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How do I use Archives?

Archive catalogues on shelf

Record repositories aren't like libraries...

you can't browse shelves to find the archives you want to look at.

Archives are unique, and if they are lost or damaged they cannot be replaced. So they are kept securely in strongrooms with the right environmental conditions.

You use the archives in a reading room or, as it is often called, a searchroom. When you ask for an item, it will be brought out for you to use in the searchroom. After you have finished with it, it will be put away safely until it is needed again.

Finding the archives you need


You can look for archives that may be helpful for your research either online or in the archives repository itself.

Most of the archives the record repository holds will be listed in detail in catalogues. These usually tell you about the background of the archive - who created it and why - and describe each individual item within it.

Reader using a card index
Using card indexes – often very helpful, especially where no electronic catalogues are available

Catalogues are also available online.  You can find outline descriptions of archive collections in repositories in Wales on this website.  You won't find detailed catalogues, with lists of individual items, but you will find enough information to decide whether it's worth visiting or contacting a particular record repository.

Some archive repositories also have full detailed catalogues available on their own websites.

It's helpful to remember when using catalogues that archives, unlike library books, are not arranged by subject.  They are arranged by 'creator' - all the records created by an individual or an organisation are kept together, as the archive of that individual or organisation.  One archive may contain material relating to a range of subjects, and on the other hand you may find material relating to a particular subject is spread across a number of different archives.

Staff are always there to help you - if you can't find what you want, or don't know how to use the catalogues, just ask!

Photograph of a corner of a document, showing the reference code
An example of a reference code on a document

Asking to see items


Every item, or group of items, in the catalogues will have a reference number or code. You will need to make a note of this reference in order to ask for the items you want to see.

Photograph of a large volume resting on a foam book support
A book support in use in the Glamorgan Record Office

Archives are for everyone - help to keep them safe


Using archives is a great experience - each item is precious and unique, a direct connection with the past.

We need to make sure that they are kept undamaged for others to look at, so most record repositories have searchroom rules like these:

  • Make sure your hands are clean
  • Use only pencils
  • No eating or drinking (not even sweets, or bottles of water)
  • Handle documents carefully - if necessary, use the document weights and book supports provided
  • Leave bags and coats outside the searchroom - most repositories have lockers.

Staff are always happy to give help and advice on the best way to handle documents.