Research tools

In order to use historical archives online to their full potential, it is important to understand how they are set up and how they work. There are three main ways to do research on the portal: by keyword, by topic, and by institution. This section will guide you through them in order to help you make the most of your searches in the portal; it will also give you extra links and tips on how to use the web for research in historical archives.

A new way to do archival (and history) research

Archival research is traditionally conducted in one institution at a time. With Archives Portal Europe, it is possible to search what interests you (be that a person, an event, a specific document or other) across thousands of archives around the world, at the same time. This allows for unprecedented comparisons between archival documents, across cultures and languages, and lets you see how events and people shaped our archival heritage across the world: you can check at the same time the smallest parish archive in a remote village, together with the largest national archives. We particularly encourage you to take advantage of the comparative perspectives, at global as well as glocal levels, that Archives Portal Europe creates.

Approaches to searching in the portal

Archives are usually formed by accumulation around the records creator, the person or body that originally created and managed the documents. This is following the principle of provenance, one of the pillars of archival studies and information structure in archives. Archives Portal Europe recognises and respects the principle of provenance, and it makes sure that this is always clearly traceable at any point of a digital search: either as a starting point for a Search in names or in the way search results are presented. However, the portal also allows searching in many more ways, with search engines that simultaneously scrape millions of archival descriptions (or “finding aids”) across different types of institutions, and in different languages.

Where does the Portal search?

The search engine of Archives Portal Europe searches for the keywords through the whole of its repository, which can be divided in three macro-categories:

  • Search in Archives - here the scraper searches into all the descriptions of the documents you are looking for. Please note, these are the descriptions of the documents, not the content of the documents. A letter that mentions the "French Revolution" will only appear in the results if the archival description related to the letter also mentions the "French Revolution"
  • Search in Names - here the scraper looks into the descriptions of the records creator, the person or entity that created or collected a document. Searching for “French Revolution” will return all the records creators those descriptions contain the expression “French Revolution”, like a body that "was established right after the French Revolution"
  • Search in Institutions - here the scraper looks into the descriptions of the archival institutions that collaborate with Archives Portal Europe. Searching for “French Revolution” will return the institutions those description contains the expression “French Revolution”, like an archive "that was funded immediately after the French Revolution", or an institution that is "located in French Revolution square".

The default view when doing research is on “Search in Archives” – however, all options are presented, each with different filters. Remember, Archives Portal Europe is not granular to the point of the single document (nor it searches “inside” the document, which would require the ingestion of OCR text from fully digitised collections), but it searches into the single collection held in the archives or archival institutions, as well as into the descriptors made available for the records creators and for the hosting institutions.

Search in Archives Portal Europe:

A keyword search is perhaps the most intuitive and familiar of the ways to approach an online archive: it is like Google and other search engines. Indeed, we like to call Archives Portal Europe “the Google of Archives”. However, the way in which the Archives Portal Europe search engine works is much different from Google.

How do the keywords work?

Once you have typed your set of keywords, the portal will look for those words across millions of archival descriptions.

By default, the portal will look for documents containing ALL of the entered keywords, whether they are close to each other ...

By default, the portal will look for documents containing ALL of the entered keywords, whether they are close to each other or not.

If you are looking for compound words, then you must wrap them in quotation marks.

For example, if you search for French Revolution, the computer will look for archival descriptions containing both the word French and the word Revolution, but not necessarily close, or meaning the concept. In order to get the expression you were looking for, you must wrap the words into brackets (“French Revolution”)

If you are looking for documents containing at least one word (either French, or Revolution, or both), you can select the option in the search area.

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Multilinguality

While Archives Portal Europe holds material in more than 20 languages, the scraper will only look for the keywords that you provide. ...

While Archives Portal Europe holds material in more than 20 languages, the scraper will only look for the keywords that you provide. For example, if you type French Revolution, the results will only contain the expression as typed, in English. However, there are two features that allow for multilinguality: spelling suggestions & wildcard characters

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Spelling suggestions

If one or more keywords only slightly differ from one language to the other (eg, Revolution and <...

If one or more keywords only slightly differ from one language to the other (eg, Revolution and Révolution), you will get a series of suggestions for alternative spellings that cover more languages. This is, of course, also useful in case of spelling mistakes – either from you, or from the archival description!

