Tuesday 22 March 2011

Tuesday's Tip - using The National Archives online Catalogue

The Catalogue search page
It would take an awfully long time to describe the Catalogue of The National Archives in detail, and how to get the most out of it. I'm not going to attempt to give a comprehensive description of the Catalogue, you'll be relieved to know, but here are a couple of tips that I hope you'll find helpful. The first thing to remember is that it's completely free to access whether you are on-site at Kew or at home using your own computer.

It's big. REALLY big
Hardly surprising, with more than 900 years of documents to cope with. At the last count there were more than 11 million catalogued items, and more than 100 miles of shelving. If you are accustomed to using sites like Ancestry, Findmypast , FamilySearch or even Google, you might put a name or keyword in the search box and expect to get a result. But an archive catalogue isn't like that. It is only in recent years that archives have attempted to index what is written on all the paper and parchment documents; and where this kind of detailed cataloguing has been done, it only applies to a small proportion of the holdings. Most catalogue descriptions are fairly brief, and although there are lots of projects going on, with a few centuries' backlog, it'll take a while.  This is one of my favourites - I photographed the cover of the document just to prove it

Catalogue description for NDO 3/49
Downloading your search results
If you search the Catalogue and get a list of results, you might want to note them down for reference. This is easy enough if there are only two or three, you can make notes in pencil, or print out the results page. But if there are dozens of them that's not so easy, and wastes a lot of paper and printer ink. There is a better way. When you have a page of results you will see a button 'download results'. Hit this and you will be given a choice of HTML or CSV, depending on whether you want to print out your results or save them. In either case you will get all of the results, not just the ones you can see on the screen at once.

The HTML option is useful - it effectively gives you the printer-friendly version - but I use the CSV option much more. Provided you are using a computer where you can save files, you can save your download as a spreadsheet, and then do what you like with it. You can re-sort the results, delete the ones you don't want, and even combine several sets of downloaded search results. I sometimes add another column, or highlight particular entries to indicate the documents I have looked at, or that I wish to flag up for future use. There are many possibilities, it's up to you to come up with your own ideas.  

It is possible to do quite advanced and sophisticated searches, and if you want to learn how to do this, the little '? Help' in the top right corner of any Catalogue page links to lots of detailed information.

There are some changes coming to the Catalogue, which should make it easier to use, and more closely integrated with other elements of the website, such as DocumentsOnline. Happy searching.



  1. Thanks, for the info Audrey. It will help me get organised for my visit in July

  2. Glad you found it helpful. I look forward to seeing you in July.