Finding Churchill, Discovering Archives

‘To improve is to change, so to be perfect is to have changed often’ – Winston Churchill

Finding Archives

Regular followers of our blog will be aware that The National Archives is following an ambitious plan to integrate several resources describing records held in archives elsewhere into our Discovery service. This project is known as Finding Archives, and focuses on the National Register of Archives (NRA), Manorial Documents Register (MDR), ARCHON Directory, and Access to Archives (A2A), Accessions to Repositories. These services currently provide descriptive and access information about millions of records held in over 2,500 archives in the UK and overseas.

In a previous blog post, I wrote a little bit about the design process and our plans for the development of the system. Since then, we have released a beta version in order to gather as much feedback as we can. With that in mind, I thought now might be a good opportunity to write about how the enhanced Discovery might benefit your research.

Currently, Discovery principally contains information about records held by The National Archives. These are mostly kept in accordance with our role as the official archive for the UK government, and for England and Wales. Consequently, Discovery is already the largest individual archive catalogue in the country, but it is by no means the complete picture. To find out about records of local government, businesses, other organisations, families, and individuals, a researcher may have to search the different resources listed above, in addition to archives’ own catalogues. Some topics are so large that records may be held in several different archives in public and private hands. Others, meanwhile, are so specific, it is very easy to overlook them. Knowing where to begin is a great challenge.

One of the great strengths of Discovery is the number of records it describes. At the moment there are about twenty million individual catalogue entries. With the addition of the NRA, MDR, and A2A this will swell to more than thirty million and the number will continue to grow as we receive more records and more information about the contents of archives elsewhere.

Making sense of such huge quantities of information can be daunting. Any user of internet search engines will be accustomed to the fact that for a given search query, there are quite often millions of corresponding results. For researchers, it is imperative to know that a search is as comprehensive and as specific as possible. Discovery already features a number of filters to aid searching, including options to refine by subject, collection, and date. In the coming months we will be adding to these features, taking into account the new archives added to Discovery, and the nature of the data we have about their records.

The following examples will hopefully serve to highlight the research benefits inherent in the new improved Discovery as a result of the Finding Archives.

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, Knight, Prime Minister

This individual needs no introduction, and records about or created by him are extremely numerous, both at The National Archives, and elsewhere. Sir Winston Churchill was an MP for the better part of sixty years in several long stints between 1900 and 1964. He served in some capacity as a minister for 29 of those years, was Prime Minister on two occasions and represented four constituencies in Oldham, Manchester, Dundee, and Epping. It stands to reason, then, that he will show up in records pretty much wherever you look!

In the first instance, he is very well accounted for in the official government records that represent the core of The National Archives’ collection. A simple search for ‘Churchill’ returns more than 10,000 results. Many of these, of course, refer to other individuals – and indeed places – with the name ‘Churchill’. Taking a more targeted approach, ‘Winston Churchill’ returns just over 2,000. Again, only some of these 2,000 refer specifically to the Winston Churchill we are interested in.

How, then, would we find personal papers created by Winston Churchill? These private papers are not likely to be found at The National Archives. After all, they are not official government records.

In the new Discovery, you will be able to search according to who created the record, the ‘collection creators’. The ability to do this is derived from the data in our National Register of Archives, which acts as a sort of index to archival collections relating to British history, held in the UK and overseas.

In this example, searching for ‘Churchill’ provides a much more manageable 72 creators. These can be individuals, families, businesses or other organisations. To help refine this data we have developed a new set of filters, allowing you to narrow your search by place, function of business or organisation, and gender for individuals.



These results alert us to the fact that there are in fact 106 collections held in 39 archives, which really enforces the point that archives about a person, subject, or business are often held in a number of different locations.


In this example, the correspondence and papers of Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill are held at Cambridge University: Churchill Archives Centre. In this case, and wherever else possible, we provide links to archives’ own online catalogues, where you may find more detail, and information about how to access the records.



Wherever you are in Discovery, you will also be able to find out about the archives that hold records. Using information derived from our ARCHON database, we have added details of more than two thousand archives to Discovery, which will enable you to quickly find archives relevant to your research.


Here, a simple search for ‘Churchill’, suggests that there are a couple of archives that might be of interest, as well as a couple that may just have ‘Churchill’ in the name.



Brewers and Brewing

Most creators of records lack Churchill’s international fame. Fortunately, the information now in Discovery and derived from the National Register of Archives, tells us a lot about local businesses, organisations and individuals. Searching for ‘brewing’, we can see there are 865 distinct collection creators. We can use the filters to refine this by place and business type. Alternatively, a search for ‘brewing Sussex’ will return the 26 breweries in Sussex where we know records have been deposited at archives. Similar searches can be performed for different businesses and organisations.

What’s next?

In the coming months, work will continue to incorporate the full extent of the A2A and MDR resources. The process is iterative, and you may gradually begin to notice improvements to Discovery as you continue to use it in 2014. I will continue to blog about the research benefits of the new and improved system. The end result, we believe, will be the largest, most comprehensive, usable, and informative catalogue of archives. This will be a challenging and major undertaking, but as Churchill himself said ‘difficulties mastered are opportunities won’.


  1. David Matthew says:

    Whilst you can find ‘official’ records about/from/to Churchill at The National Archives (TNA), some are listed under ‘Home Secretary’, ‘First Lord of the Admiralty’, Chancellor of the Exchequer’ or ‘Prime Minister’. Private papers can be found at TNA if they are donated to TNA or they have been brought by the Government. In addition the definition of ‘personal’ papers is not always easy to divide from ‘official’ papers.

    Whilst the number of records on Discovery is high it is often difficult to find what you want and how to refine the search to ensure you find what you want and you can be lost in too much information.

  2. Jonathan Cates says:

    you are quite right to point out that the distinction between ‘official’ and ‘personal’ is not always clear. Fortunately, the extension of Discovery to include material held in other archives means that you will be able to get the clearest, most comprehensive, indication of where records are held.

    I agree that a large number of results can be overwhelming. Discovery already features a number of filters to help you refine your results, and as I mentioned above, these will be extended and enhanced as we bring in more content.

    The fact that Churchill was referred to as a number of different titles throughout his career is also something that the nature of National Register of Archives content should help to address, as it acts as an index to collections, and often contains biographical data and links to other resources.

    Once again, thank you for your comments and I will blog again soon to highlight some more of the advantages of the enhanced Discovery.

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