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Wildcard characters

Wildcards are placeholders that can be interpreted by computers as different sets of strings

The asterisk (*) tells the scraper to ignore any character that follows the asterisk. For example, if I type Napoleon, I will exclude ...

The asterisk (*) tells the scraper to ignore any character that follows the asterisk. For example, if I type Napoleon, I will exclude all search results that contain the words Napoleone (Italian), or Napoleonic. But if I search for Napoleon* I will include them. This is very useful to include adjectives, but also for plurals, feminine and masculine, and other variations present in different languages

The question mark (?) tells the system that the question mark can be replaced with any other character. For example, if you type Napoleon, you will not get the results for Napoleón (Spanish) or Napoléon (French), but they will be included if you type Napol??n

Also, keep in mind the different alphabets! In our search for Napoleon, the most inclusive search will be Nap?l?* Ναπολέων ნაპოლეონ Наполеон

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Boolean operators

The default mode of the keyword search is that the documents returned will contain ALL the keywords indicated (corresponding to the Boolean ...

The default mode of the keyword search is that the documents returned will contain ALL the keywords indicated (corresponding to the Boolean operator AND). With this option, the scraper will return any result that matches at least one word. For example, if I search for Napoleon Napoleone Ναπολέων without selecting “match at least one word”, I will most likely not get any result, because no archival description would have the name written three times in different languages. With “match at least one word”, I will search for all documents that contain the name spelled at least in one of these ways (corresponding to the Boolean operator OR)

Other important Boolean operators:

NOT - will exclude a term from the search. Eg, Napoleon NOT Saint Helena

" " - The quotation marks will make sure words are searched as a cluster and in that order. If I search for Napoleon Bonaparte, the search engine will return text that has both the words Napoleon and Bonaparte, but possibly in different areas of the text. If I search for "Napoleon Bonaparte", only this text with this exact string will be returned. If there are no results, the engine will look automatically for results without the quotation marks.

( ) - parentheses can be used to give priority to the keywords contained within a complex search, as in an equation. Eg, (Napoleon or Ναπολέων) AND (Saint Helena or Sant' Elena)

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Topics group together archival collections, from different institutions and subject creators, which relate to the same argument. If you are doing research on a specific event (eg, “World War II”), on a specific theme (eg, “Slavery”), or historical period (eg, “The German Democratic Republic”), you can start your research from Topics, and then filter down further.

Topics are a powerful tool for research, because they allow to make connections between very different archival collections, in different languages and from different countries, without the need to use keywords. However, it is important to understand that topics are assigned by archival institutions manually, according to their classification systems, or through crowdsourcing projects, and that they may not be comprehensive of everything available on Archives Portal Europe on a determined subject. Indeed, some topics may be at an initial phase, with only a handful of documents available – if you want to volunteer to improve a Topic, or to create a new one, please get in touch now!

We are also experimenting with an automated topic detection tool which will allow us to make the Topics more and more comprehensive.

How topics are created

Topics are organised according to a categorization maintained and created by the Country Managers’ Network and based on the UNESCO Thesaurus, the UK Archival Thesaurus, and the vocabularies set up by the French Ministry of Culture

This is the more traditional way of doing archival research. You can start with a specific institution, and check the list of holding guides and finding aids available on the portal, organised according to the tradition of that specific institution. There are different options available:

Search

Search the name of the institution if you already know it

Find

Go to the “Find an institution” page to see contact details, access information, and details about an institution's holdings

Filter

by country or countries

by area

by type of archive

Compare

You can also compare the types of holdings of different institutions at the same time

Research Results

The list view gives precedence to the single finding aids, organised by default by relevance.

Relevance - this means that the first results are those in which the keyword(s) appear more frequently. This does not necessarily means that these are the most relevant finding aids to what you are looking for: the way in which archival descriptions are written vary a lot from institution to institution, and they are not expected to be "optimised" for a search engine! Do not be afraid of browsing through multiple pages, or to apply further filters!

Date - documents can also be ordered by date. However, please note that this will only work for the finding aids where date is written in a machine-readable format. Furthermore, please notice that the date refers to when the document was created, not to the historical period it refers to: for example, the date of a 1928 translation of a 1389 parchment is 1928.

Title - documents can also be sorted alphabetical by their title.

