for free): http://www.scran.ac.uk/

Or see our own collections of resources and guides in our Education section.

Archaeological and historical researchers could start with Historic Environment Scotland’s Canmore catalogue: https://canmore.org.uk/

For women’s, feminist or LGBTQI history, visit the Glasgow Women’s Library (their online catalogue is currently under development): http://womenslibrary.org.uk/

Artists and craftspeople looking for inspiration could try the Glasgow School of Art archives: http://www.gsaarchives.net/

Local council archives will be full of useful information for local historians, authors and ancestral researchers. See our Archives Map to find yours (not all local council archives are listed yet, so do search wider if yours isn’t there).

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Can I work in an archive?

Archives vary greatly in size and remit, so every archive needs people with a variety of different skills in order to run. Here are some of the main careers that you might find in archives:

Archivists are responsible for ensuring the material in the archive is stored correctly, catalogued and researched. They are often also responsible for ensuring that the material is accessible to researchers and the public. Archivists generally have a post-graduate qualification in archives or records management that is recognised by the Archives and Records Association UK & Ireland (ARA-UK).

Read about careers in archives on the ARA-UK website.

Records Managers help organisations to fulfil their legal obligations for record retention. They provide data and information and are responsible for ensuring that there is capacity for the volume of records their organisation needs to keep while also destroying records as appropriate. Records Managers generally have a post-graduate qualification in records management.

Read about careers in records management on the ARA-UK website and on the Information and Records Society website.

Conservators are responsible for the preservation and conservation of archives. They handle and repair archival material, repairing damage and undertaking work to ensure there is no further damage. Sometimes conservators undertake rescue work, repairing archive material following a disaster event. Conservators generally have undertaken a masters in conservation or S/NVQs in Conservation or Collections Care. They may also have undertaken a certificate in Conservation with the ARA-UK  or progressed through professional accreditation of Conservators and Restorers scheme administered by the Institute of Conservation. 

Read about careers in archive conservation on the ARA website and the Institute of Conservation website.

In some archives you may also find researchers, digitisers, cataloguers, education or learning and outreach officers. In other archives this work may be done by staff with other titles as part of their wider role.

Many archives use volunteers in a variety of roles. If you are interested in volunteering, you should contact your local archive or take a look at our list of online voluntary opportunities.

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