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The University of Southampton
Special Collections

What are archives?

Archives are unique materials that have been created by individuals, groups or organisations during the course of their life or work and deemed to be worth keeping for permanent preservation. 

They can include letters, reports, minutes, registers, maps, photographs, films, sound recordings, digital files, and objects.

Some examples of archives
Some examples of archives

Arrangement of archives

Archives are not arranged by subject like printed material, but are kept as collections. Examples might be the archives of a business, the personal archives of an individual or the estate archives of a family.  These collections vary in size from a single item to thousands of boxes of papers.

Archival catalogues

Archival catalogues are based on multi-level hierarchical descriptions, like an inverted tree structure. The larger and more complicated the collection is, the more levels there will be in the hierarchy.

Archives hierarchy
Archives hierarchy
Collection/Fonds Level

The highest level will always be collection (or fonds). The fonds level description provides an overview of the entire contents of a collection.

Fonds level image
Fonds level image

Example: MS 61 WP Wellington Papers, mid-late 17th century, 1790-1852
The archive forms the principal collection of the papers of Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington (1769-1852). It contains approximately 100,000 items, the Duke's political, military, official and diplomatic papers covering all aspects of his career.

Series Level

The next level down is usually the series level (unless there are sub-fonds). Series can often relate to particular activities, functions or events. As with the fonds, the size of a series can vary greatly - ranging from a few files to hundreds of boxes. Each series will contain either additional sub-series or files.

Series level image
Series level image

Example: MS 61 WP1 General correspondence and memoranda, 1790-1832

File Level

A file is often the lowest level of description and generally consists of a group of documents that were created, used and/or kept for a specific purpose. A single file can contain anywhere from a few items to several hundred.

File level image
File level image

Example: MS 61 WP1/1034 Letters to the Duke of Wellington, 27 July – 31 July 1829

Item level

An item is the lowest level in the hierarchy and, while it can vary in size, is intellectually indivisible. For example, a letter comprising of several pages is still considered a single item.

Item level image
Item level image

Example: MS 61 WP1/1034/29 Report to the Duke of Wellington of the journey of Goldworthy Gurney’s steam carriage from London to Bath, 31 July 1829

Introduction to the Epexio Archive Catalogue

Our new Epexio archive catalogue brings together brings together thousands of catalogue descriptions along with a powerful search tool and browse functionality.

The Browsable Webpages provide collection level descriptions of the manuscript holdings of the Hartley Library and is updated as new accessions are received.


Archives in the UK

There is a network of archive institutions across the UK.  This ranges from central institutions such as The National Archives or the British Library, to local record offices that collect material for their region (such as the Southampton City Archives) and specialist archives that collect material on a thematic basis.  The Special Collections at the Hartley Library is a specialist archive. To learn more about our collecting policy visit:

How do you find out about the archive collections?

All institutions have archive catalogues or “finding aids” that describe their collections. 

If you are not sure where to look, there are collaborative catalogues to which many archive institutions contribute. Examples include:

Archives Hub:

The National Archives Discovery:

Additional links can be found on our Archives Resources page at:


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