Identifiers - if you already have experience with specific documents or collections, sorting documents by either their specific reference code or by the identifier of the finding aid they belong to can also be of help in organising your search results.

For content providers

Standards Data preparation

Archives Portal Europe help guide

Please select amongst the relevant tips we can help with. If you still have questions, please do not hesitate to contact us, and we will be in touch as soon as possible.

Starting your search here will include all content available in Archives Portal Europe. Simply enter your keyword(s) and hit the search button. Wrap fixed expressions in quotation marks, e.g. “French Revolution”. Check the box to “Search each term separately” in case you are looking for documents containing at least one word, but not necessarily all keywords; this will also allow you to search for the same term in multiple languages at the same time (e.g. “French Revolution” “Révolution Française”). You can also use wildcards - find more about Research Tools here. If you would like to use more specific settings, try our Advanced search

The additional advanced search options give you the possibility to focus your search in:

  • archival documents (Search in archives),
  • names of person and organisations that created, worked with and maintained these documents (Search in names),
  • Institutions currently holding the documents (Search in institutions).

When searching with multiple terms at the same time, wrap fixed expressions in quotation marks (e.g. "French Revolution"), or check the box "Search each term separately" in case you are looking for either one term of the other. This will also allow you to search for the same term in multiple languages (e.g. "French Revolution" "Révolution française"). You can also choose one of the suggestions matching your search term once you start typing.

This will only show results that include documents that have been digitised and are available online

Use this option to search only one or more keywords, rather than all of them

Select where your search terms should appear specifically inside the archival description:

  • Title: search terms will appear in the title, or name, of the description
  • Content Summary: search terms will appear in the main description of the document or of the collection
  • Reference code: it is the identifier of the archival material as provided by the institution. Use this option if you know the exact reference code of the material you are looking for

You can filter results by selecting where your search terms appears specifically inside the archival description:

  • The name can be the full name of a person, family or organisation as well as only parts of it, e.g. only the last name.
  • The identifier is used internally by the institution or refers to (inter)national vocabularies such as the Virtual International Authority File (VIAF).
  • The place can be the place of birth (or foundation), the place of death (or closing), the place of work or any other place of importance.
  • The occupation is the profession or job of a person.
  • The mandate is a law, directive or charter that establishes and defines an organisation's powers, functions, responsibilities or sphere of activities.
  • The function is an activity, role, or purpose performed or manifested by a person, family or organisation.

You can filter results by selecting where your search terms appears specifically inside the description of the archive:

  • Name: search term appears in the name of the institution. It can be the full name of an archival institution or only parts of it.
  • Place: search term appears in the address or area of the institution. It can be the city or town, where the archival institution is located or any other place of importance (e.g. previous locations)

  • A finding aid is a structured description of archival materials per collection or fonds, up to item level.
  • A holdings guide is an overview of the collections and fonds of one archival institution.
  • A source guide is a topic-oriented overview of collections and fonds of one or several institutions.
    You can filter by one or more entity types:
  • A person (e.g. John Locke, or Jean Jaques Rousseau);
  • A family (e.g. Bonaparte, or Helgason);
  • A corporate body, i.e. the name of an institution, organisation, or company (e.g. Ministerie van Justitie, or Electro Mecánica Antonio Armentano)

Please note that this filter will only include institutions, for which a type has been provided as part of their descriptions:

  • A business archive holds the records of (often) commercial organisations.
  • A church or religious archive holds the records of church parishes or religious organisations, e.g. birth or death registers.
  • A county or local authority archive holds the records of the county's administrative bodies.
  • A media archive holds audiovisual or sound records, e.g. a film archive or the archive of a broadcasting company.
  • A municipal archive holds the records of a town or city administration.
  • A national archive holds the records of a country's administrative bodies, i.e. from ministries and other public bodies, sometimes also private papers of former ministers, chancellors, or presidents.
  • A private person or family archive holds the records forming the legacy of a prominent person or family.
  • A regional archive holds the records of a region's administrative bodies.
  • A specialised governmental archive holds records of public bodies, often operating on a national level, that are not part of the national archives' holdings.
  • A specialised non-governmental archive or archive of another cultural heritage institution hold collections from various cultural heritage institutions, eg. museum archives, libraries archives, etc
  • A university archive or archive of another research organisation holds the records pertaining to the administration of the according educational or research body.
  • Political parties, popular/labour movements and other non-governmental organisations, associations, agencies and foundations hold the archival collections of these institutions, outside of governmental records and outside of business archives (e.g., NGOs)

Enter a start and/or end date in the format DD-MM-YYYY, i.e. 01-01-1900 for 1 January 1900. This will allow you to focus your search on a specific period of time. You can use the calendar function or type directly in the text field. The checkbox "Exact date search" concentrates the search on one specific date.

