For this year’s Explore Your Archive (#EYA, #exploreyourarchive) campaign, Outreach archivist Jocelyn Grant explains what an archive is, what makes them unique, and explains some of the terms and techniques archivists use to make records accessible…

“The outstanding feature of the Archive, putting this also at its simplest, it… by its nature… represents some measure of knowledge which does not exist in quite the same form anywhere else”

A Modern Archives Reader: Basic Readings on Archival Theory and Practice. Edited by Maygene F. Daniels and Timothy Walch

Most of you reading this post have likely visited a library before. A building/digital repository where books are arranged, generally, according to subject and author. For the most part, they are easy to access and browse, and present information in a familiar format – the book. Someone new to archives and archival research might assume that the documents we hold are grouped together in a similar fashion, by the topics that they cover. This is not the case, but why not?

National Records of Scotland, General Register House on Princes Street
National Records of Scotland, General Register House on Princes Street

Archives are primarily stores of records that were created as part of a transaction. These records occur naturally in the course of transacting business of any kind, whether it is by governments, business, community organisations or private individuals. In your day, you may create several records that fit this description simply by living your life. The work emails organising a project; the minutes of a meeting; the scribbled shopping list; a snapped photograph; a receipt from an off-hand purchase. Without realising it, you are documenting all kinds of information about you and the world you live in.

A supermarket, for example, has its own archives; stock lists, personnel records, staff magazines, financial statements, annual reports, all produced as a by-product of its operations.

As clear evidence of past activity, records are primary sources – they are the raw materials that we use to understand the past and plan for the future. In comparison, libraries contain secondary sources – books that transmit information, carefully edited and published to form a particular narrative or story.

The documentary trails that people produce, the records accumulated over their life, or over the period an organisation functions, can reveal a great deal about human activity. The interconnections between records, the context of their creation, can be as important as the record itself in understanding how a person lived, or an organisation functioned.

Greater than the sum of its parts

Much of the meaning of records is derived from their context, how and why they were created, used and collected. While in a library, a book may be classified and catalogued as an object in-and-of-itself, archiving materials involves grouping individual documents into meaningful units, in meaningful relation to each other. In theory (not always in reality), the arrangement of an archive is automatically produced as part of the process of record creation, built up day by day, year after year, as an organisation or person functions. Part of the role of an archivist is maintaining the original order of an archive – because that order can reveal more details about the records and creator – while also making large record sets available to the public. This involves placing the records within a hierarchy that makes them easier to navigate and explore.

The fonds

If you have ever visited an archive, looked at an archive catalogue, or spoken to an archivist you may have had the word ‘fonds’ pop up. This word is taken from the French phrase ‘respect des fond’, and is an archival principle that tells us to acknowledge the source or provenance. A fonds is the top level of a collection of records; for instance, in the National Records of Scotland (NRS) ‘CH2’ is the reference for the fonds level of the Records of Church of Scotland synods, presbyteries and kirk sessions.

Technically a fonds is different from a collection. Collections are items that have been gathered and artificially organised by someone, possibly based on a theme or topic. For instance menu cards collected from around the world, or articles on a particular place. Such groupings are not created ‘naturally’, or incidentally as part of a transaction.

Depending on how well an archive is catalogued, under the fonds level, records may be further subdivided into a series level, a sub-series level, file level, all the way down to an individual document or item. These levels are represented in archive catalogues and references. For instance, with our ‘CH2’ example:

Fonds CH2 Records of Church of Scotland synods, presbyteries and kirk sessions, 1569-2006
Series CH2/1Records of Presbytery of Aberdeen, 1598-1995
Sub-SeriesCH2/1/1Aberdeen Presbytery: Minutes, 1598-1610

Note that the archive references traces its way back to the overall archive and reflects the hierarchy. It is one – of many! – reason why taking note of references during your research, and including them in publications is important. References will allow you to retrieve items easily and can provide clues to collections that may be useful to your area of research.

Multiple Routes

The importance of keeping records together and maintaining their context, is why, when a visitor comes to NRS and asks to see records relating to railways, they will be directed both to Records of British Railways Board (BR), and several private record deposits which include related materials, such as: photographs of steam locomotives (GD257); the papers of Sir Thomas Bouch (GD266); the private diaries and papers of George Graham (1822-1800, GD1/1160) and so on. Subjects can be touched upon across diverse archives that, at first glance, may appear to have no relation to each other, or your area of research.

This form of storage, and the huge variety of materials that an archive can encompass – books, photographs, plans, emails, digital models etc. – is what makes archives unique. However, this can make navigating their contents seem difficult to the uninitiated.

Fear not! Archivists are there to help people access their archives, and the majority of archives will have developed a variety of tools to make this easier. The foremost tool to facilitate access is the archive catalogue. NRS’ online catalogue ( allows you to search descriptions and titles of records. There are also several finding aids linked under the ‘Research’ section of the NRS website that will allow you to explore privately held archives, and archive repositories across Scotland. We have also produced comprehensive research guides on some of the most requested topics represented in NRS’ holdings. These provide an overview of the topic, and information on where related records can be found.

For Explore Your Archive week we have released a series of videos that take you through using these different finding aids. Enjoy exploring the NRS archives.

National Records of Scotland Online Catalogue
National Records of Scotland Research Guides

Jocelyn Grant


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