Session 2 – Online Archives and Collections

This session looked at how we can identify which online archives or collections might be useful for a particular topic, and also had a practical where we used the Web to find some archival materials for a topic.

This is the transcript (approximate) from the session:

Slide 1:

Firstly, we must identify where archival materials can be found.


Now a lot of the materials that we would have traditionally gone to one of these kinds of institutions in order to access has now been made digital, and made available online.

In addition to this, there are materials that are available online, that are invaluable to research, that are not associated with an archive organisation.  This can be anything from people’s personal websites with old photographs and YouTube videos, to companies’ online catalogues and websites.

Slide 2:

Whilst this is not a definitive list of the kinds of resources that exist, you might find it useful to classify archival materials in this way:

Written Materials – these are usually in the form of a collection or an archive.

Objects or artefacts – these are generally held within collections.

Research data – these are published within a data repository.

Film & sound – these are mostly within media libraries.

Its useful to think of archival materials in these ways, as this provides a method for brainstorming what sorts of materials will be available about the kind of topic you are researching, and therefore what kinds of places the resources will be held.  Doing an exercise like this will help to discount kinds of archives that are likely to be less fruitful to query.

Slide 3:

Traditional Methods: What can I get online?

Most research into archives for history, local history in particular, will end in a visit to a physical archive.  But there is now much preliminary research that can be carried out online, before needing to visit an archive in person.

5% of the National Archives’ materials are now online, through the Discovery Catalogue.
NA Discovery Catalogue:

Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts (usually known as the Historical Manuscripts Commission or HMC) was set up in the late 1800s to record the locations of archives for history study.  The HMC’s numerous indexes, publications, guides and annual accession lists are being added to the National Register of Archives (NRA).  The indexes are not currently online, but the plan is to do this in the very near future.

HMC on the NRA:

Over 2000 institutions in England have now made their archives publically available through the ARCHON Directory.  ARCHON includes contact details for record repositories in the UK, and some institutions outside of the UK if they hold substantial collections of manuscripts that are recorded in the National Register of Archives indexes.  So this is always a good starting point for research; although many of these archives will not have the actual archival materials available online, although in many cases, often the index information will be enough to begin your research.


Because we are archaeologists, we can use much more than just written archives.  There are objects too, and research data, all available online, that we can make use of before we need to visit a building somewhere.

Slide 4:

Most of the time, when researching archival materials online, you will go to the same institutions that you would visit in the real world.  Museums, archives, libraries are the most common places to begin when researching into archaeology and history.

Archives tend to mostly have online indexes of the archival materials that they hold. But sometimes they have also the actual materials. Usually in the form of transcripts, but sometimes also in the form of digital versions of the materials themselves.

Museums have online exhibitions of objects held in the collection – displaying details of objects online thematically. But they also increasingly have user interfaces to the collections database, where you can access the actual records of the objects. Usually this takes the form of the most basic accessions information, but sometimes more data is available, such as images, transcriptions if appropriate, and exhibition and conservation details.

Slide 5:

Its helpful to think of the availability of archival materials online as being situated along a continuum: from offline to online.

Offline through to Online:

  • Offline –  There is no online record available at all.
  • Partially Offline –  Index of records online, but the record itself is offline.
  • Partially Online –  Both index and transcript of the record online.
  • Online –  Index, transcript, and data of record online.

The usefulness of the availability is very dependent on the reason that you are looking for the archival material in the first place. i.e. Offline isn’t necessarily going to negatively affect your research, so don’t discount resource locations just because there are no materials online.

Slide 6:

The first thing to do is to think about why you are doing what you are doing, and then what you are actually doing.  Having a clear understanding of the topic of your research and then the purpose of your research will help you to identify what archives to begin with.

Slide 7:

Different institutions have different concerns for the items in their care.

  • Archives tend to have a focus on the content of the item, and so generally this is what will be the priority to get online.
  •         e.g. the text from a letter
  • Museum will focus usually more on the object itself, and will want this to be the first part of the record that they get online.
  •         e.g. the letter itself
  • Libraries have a multi-purpose focus. Traditionally they tended to put the reference to the record from the catalogue online, but increasingly this is changing to digital access to the item itself.

Slide 8:

Engaging with Objects Online:

Slide 9:

Reflectance Transformation Imaging:

Slide 10:

3D Printing:

Slide 11:


We’re going to do a brainstorm all together, thinking about how we identify which kinds of sources are likely to be the most useful for the topic that we are researching.

We’ll go through three ideas for topics:

  • Royal Visits to Southampton
  • Romans in St. Denys and Portswood
  • Basque refugees arriving in Southampton.

Slide 14:

We’ve talked about specialised organisations dealing with archival materials, and how these resources are available online in different forms.  The next thing to consider are the individuals who are adding archival materials to the web.

Increasingly, there are web-based services that make sharing content online incredibly easy, and this has led to collections that would previously very rarely have been available in the public domain being released online.
Family holiday videos from the 1950s shot on 8mm film are being added to YouTube, postcard collections from the 1900s are being uploaded to Flickr, and diaries and journals are being created on blogs like WordPress.




