Frequently asked questions
What is the difference between the Historical Manuscripts Commission (HMC) and the National Register of Archives (NRA)?
The Historical Manuscripts Commission (now part of The National Archives) is the organisation which maintains the NRA.
What is the NRA?
The NRA is a central point for the collection and dissemination of information about the nature and location of manuscripts relating to British history. It currently consists of over 44,000 unpublished lists and catalogues that describe archival holdings in the United Kingdom and overseas. These can be consulted in The National Archives' reading rooms, see Visit us for further information regarding access to The National Archives. The lists and catalogues have been indexed according to corporate bodies, persons and families and the indexes are available online.
What manuscripts does the NRA hold?
The NRA does NOT hold any manuscripts or historical records.
What is included in the NRA?
The NRA contains information about the location and nature of historical records that have been created by some 53,000 individuals, 9,000 families, 32,000 businesses and 116,000 organisations.
How is information collected for the NRA?
The NRA is continually being updated with new or improved information that is derived from a variety of sources:
- Traditionally The National Archives has been sent hardcopy catalogues of archival collections from record repositories and other custodians for inclusion in the NRA and this remains an important method of gathering information. Each catalogue is assigned an NRA number and checked for data, which can be added to one or more of the five online indexes, which form the main access routes into the NRA. The National Archives has made over 125,000 direct electronic links from NRA index entries to catalogues that are available online.
- The National Archives conducts an annual survey of the records that have been received by over 200 record repositories throughout the British Isles. The results of this survey are added to the indexes. The accessioned lists are also published in a range of digests and are available online, see Accessions to Repositories.
- Information about archival collections that are found in printed publications, surveys and guides is also added to the indexes and a reference is made to the source from which the information was taken. Copies of these publications will usually be available in The National Archives' reading rooms or library and in good reference libraries. A catalogue of our library collections is available online, see Library Catalogue.
- Members of staff are occasionally asked to list summarily collections that are not available in publicly accessible locations and these lists are included in the NRA and indexed in the usual way.
What does an NRA list contain?
The quantity and quality of information contained in lists in the NRA can vary considerably, but lists generally include the covering dates of the collection and descriptions of the main groups of records, such as correspondence, ledgers, notebooks, minutes books, etc.
Are copies of NRA catalogues available online?
Most of the hardcopy lists in the NRA are NOT available online, but the indexes to the NRA are being linked to electronic networking initiatives such as Archives in London and the M25 area, Archives Hub, Access to Archives, and other independent cataloguing projects. When available there will be links to online catalogues.
Over 90,000 pages of hard copy NRA lists are now available online via the NRA indexes. Where a list has been digitised and is available for consultation online, a link to a scanned list will appear in the relevant index entries. These lists will no longer be available for consultation at The National Archives in hard copy format.
Do I need to visit The National Archives?
Many users will find all the information they need to locate their sources on this website. But a visit to The National Archives provides open-shelf access to catalogues for browsing, as well as many reference works from which data about private papers has been entered in the NRA indexes. On request, our professional staff will also be glad to discuss with you the possible sources for your research and assist you in locating them. For information on visiting The National Archives see Visit us.
Can I have a copy of an NRA list?
The copyright of individual lists remains with the creator organisation. This is usually the repository where the collection is held, and any requests for copies of lists should be directed there.
How do I search the online indexes to the NRA?
There are five online indexes to the NRA: the business index, the organisations index, the personal index, the families and estates index and the diaries and papers index. You can search the indexes in the following ways:
Simple Search designed so that you can search more than one index simultaneously, although it is not possible to search all five at once.
Advanced Search allows more refined searches of each index:
- business index and organisations index
Searches of the business index or organisations index, which use combinations of name, location and covering dates of the surviving records themselves, are all possible if you use this option, and there is an additional facility that allows you to search by business sector and organisation category.
- personal index and diaries and papers index
With regard to the papers of individuals The National Archives has distinguished between those people who are traceable in standard biographical reference works such as the Dictionary of National Biography and Who Was Who and those who do not appear in these works. Major figures who appear in Dictionary of National Biography are included under the personal index, which can be searched by name or personal description, but we recognise that the papers of less well-known people can be of great value for researchers and have attempted to highlight some of these rich historical sources by developing the diaries and papers index. This index contains references to fewer individuals than the main personal index but entries have been classified according to the contents of the actual records enabling you to search using a controlled keyword system, which includes terms such as Travel, Weather and Local History.
- families and estates index
Searches using combined elements such as name, seat, county and the dates of the actual records themselves are all available.
Browse and Search allows you to conduct searches of all of the indexes with the results presented in simple alphabetical order.
How do I interpret an NRA index entry?
Entries found under the different indexes to the NRA vary to some extent but all share certain common elements and once you understand these you will easily be able to interpret the results of most of the searches that you conduct. Many individual index entries have numerous subentries referring to different groups of records but each will follow the pattern outlined below. A typical index entry will include:
- The name of the individual, family, business or organisation that created the records, and information such as a personal epithet
- A short summary of the records themselves, usually including the covering dates of the collection
- The location of the records, usually a name of a record repository
- A reference number of the records may be given and some entries will have a link to an online catalogue.
- If a hardcopy catalogue of a particular collection has been sent to The National Archives an NRA number will be attached to relevant index entries.
- Index entries will often include references to published sources and in these cases copies of these works will normally be available in the search room and in good reference libraries. Each results page has a general explanation of the information given.
Can I use the NRA for subject-based research?
The NRA indexes are NOT arranged by theme or subject. The indexes are structured by provenance - that is according to the individual, family, organisation or business that created and used the records.
Is the NRA of use to family historians?
The NRA does not normally provide the level of detail about historical records that is needed for genealogical research, but it is sometimes possible to obtain useful information from the business index and the families and estates index. See our Records section for help getting started with your research.
Is the NRA of use to people researching the history of their house?
The NRA does not generally include sufficiently detailed information to trace the history of individual properties, although collections of solicitors records noted under the business index can sometimes be of use. See our Records section for help getting started with your research.