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Duration 00:11:17

Introduction to Discovery – The National Archives catalogue

Matt Norman talks to Chrissy Peters about Discovery – the online catalogue for The National Archives and 2500 other archives. What is in Discovery? How can you find what you want in it? Are the records in Discovery digitised? Find out the answers from Chrissy in this short podcast.

You can use the Help with your research pages on our website to find out more about The National Archives’ collection before you use Discovery. There are also helpful blogs; Where do I start my research?, Why can’t I find what I’m looking for? and Your catalogue’s rubbish! Discovery also has its own help pages.

Please note that at the moment The National Archives is closed to visitors until further notice. Advice in the podcast about visiting us and using the facilities in our reading rooms will apply once we re-open.


Matt: Hello. Welcome back to the Map Room at the National Archives in Kew. We’re back in the reading rooms where anyone can come and visit and do their research and today we’re going to talk about our catalogue. It’s called Discovery and I’m here with Chrissy Peters, one of our members of staff who trains people in the use of Discovery, and I’m going to start by asking, Chrissy, can you describe for everyone out there, what exactly do we mean by Discovery? What is our catalogue?

Chrissy: So Discovery is the name The National Archives has given its online catalogue. Contained in that catalogue are descriptions of archival records.

Matt: Right. And it’s not just our records, right, that it describes? It’s more than that?

Chrissy: No, so Discovery includes both record descriptions of records held by The National Archives but it also includes record descriptions of records held by various archives across the UK, and some internationally.

Matt: Right. So, in theory then, every single one of our records is described somewhere in our catalogue is that right?

Chrissy: Yes.

Matt: Right. So when it comes to using the catalogue; searching for records, what advice can we give people out there in terms of the basics?

Chrissy: So, I think you’d always begin with a keyword search in our catalogue, so you’d start as briefly as possible, putting in a small amount of detail, and then adding to that detail on the search bar as you build up your search.

Matt: And is there, when someone’s searching, can they distinguish in their search between searching for our records and searching the records of other archives?

Chrissy: You can do. So on any of our search results pages in Discovery you have filtering options which sit on the left-hand side of the page. One of those filtering options is to filter by records held by The National Archives or records held elsewhere. When you read through your results you’ll see there’s descriptions of the records and a section that says ‘held by’. So that ‘held by’ section will tell you whether or not the record is held here, or whether it’s held at another archive, such as the London Metropolitan Archives or the Lambeth archives. And if you click on to the record it will then direct you to the contact details for that archive that holds the record.

Matt: Right. So we know that our catalogue can be quite an intimidating thing for people when they’re using it for the first time. Can we help people to understand a little bit better what they’re actually searching when they put in some keywords into our Discovery search engine? They’re not searching the content of documents are they?

Chrissy: So no, not all the time. There are some exceptions where that is the case – notably Cabinet Papers online. However, overwhelmingly, when somebody, when you are searching the record, what you are searching is a description of the record not the contents, and that description was usually created by the individual who created the record, in whichever time period it was created, so you have to bear in mind that context when you are putting in your keywords that describe that record.

Matt: Right. So our records as opposed to the records covered in other archives come to us from central government departments and some law courts, and they come with descriptions – they arrive at The National Archives already with descriptions? Or do we change or enhance those descriptions sometimes?

Chrissy: So they should all arrive with the description that has come from the creating government department or legal system. However, as an archive we do have a lot of projects that are based on enhancing the catalogue descriptions to make them easier for users to find. These are called cataloguing projects. Quite often you’ll find that there was a very, very broad description such as just a date on a record that came to us. So what we have both staff volunteers do quite often is to go through the records and improve the catalogue description.

Matt: Right. So a lot of people’s first instinct will be to search with a name – people come to The National Archives often looking for records of ancestors. If someone searches with a name in Discovery what kinds of results will they get? What can they expect?

Chrissy: So if you search with a name in Discovery it’s entirely possible that you will find records. We just mentioned the cataloguing projects that we do, so some of those actually itemized, by name, individuals contained within a record. However what you can’t do is guarantee that you’ve found everything that might be in the archive about that individual, because not all our records are described to that level. What you will often find is that you need to use indexes, or the records will come in name ranges. So you have an alphabetical surname name range so everybody from Norman to Masters may be in one file, and you need to order that file and then search through it yourself for any individual.

Matt: Right. So we know a lot of the records that people are interested in, and so one of the things we’ve done is, knowing those records, as Chrissy was explaining, we’ve embarked on cataloguing projects so that those name-rich records are name-searchable on our catalogue. But as Chrissy was saying that’s not the case certainly for all our name-rich records, and it’s an almost never-ending task getting those descriptions with names in them. So there an almost unlimited number of topics that you can search at The National Archives; government business obviously touches almost every area of life. What help can we give to people when they’re trying to work out the best way to search a particular set of records? How do they know which records are name searchable and where to start?

Chrissy: Okay, so the first place that we advise people to go is to our research guidance which we make available via our website. There is a ‘Help with your research’ section of the website. It has about 350 research guides on all different subjects ranging from the Merchant Navy to the Court of Common Pleas. What these research guides are, are guides written by a subject specialist in that area. And they will tell you about the most common records people search for in each of these subjects, and they will tell you how to search for them – they will tell you if they’re name-searchable, or if you need to search by date, or in a particular series or government departments.

Matt: Right. So the advice is to find our research guides – they’re on the ‘Help with your research’ pages on our website, and there’s around 350 of these guides so the chances are there will be a guide that covers your subject, at least that’s what we hope. Let’s think about the results again that people get when they do a search. What do they do when they find – so you mentioned the ‘held by’ element of a search result and that’ll tell you whether it’s at our archive or another archive – let’s assume someone’s faced with let’s say hundreds of results that are all at our archive, what do they do next? How do they pick something out and how can they actually see the document? What are the next steps?

Chrissy: Okay, so once you have found a record description that you’re interested in, you will click through on our website to what we call a record homepage, and this will give you additional details about how you would view that record. Now there’s a few different options and it depends on the record itself. Quite a lot of our records have been made available online, either via our website or via a third-party website; in which case you will find that you’re able to access them digitally and download them. However many of our records are yet to be made available online. In this case you can either choose between visiting us to view the records yourself or you can use our record copying department to have a copy of the record created and sent to you.

Matt: And for those online records, for people that aren’t available, or aren’t able, to visit us; they’re going to be drawn to those records that are online. Is there something in the record description that tells you whether it’s us or whether it’s a third party that has digitized them?

Chrissy: So, yeah. It’ll give you your options for viewing this record. If it’s a third party website it will direct you to a third party website quite often with websites like Ancestry and Findmypast you’ll find that records are available on both those websites.

Matt: Right, okay, so we hope that that should give you enough to get started. If you have any questions about Discovery or anything else at The National Archives you can get in touch with us through our web site, you can use our live chat service or you can send us an email. And we have the research guides as well which Chrissy was talking about. So we hope that that’s enough to get you started.