Discovery – finding more archives

Earlier this month we released a major upgrade to our Discovery service. The new version of Discovery is much more than a catalogue of our records. It enables archive users to search, browse and tag 32 million record descriptions of records held by The National Archives, alongside the collections of over 2,500 archives across the UK. In order to achieve this we have incorporated a huge amount of information about other archives derived from several existing systems developed and managed by us. These are:

  • National Register of Archives (NRA)
  • Directory of Archives (ARCHON)
  • Access to Archives (A2A)
  • Manorial Documents Register (MDR)
Discovery homepage

The Discovery homepage

Previous blog posts detailed the development of Discovery and outlined its many features. In this blog I want to explore what Discovery means for the wider archives sector.

Sector leadership

The UK government policy on archives, Archives for the 21st century, recommended that archives should be more accessible online. The policy called for ‘comprehensive online access for archive discovery through catalogues and to digitised archive content by citizens at a time and place that suits them’. In support of the policy, our action plan made a commitment to ‘extend The National Archives’ new catalogue, Discovery to provide a single point of online access to catalogue and organisational data from across the archive sector’. The project to extend Discovery – known as Finding Archives – began in 2011 and continues today, and as a result of the recent upgrade we have made significant strides towards making Discovery the most comprehensive service possible.


The vast amount of data now contained in Discovery has been generated over several decades and reflects a long standing commitment to providing information about archival collections to our users. Discovery is unique in that it contains such a wide range of content, including collections held in public and private hands.

Many of the records described in Discovery are public records held in approved places of deposit. It makes sense to be able to see information about public records all in one place, and Discovery now reflects the reality that The National Archives is not the sole repository of public records. We will continue to work with these places of deposit to ensure that the information contained in Discovery truly and accurately reflects the records held by them.

Discovery also contains a great deal of information about records that were not created in the course of government, but by private individuals, businesses, and organisations. These records are vital if we are to paint a full and vivid picture of British history. The National Archives is committed to continuing to provide access to information about these records in accordance with the terms of the Historical Manuscripts Commission Warrant, which states that we ‘shall make enquiry as to the existence and location of manuscripts, including records or archives of all kinds, of value for the study of history’ and ‘assist those wishing to use such manuscripts or records for study or research’.

Discovery also contains information about manorial documents, which, like public records, have statutory protection and a mandated register of those records known to survive. We are developing a custom search tool to make it even easier to find information about manorial documents in Discovery, and work is continuing to complete the computerisation of the register.

If you would like to see the details of a particular archives service, and information about collections they hold, use our find an archive search.

Opening up access

The amount of information Discovery contains is impressive, but we recognise that more needs to be done to improve the quality and the coverage of the data.

At The National Archives we continue to catalogue and release more information about records throughout the year.

Each year we conduct a survey of new accessions to repositories, the information from which is incorporated into Discovery.

We administer the Cataloguing Grants Programme which has distributed more than £2 million over six years to tackle cataloguing backlogs.

In the past, ensuring that this – and more – information about records held by other archives was incorporated into our resources depended on our ability to process it. We recognise that we need to streamline adding new information to Discovery and later this year we will start developing an administrative tool for Discovery. This will provide mechanisms for manual or automated data contribution from other archives.

We are already planning to talk to all of our contributors over the next couple of years. We hope that through these discussions we will be able to maximise the potential of Discovery for all of its users, including contributing archives services.

Your feedback

If you have any questions or comments please leave them in the comments section below, or send your feedback via Discovery.


  1. David Matthew says:

    It is somewhat strange that on the day Scotland goes to vote on Independence and what that might mean we are talking about the UK archive strategy. Unfortunately until we get the subject filtering back on Discovery is a big and unfilterable system, please can we have our subject list soon!.

    1. Jane Langford says:

      Hi David

      Just to reassure you that the subject filtering resource will be added shortly. The resource is currently undergoing some essential maintenance, but we hope to get it back up and running for users soon.

