Getting started with archival research
What topic are you trying to research?
Determine your area of interest. Are you interested in finding out more about your family history, are you a student with a particular interest in political, social or economic history or are you a professional researcher looking for a specific collection or series of records?
Why do you think a visit to the National Archives is necessary?
The National Archives hold records of the modern Irish state from its foundation to approximately 1986, as well as a number of other major collections acquired as a result to the amalgamation of the Public Record Office of Ireland and the State Paper Office in 1986 when the National Archives was established. These include archives of the British administration in Ireland from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, the largest collection of which is the Registered Papers of the Chief Secretary.
The National Archives also holds a number of private collections, including business records, some landed estate collections and private donations. Our collections are particularly useful for anyone interested in researching the political, social and economic development of Ireland from the 18th century to the present day. A number of our collections, including the Commissioners of National Education, the Ordnance Survey and Valuation Office, are particularly useful for local history research as they contain archives relating to practically every part of Ireland.
Have you undertaken any background research?
Often researchers visit the National Archives without undertaking any secondary reading on their area of interest. We would strongly advise researchers to investigate previous sources and publications in order to establish what primary sources exist, whether they are located in the National Archives and if it is necessary for you to visit in person. Many secondary sources, including books, journals or websites, are available in local and university libraries.
Begin by collecting basic facts about the person or topic you are interested in. Undertake some background reading about the period in question to contextualise the archival sources.
If you are undertaking research relating to government policy, familiarise yourself with the administrative system of government, including what department had responsibility for the policy in question. Understand the changes in the administration of Ireland from the time of British rule to the foundation of the State. During the 1920s for example, many government departments were established and the system of courts changed. These changes are reflected in the types of records created and consequently the types of archives now available to researchers.
If you are undertaking family history research, gather information from family sources, including letters or official documents, such as passports, that can provide useful information about the spelling of a family name, maiden names of married women, what county, parish or townland the individual came from, when they left Ireland and where they emigrated to. Information about when a person left is vital to establish the kind of records they are likely to be found in. Many of the sources in the National Archives date from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, but other sources such as church records or civil registration records may be useful. Please consult Researching family history for more information.
What do I need to understand about using the National Archives before I visit?
You need to understand the type of records we hold and why. It is also important to have an idea of what it is you are hoping to find when you arrive. Archival research can be difficult and time consuming. The onus is on researchers to ensure they provide themselves with adequate and realistic timeframes in which to undertake their research.
How are archives arranged?
Archives are not arranged by subject like a library. The collections are arranged according to the government body, court or individual that created the records. Access to collections is through the use of finding aids or catalogues that provide details about the records, including a unique reference code.
In order to facilitate access while ensuring the original order of records is preserved, archives are arranged using a reference code for the creating body and a code for the series of records and the number of the record within the series. For more modern material, the three part reference code is available in the online catalogue, but for older records the hard copy paper finding aid must be consulted in the reading room.
Collections are arranged by the archive creator, or the body who made the records. This may be a government department, such as the Department of the Taoiseach, or a private collection such as a solicitor’s collection, business collection, hospital collection or landed estate collection.
How do you search for archives held in the National Archives?
Before visiting the National Archives, we would strongly advise researchers to first consult the online catalogue and our digitised family history sources. The National Archives uses AdLib software to host its online catalogue. This is a specialised programme for archives that ensures certain information is captured in accordance with the International Standard of Archival Description ISAD (G), the aim of which is to standardise entries to make them as useful as possible to researchers. This includes a three-part document reference code, a document title, covering dates and further detailed descriptions or information, where necessary. For further information please see FAQ to the 0nline catalogue.
Is visiting an archive the same as visiting a library?
No. Libraries generally provide access to printed publications, which can often be replaced. The National Archives provides access to original records that were created in the course of the work of government, the courts and private institutions or people. These archives are unique documents and cannot be replaced and as such may also provide a legal function. Security and preservation of the archives is an integral part of providing access to the public due to the original nature of material. Access is only given to members of the public who hold a valid reader’s ticket.
How do you access archives in the reading room?
Once the researcher identifies the correct reference code, this is filled out on a yellow order docket and given to the staff at the counter in the reading room, who will then arrange for it to be retrieved from the stacks or storage areas. For information about accessing material held off-site please see Ordering archives in advance.
Archives can be arranged as an individual item, a file or a box of material. The order in which the documents are produced is extremely important and researchers must never take it upon themselves to reorder items within a file or a box. The sequence in which the material is presented preserves the filing system implemented by the creating organisation. This filing system can often provide as much information about the archives as the actual documents themselves.
Any attempt to rearrange the original order can result in the loss of potentially vital information and must never be attempted. If researchers are in any doubt or find a file has been tampered with please bring it to the attention of the Archivist on Duty in the reading room.
If you know the archives you wish to consult are housed in the National Archives there are a number of steps to take:
- Use the online catalogue or hard copy finding aids to locate a correct reference code. Reference codes in the online catalogue will contain 3 parts, for example 2015/44/13 or TSCH/3/S1459.
- Discover whether the material is available in its original format or has been microfilmed or digitised. For more information on microfilmed collections, please see Archives available on microfilm.
- Become familiar with the administration of government and what functions government departments and agencies are responsible for. This will enable you to determine what department or agency created the archives and where to begin you search. It will also help to determine the types of records available. For example, Department of Foreign Affairs Embassy files will contain reports on political events.
- Determine if a government department has changed name of function over time. For example, the archives of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs will now be found as part of the Department of Communications.
- Ensure the records you are seeking are at least 30 years old. The National Archives Act, 1986 only applies to records over 30 years old. Records less than 30 years old will not have been transferred to the National Archives. If the records you are seeking have not been transferred to the National Archives, it will be necessary to contact the creating body directly.
Ordering Copies of archives
In accordance with copyright legislation, the National Archives provides copies of documents for the purposes of research or private study. A fee is charged for this service. For further information about obtaining copies and a schedule of fees please see Obtain copies of archives.
Does the National Archives hold archives relating to local authorities?
No. The National Archives has no jurisdiction over the archives of local authorities. These are managed directly by the local authority in question.
A number of local authorities have public archive services. In the absence of an archive service, queries should be directed to the County Library.
The National Archives does hold a number of national collections that include information on parishes and townlands throughout Ireland. These include the archives of the Ordnance Survey, Valuation Office and Commissioners of National Education. We also hold a number of donated collections, including private business records and landed estate collections that may be useful for local history sources. For further information, please see Research guides & sources.
Some useful advice
Once you have determined your area of interest, take some time to browse the website to look for information about the archives you wish to consult. The website contains many of the answers to frequently asked questions. If you do not find the information you are looking for please Contact us.
It is important for researchers to keep track of any archives consulted. Please ensure you make detailed notes of reference codes and where information was sourced in order to retrace your steps, if necessary. Failure to keep track of basic information such as reference codes can result in unnecessary complications at a later date, including the inability of researchers to reference material correctly or staff in the National Archives to be able to help with queries that may arise. For further information, please see Referencing archives.