Check "View in context" to view the results in the hierarchical structure of archives.

  • Choose "List view" to view the results in a simple list, ordered according to relevance or date
  • Choose "Context view" to view the results in the hierarchical structure of the holding archives.

For more details see Research Tools

Please sign in to save your searches.

A holdings guide is an overview of the collections and fonds of one archival institution.

A finding aid is a structured description of archival materials per collection or fonds up to item level.

You can filter results by selecting one or more countries of interest. You can also combine this filter with other filters. Your filter selection will appear above. Click "Clear filters" to see all results matching your initial search request again.

You can filter results by one or more holding archival institutions. You can also combine this filter with other filters. Your filter selection will appear above. Click "Clear filters" to see all results matching your initial search request again.

You can select to view results from a specific Finding Aid, i.e., a structured description of archival materials per collection or fonds up to item level. You can also combine this filter with other filters. Your filter selection will appear above. Click "Clear filters" to see all results matching your initial search request again.

You can filter by type of descriptive document:

  • "Holdings Guide": an overview of the collections and fonds of one archival institution.
  • "Source guide": a topic-oriented overview of collections and fonds of one or several institutions. a description of the archival collections available. Similar to Holdings guides
  • "Finding aid" provides more detailed descriptions of the archival materials of specific collections or fonds

You can also combine this filter with other filters. Your filter selection will appear above. Click "Clear filters" to see all results matching your initial search request again.

You can filter results by selecting "Fonds description" for a general overview or "Other descriptions" for item level. You can also combine this filter with other filters. Your filter selection will appear above. Click "Clear filters" to see all results matching your initial search request again.

You can filter results by selecting only those containing digital objects, i.e. the link to the digitised version of the archival material you are looking for. You can also combine this filter with other filters. Your filter selection will appear above. Click "Clear filters" to see all results matching your initial search request again.

You can filter results by type of digital object you are interested in:

  • Text: most documental material, such as administrative records, letters, manuscripts etc.
  • Image: includes photographs, posters, maps.
  • Sound: sound recording with no images
  • Video: moving images with or without sound
  • Unspecified: indicates that the holding institution has not specified the type of digital object
  • 3D: 3-d digital objects

You can also combine this filter with other filters. Your filter selection will appear above. Click "Clear filters" to see all results matching your initial search request again.

You can filter results based on the date of creation of the archival material (which may differ from the time period you are interested in - e.g., philosophers from the Enlightenment period reflecting on classic thinkers)

  • Full dates includes normalised date information available for date-based searches. It is recommended to combine this selection with the filters "Start timespan" and "End timespan" for more details.
  • Only descriptive dates provides the date information in human-readable format.
  • No date either includes documents where the creation date is unknown, or where date information is not in a machine-readable format

Please note that not all documents contain a machine-readable date. More information here

You can filter results based on the date of creation of the archival material (which may differ from the time period you are interested in - e.g., philosophers from the Enlightenment period reflecting on classic thinkers). This filter will only include materials with "Full dates", i.e. those that include date information available for date-based searches. You can either search for a specific date of interest or focus step by step on the time span of a century, decade, year or month. When searching for a specific date, enter the date in the format DD-MM-YYYY, i.e. 01/01/1900 for 1 January 1900, via the calendar function or by typing directly in the text field.
This filter concentrates on the earliest dates mentioned in the materials.

You can filter results based on the date of creation of the archival material (which may differ from the time period you are interested in - e.g., philosophers from the Enlightenment period reflecting on classic thinkers). This filter will only include materials with "Full dates", i.e. those that include date information available for date-based searches. You can either search for a specific date of interest or focus step by step on the time span of a century, decade, year or month. When searching for a specific date, enter the date in the format DD-MM-YYYY, i.e. 01/01/1900 for 1 January 1900, via the calendar function or by typing directly in the text field.
This filter concentrates on the latest dates mentioned in the materials.

