What are Archives?

Archives are collections of materials (including documents, papers, books, electronic files, records, films, objects) that are deemed historically, culturally or socially important. Archives preserve these for future generations.

Scotland’s archives are the documented memory of the nation. They tell our stories, enrich our lives, connect us with the past and give us a sense of identity. They may be used to provide evidence of our rights as individuals, organisations and communities and, through them, we can hold authorities to account. Archives can bring families and communities together by telling us who we are and where we come from.

Explore why archives matter in this short film, kindly supported by the Archives & Records Association (UK and Ireland)  Research, Development and Advocacy fund.

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 preserve and care for their collections here.

There are archives throughout Scotland, the UK, and further afield. Scotland has many types of archives, with most local councils having one, as well as some universities and even some businesses. Take a look at our Scottish Archives map to find your local archive.

Image Courtesy of University of Glasgow (missing info)

Archives can contain nearly anything!

  • The Scottish census records are kept by the National Records of Scotland and made public after 100 years.
  • The University of Dundee has a collection of comics.
  • There is a collection of dolls in the textile collection of the Glasgow School of Art.
  • A collection of photographs documenting the 1958 Edinburgh x-ray campaign fighting against the spread of TB is held by the Lothian Health Services Archive.
  • There are 174 tapes and a tape recorder in the University of Aberdeen’s Special Collections on which are recordings from an oral history project documenting lives in the oil industry in the twentieth century.

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

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.

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. SCA are currently consulting on collecting policies.

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

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).

‘Offices during the removal of records at Scott Lithgow shipyard in Port Glasgow’ From the William Lind Collection courtesy of the Ballast Trust.

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

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 LGBT+ 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).

Archives vary greatly in size and remit, so every archive needs people with a variety of different skills in order to run. Find out more about the main careers in archives here.

Archives are the documented memory of a nation