Online Resources

On-line resources for archive-based research in business history: a user perspective

M. D. Matthews and T. Boyns, Business History Research Unit
Cardiff Business School

Over the last two years we have been engaged on an ESRC-sponsored research project entitled 'Accounting information and decision making in British companies, c.1900-1960' (ref. No. R000237946) which set out to investigate the nature, role and development of management accounting systems within various sectors of British industry. Of primary importance in the initial stages of the research was the ability to identify easily and to locate detailed archival material on which the study would be based.

The use of on-line research tools greatly facilitated this task and resulted in a considerable saving in both time and cost compared to more traditional methods of locating and identifying relevant material. However, there are definite limitations to the current levels of service available. There is little in the way of standard browse and search facilities on individual web-sites (each site having its own nomenclature, with differences in categorisation and search method), and more importantly, wide variation in the level of detail provided to potential users. This situation results from both the funding and time constraints on archivists, as well as the disparate nature of archival holdings themselves and the organisations which hold them, e.g. County Record Offices, universities, private companies, public libraries, museum archives. However, it is clear that improvements could be made which would provide a better service to potential archive users, and the comments that follow will hopefully be of interest not only to business historians wishing to use archival material but also to archivists engaged on the provision of improved on-line facilities.

Types of on-line services

1. National overviews:

The National Register of Archives and ARCHON sites are both accessible from the Historical Manuscript Commission homepage These sites also provide links to individual record offices, university, library, private and other archival repositories. Both of these sites have the advantage of being major listings of archive holdings, usually regularly updated with outlines of recent acquisitions. While both of these sites are extremely useful (indispensable) for initial survey work, the level of detail that they offer is necessarily limited by their wide coverage and it can be useful to use them both together.

Archon: This site allows the user to search (but only by Archon reference, repository name, town and county), and to browse an A-Z listing of archival repositories nationally. It also contains an interactive A-Z listing of professional organisations and, further, a list of links that include the main archival and library gateways. The browse function is very useful in that it lists links that allow searching of archival content nationally, and for each repository the link offers a listing of records in a number of categories: NRA catalogue entries, companies, organisations, family, personal, and other, and indicates the number of these types of records held at the particular location. In addition, there are links that enable users to view a list of recent accessions to each repository. Selecting a category link leads to an alphabetically arranged index to the category chosen. Where these lists are extensive, it would be useful if this could be searched using sector, date or other terms. The entries, when called up, offer very basic descriptions of the scope and content of each archive.

Usefully, links to other repositories which hold related materials are given, thus allowing instant identification of other holdings for the same company, organisation etc. In addition, information relating to the repository in question is offered - opening times, contact details etc., and (where available) a link direct to the repository's web site.

Archon can be invaluable in initially identifying potentially useful archives, but is not able to provide a definitive list of those which will aid the researcher. The catalogues of each collection identified need to be consulted, and this can not generally be carried out on-line, either via Archon or the repository where the collection is held. Catalogues can sometimes be physically consulted at the NRA (Quality Court, Chancery Lane), if the repository has sent a hard copy to them, but often have to be physically consulted at the repository itself. The downside of the Archon site is that you can not carry out a keyword search either for the whole site or for separate areas of it.

National Register of Archives (NRA): This site allows for two levels of searching of the NRA database: simple (by corporate, personal, family, and place only) and detailed (by name, sector, sub-sector, town, county, and date within one of four indexes - business, organisations, personal, and family). In addition it is possible to browse and search using corporate name, personal name and family name. For example, browse and search using corporate name provides an alphabetical list of the combined business and organisations indexes. Features such as these provide an alternative route to information in the same format as that available through Archon. The 'business archives' link provides an alternative way of searching the same data set: thus record sets can be generated using 'corporate name search' for instance. This 'business archives' option also features other useful links such as 'sources for business history', 'accessions related to business records' and an 'A-Z of business archives'. It should be noted that the A-Z listing of business archives only covers those archives held in repositories operated by current businesses, and is not a complete list of historical business archives.

Public Record Office. ( The major UK repository for public records, the PRO has been at the centre of developing electronic cataloguing through Encoded Archival description (EAD), which is linked to ISAD(G), and as the centre for the Access to Archives project (A2A). The PRO has recently been engaged in the process of retroconversion of its printed catalogues into electronic form, and the new online catalogue, PROCAT, contains over 8 million entries. Clicking on the archives link is of little use to those wishing to consult records since it provided information and further links of use to "archives and archive professionals". Potential users of records should go to the 'visit on-line catalogue' link. The search function allows for up to three keywords, and specification of lettercode and class/subclass. In our experience, however, general and specific keyword searches are rarely, if ever, successful, for instance, searches for 'business' and 'industry' revealed no results for either, within classes or records, nor for specific companies whose records are known to exist in the BT31 dissolved companies files. The browse function produces a list of holdings arranged by lettercode, and provides details of the number of classes contained and the number of records held. Class lists give some further information, covering dates and an indication of the amount of material, e.g. number of volumes. Descriptions are available for the classes, and these consist of a brief description of the scope and content of the class. Selection of a class leads to a sub-class list, giving a record of the reference (alpha-numeric), the piece title, scope (brief description), and dates covered. Further details are available, but these consist of a very limited description, with some repetition of earlier information (lettercode, piece title and dates).

2. County and borough record offices.

These come in a variety of styles, with varying degrees of detail and description, and generally have links to NRA/Archon.