You can filter results based on the language in which the material is written. Please note that this filter will only include materials where specific language information has been provided by the institution and is therefore in a machine-readable format. You can also combine this filter with other filters. Your selection will then be displayed above the search results (see "Search filters"). Clicking "Clear filters" will remove your selection and you will see all results matching your initial search request again.



You can filter results by selecting one or more topics of interest. Please note that this filter will only include materials where the topic has been assigned and is therefore in a machine-readable format. Read how to assign a topic to documents on the Topics page. You can also combine this filter with other filters. Your selection will then be displayed above the search results (see "Search filters"). Clicking "Clear filters" will remove your selection and you will see all results matching your initial search request again.



You can filter results by selecting where your search terms appears specifically inside the archival description:

  • The name can be the full name of a person, family or organisation as well as only parts of it, e.g. only the last name.
  • The identifier is used internally by the institution or refers to (inter)national vocabularies such as the Virtual International Authority File (VIAF).
  • The place can be the place of birth (or foundation), the place of death (or closing), the place of work or any other place of importance.
  • The occupation is the profession or job of a person
  • The mandate is a law, directive or charter that establishes and defines an organisation's powers, functions, responsibilities or sphere of activities.
  • The function is an activity, role, or purpose performed or manifested by a person, family or organisation

You can also combine this filter with other filters. Your selection will then be displayed above the search results (see "Search filters"). Clicking "Clear filters" will remove your selection and you will see all results matching your initial search request again.

You can filter results by type of entities:

  • Person (e.g., John Locke or Jean Jaques Rousseau)
  • Family (e.g., the family Bonaparte)
  • Corporate body (an institution, organisation, or company, e.g. the "Ministerie van Justitie")
You can also combine this filter with other filters. Your selection will then be displayed above the search results (see "Search filters"). Clicking "Clear filters" will remove your selection and you will see all results matching your initial search request again.

You can filter results based on the language in which the material is written. Please note that this filter will only include materials where specific language information has been provided by the institution and is therefore in a machine-readable format. You can also combine this filter with other filters. Your selection will then be displayed above the search results (see "Search filters"). Clicking "Clear filters" will remove your selection and you will see all results matching your initial search request again.

You can filter results based on the type of holding institution. Please note that this filter will only include institutions, for which a type has been provided as part of their descriptions.

  • A business archive holds the records of (often) commercial organisations.
  • A church or religious archive holds the records of church parishes or religious organisations, e.g. birth or death registers.
  • A county or local authority archive holds the records of the county's administrative bodies.
  • A media archive holds audiovisual or sound records, e.g. a film archive or the archive of a broadcasting company.
  • A municipal archive holds the records of a town or city administration.
  • A national archive holds the records of a country's administrative bodies, i.e. from ministries and other public bodies, sometimes also private papers of former ministers, chancellors, or presidents.
  • A private person or family archive holds the records forming the legacy of a prominent person or family.
  • A regional archive holds the records of a region's administrative bodies.
  • A specialised governmental archive holds records of public bodies, often operating on a national level, that are not part of the national archives' holdings.
  • A specialised non-governmental archive or archive of another cultural heritage institution hold collections from various cultural heritage institutions, eg. museum archives, libraries archives, etc
  • A university archive or archive of another research organisation holds the records pertaining to the administration of the according educational or research body.
  • Political parties, popular/labour movements and other non-governmental organisations, associations, agencies and foundations hold the archival collections of these institutions, outside of governmental records and outside of business archives (e.g., NGOs)

Write your message in your own language and use this drop-down menu to have your message translated into English or in the language of the institution for a swifter response. By checking this box and selecting a language you will send your original message along with the translated version

What kind of suggestion would you like to make?

  • Assign to topic: assign this record to one of our Topics. Topics are created following the Unesco Thesaurus
  • Suggest translation: If you have translated this archival description or the documents themselves, please send it to us as a .doc or .pdf file
  • Connect to another resource: If this object relates to another resource in Archives Portal Europe, or anywhere else on the web (e.g., an article on Wikipedia), you can suggest it to be linked to this resource
  • Other: If you have any other relevant material, such as a transcription of the document, please upload it and let us know here

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