      Best wishes, Jane Langford (Catalogue team)

  2. R Lowe says:

    I have just done the same search on Discovery and on a2a: the phrase ‘phil*ip* carter’ between the dates 1780-1850.
    Discovery found no records; a2a found 5.

    The catalogues concerned have been available for a number of years on a2a. If you have failed to load these on to Discovery I think you should come clean about it so that people are not misled as to what is on Discovery and what is not, as once a2a is lost we cannot access these records.

    1. Jonathan Cates says:

      Thank you for your comment.
      The records returned by your A2A search are all included in Discovery, i the order they were returned by your search:
      The reason that your method has not returned the results is because we have moved to a new search engine, which does not allow for the use of wildcards for exact match searches. In Discovery, entering Phil*ip* Carter returns those results which contain variants of Phil*ip* and the word Carter. This returns more results, though will lack the precision of your A2A search.
      You could try constructing a search containing all of the variants, for example “philip carter” OR “phillip carter” OR etc. Alternatively you could run separate searches for them.
      Although this is different to the method you are used to, it is worth noting that – particularly with name searches like this – cataloguing practices often vary and will not always proceed according to natural language. A first name may simply appear as an initial, or not at all. Sometimes, and this is true of one of the five results returned by your A2A search, a name (in this case carter) is not actually a name.
      We hope to develop Discovery to include even more detailed information about collections held by other archives and as such search results, catalogue descriptions, and participating archives services may change from time to time. If you cannot find information about collections held by a particular archives service, use our find an archive tool to find contact details and summary collections information. Often archives services have their own catalogue, which may have more comprehensive or different coverage of their collections than is presently available in Discovery.
      Find an archive:
      I hope that I have been able to help and thank you again for your feedback.

  3. John Wintrip says:

    I did not support the integration of A2A with Discovery and have previously expressed my views through your feedback system. The one advantage A2A had over virtually all other archive catalogues (including Discovery and CALM)it that provided the option to view the whole content of a collection on a single page, similar to browsing the content of a paper catalogue. This is extremely helpful for a variety of purposes. Discovery, and other archive catalogues, display each catalogue entry in its hierarchical context, so seeing the ‘big picture’ that is possible in a paper catalogue, and was possible using A2A, is impossible. Although it is possible to browse through records, the process is much more tedious and less satisfactory.

    I also think it is a mistake to merge a catalogue that has not been updated for the best part of a decade (A2A) with the TNA catalogue that is updated regularly.

    1. Jonathan Cates says:

      Thank you for your feedback.
      The option to view whole catalogues was certainly a unique adantage. Unfortunately it has not yet been possible to replicate or emulate this feature in Discovery. This is in no small part due to the size of some of the catalogues derived from A2A, or already present in Discovery from the TNA catalogue. In A2A, in fact, to enable single page views of whole catalogues, several catalogues had to be artificially split. These have been rejoined in Discovery.
      You can use Discovery to sort and download search results, in addition to navigating via browse.
      We want to make Discovery as comprehensive as possible and to that end we are working to develop tools to enable contributing archives to update, replace or remove their content where appropriate. For more information, see:

      many thanks,

  4. Jim Brennan says:

    I did not know this was happening. What you haven’t mentioned is that you have destroyed the heirarchical and contents list presentation you used to have for both your own and the A2A collections you handled. To take one exampleof an external collection I was using – The Bagshawe munimets held by the John Rylands in Manchester. If I input them now I get a sort summary, and no acces to detailed contents list at all, unless I work through an indentically presented summary of 1700+ documents. If I pursue this I am likely to be taken to the Bagshawe collection in Sheffield, which has quite different material. Had I known anything like this was going to happen I would have printed out the collection – and some others from your old system. The point of this kind of exercise is not to design nice-looking websites but help your users find information quickly. On whose advice have you done the opposite?

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