Hackney Archives. (

Some of the major classes of holdings (all types) are listed on the home page, however, use of the link for the comprehensive guide to holdings and search function reveals business records among a number of other categories. This link then produces an alphabetical list of business records held at the archive, giving outline description of types of records held with dates. For the larger collections, in particular, brief histories of the company are provided. Compared to the level of information present in the NRA/Archon listings, this record office offers a more complete description of the content of its collections.

Suffolk Record Office, Ipswich.

Again, some of the important classes of holdings (all types) are flagged up on their home page. However, the details that are available relating to the business holdings of the record office are recorded much along the lines of that available from the Archon/NRA service. The exception is that for some major collections there is a listing that approximates to the schedule description of the collection. In cases such as these it is possible to make a reasonable estimate of the scope and content of the archive, even if some detail is lacking.

3. University Archives.

These tend to be part of the library information services, and do not generally appear to be particularly developed in terms of the level of detail or description available on-line.

University of Wales, Swansea, Library Information Services.


The link provided here gives only the briefest of outlines of the scope and content of the Library's holdings (including business records) - though it does note that a partial on-line catalogue is available for one of the major holdings: the South Wales Coalfield Collection.

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Brief summary listings of the business records held at Reading can be found following the 'Historical and Literary MS' link.

University of Warwick, Modern Records Centre.


This site does provide a brief summary of the content of its holdings - but these are considerably less detailed than those provided by either the NRA or Archon listings.

4. Others.

Again, a variety of styles, with varying levels of detail and description available.

GEC-Marconi, Great Baddow, near Chelmsford

. (

Largely a commercial site, thus the lack of detail on archival holdings is not unexpected, but potential users should note that the site is currently under-going change. The link 'our history', however, does provide a useful time-line of the company's development - and brief background histories of the main company's predecessors. However, at present, no listing is available for the content of the archives held by the company, details having to be requested directly from the archivist.

Reading Rural History Centre.


Through the 'collections' link it is possible to access a further 'archives' link - this then gives summary guide to their holdings along the lines of the NRA/Archon entries.


If archival-based business history is to continue to move towards a more global perspective, away from the more traditional single business case study and into the wider and more challenging areas of sectoral, national, international, theoretical and comparative studies, then it is important that the needs of researchers to identify archival material held in a variety of repositories, more often than not at some considerable distance, should be addressed. While visiting the archival repositories will ultimately be vital, in the era of value-for-money, a more effective use of research time and money will be effected if business historians are able to gain access to improved information sources relating to archival holdings at different locations and thereby accurately judge their potential worth to their research projects. An example of the type of more detailed information that would be particularly useful is that provided by many of the repositories in Canada.

National Archives of Canada.


This site offers a high level of service to the on-line researcher. Use of the link for ArchiviaNet, leads to a general description of major fonds and collections, selection of the general inventory link leads to a keyword search engine which will allow specification of limits on both levels of description (fonds/collections, series, files/items, and accessions) and sources (government records, private records). Results are grouped together alphabetically and link to the respective descriptive records of the fonds. These descriptive records contain far more information than comparable entries for archives held in UK repositories, most usefully an indication of the linear meterage of the holding is given, allowing a subjective assessment of the total amount of material available to be gauged. Summary biographies/administrative histories of companies are given, as is a summary of the scope and content of the fonds. The various series and files/items are then listed as links to the descriptive record of each classification. These reveal type of records held, e.g. textual, multi-media, the dates covered and again the linear meterage. In addition, a brief description of the scope and content is given. In essence, although such descriptions contain only a little additional detail to that available through the NRA and Archon, the information on linear meterage makes for a more effective overview of the collection.

McGill University, Montreal. (

When entering this site it is not immediately obvious as to which is the best point of entry for browsing the records. However, the 'guide to archival resources' produces a list of major categories, and using the link 'private papers' produces a further list of categories, one of which, 'business and economy', produces an alphabetically arranged active list (with dates) of related holdings. Clicking on the items on the list then produces a brief description of background, scope, content, location and linear meterage of the holding. These descriptive records are less detailed than those offered by the National Archives. The search function on the home page appears to assume that, and works better if, you know what you are looking for.

These Canadian examples shows areas in which the on-line listing of archival records is more advanced than that in Britain. However, some sites, as in any country, tend to be better and more advanced than others. The authors acknowledge that the provision of on-line services in Canada is particularly advanced, in part as a result of the needs of long distance learning and the provision of suitable funding. In addition, early adoption of IT technology and the development of such archive services and subsequent standardisation in Canada are presumably influenced by the less disparate nature of archive holdings, and possibly the total amount of material available.

Concluding comment

This brief outline of the type and range of on-line services available for those engaged in archive-based business history demonstrates that there is considerable room for development. While the NRA/Archon service is by far the most comprehensive, the amount of detail available, while commendable, is still far from adequate from the potential users' viewpoint. While it is not expected that the entire content of all catalogues and schedules should be made available in on-line searchable format, nonetheless, the adoption of standards for archival description such as ISAD(G) would ultimately generate on-line archival information of a much more useful standard for researchers. Thus initiatives currently underway to improve the knowledge of archival holdings through on-line facilities, both national and regional, such as A2A and the projects proposed by Regional Archives Councils, should be welcomed by business historians, and deserve to be supported by academics and the research councils which fund their research. However, those engaged in such initiatives need to ensure that the facilities they develop are user-friendly and are not designed purely from the perspective of the archive profession alone.

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