The neat structuring of many of these web services means that many of us are inadvertently engaging in quite advances archival practices when we are uploading content.  Flickr and YouTube ask for more and more metadata about items being uploaded; we’re adding everything from categories, keywords, locations, dates, and usage rights to videos and photos that we upload.  Blogs neatly organise our content into structured dated journal entries, with options for keywords and categories also being used more and more.

Slide 15:

We are archivists. The web makes it easier than it ever has been before to add archival materials for public consumption.  But is it making it easier to find that content?

Slide 16:

Three key ways to find information online:


By this we mean the main websites of organisations. These are a good place to start if you have quite a good idea of what you are looking for.


EuroDocs is an index of websites containing or using archives. Sorted by country, then period, then topic, this is a wiki.  A wiki is a website that has been created by lots of editors.  The wiki is managed by the Brigham Young University, so is reliable as a good starting point for a quick overview of a period.



This can actually be very fruitful. Again, a lot of your success will be down to successfully identifying in the first place whether a search engine will be the most appropriate way to find resources.  For instance, Google has a News search facility, which returns great results if searched by newspaper and year range.

Google News Advanced Search:

Slide 17:

But can we find the content added by individuals?

Locating individuals’ archival materials is often problematic. Unlike a large organisation specialising in archiving, individuals adding content to the web may not be aware of the methods for making their content more findable online.

Luckily, many people are using services like Flickr and YouTube, which are very good at indexing content, and rely on their search facilities as a major part of their business model. You’ll notice when you watch a video on YouTube, a list of suggested videos will come up with related content.

So these platforms are the first places to start, particularly if you would like to get a good overview of a topic, such as getting more contextual information about a particular period or place.

Finding content created by individuals as part of individual websites can be tricky.  A search engine is your best bet for this task.  It can often wield surprising results.  I put into Google ‘Transport Southampton Buses Old Photographs’ and came up with an extensive archive for bus photographs, with user added comments with information about the bus companies based in Southampton throughout history.  The comments have names and dates, but little reference information.  However, there are some useful photographs and there is a way to contact the administrator directly with queries.

In the session on archives, we’ll be looking in depth at the ways that we can critically analyse a source once we have found it, and this methodology applies to online materials just as much as offline items, so in Session 5 this will be covered.  But in the meantime, when analysing a source, it is important to note that we must think about:

  • Authenticity – external criticism of the material
  • The meaning – internal criticism of the material – interpreting the content (context is important here)
  • Reliability – including influences on the author
  • Bias – this doesn’t make a document useless!
  • Gaps in the record
  • Comparing to other sources
  • Hidden traces – e.g. information that is incidental to a testimony

We will be going over these in detail in Session 5, for now its useful to merely bare in mind that we cannot always trust what we see, and that what we are seeing may not be all that a source can tell us.

The real gems are the personal archives set up as websites by individuals.

Slide 18:


Now we’re going to split up into three groups and each group will tackle one of our three topics:

— Royal Visits to Southampton

— Romans in St. Denys and Portswood

— Basque refugees arriving in Southampton.

We’ll spend 20 minutes searching online for one or two resources that tell us about the topic our group has been assigned.  Aim to look for an institutionally based source and an individual’s source.  We’re going to work through the following questions to think about how useful the source is:

The slides shown in class:

Slides with transcript:

Practical 1

The notes we made during our brainstorm for the three topics for research (click on the photo to see the full size image):

Notes from Session 2, Practical 1

Useful Resources identified in class

Romans in St. Denys and Portswood:

Historic Environment Record (HER) – through Heritage Gateway –

HER for Hampshire County Council –

Hampshire Museums Service Online Collections:

Southampton Local History and Heritage –

Southampton Museums Service –

Southampton Archaeology –

Sea City Museum –

Archaeology Data Service –

— ArchSearch(for items)-

— Archives (for whole collections of materials) –

Ordnance Survey- Old Maps – [NOT FREE]


Local Authority Planning GIS mapping web services:

Southampton City Council Online Maps – [Has 1846 and 1870 town maps available as a layer, see ‘Change Background Map’. Also has WWII Bomb sites, sites of Archaeological Interest, and Listed Buildings.  These are all well hidden! There is a small button above the map that looks like two arrows, under the heading ‘User Options’, if you click on this, some additional layers will appear in the left hand toolbar.  Click on ‘Add Individual Layers to Map’ click on ‘History and Heritage’. Then click on the names of the layers that you would like to see. You will notice that a little cross appears in the box next to the title of the layer. You need to refresh the map now, in order to see those layers you have selected, so scroll down and at the bottom of the list of layers you will see a button: Update Map. Click on this and the little crosses will turn into little ticks. This shows that the map has been updated. Now you will be able to look at those layers on the map (you may have to zoom in to see the details). ]

20th Century Royal Visits:

Newspapers – using Google News Advanced Search –

Local Museums & Archives (see above).

National Archives, ARCHON Directory –


Basque Refugees:

Pathe –

BBC Motion Gallery –

Open Culture –

British Library’s Sound Archive (for oral histories) –

Basque Refugees Archive –

Hampshire Record Office Online Catalogues –

Download this list of useful resources for the three topics worked on in class from scribd here:

Practical 2

Worksheet used in class for practical 2:

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