During the Covid-19 pandemic most archives closed. Many have now reopened but pre-booking is generally required . Please check before visiting.

Characteristics of archives

Archives have value to nations and regions, organisations, communities, and individual people. They provide evidence of activities which occurred in the past, they tell stories, document people and identity and are valuable sources of information for research. They are our recorded memory and form an important part of our community, cultural, official and unofficial history‘ (National Archives – Archive Principles and Practice: an introduction to archives for non-archivists)

They come in different formats; some materials are from the public sphere, such as books, newspaper and journal articles, manuscripts, websites, while others consist of personal items and may include:

  • Personal papers, letters, diaries, notes, ledgers, log books, school reports, examination certificates and materials such as uniforms or equipment.
  • Audio and visual material: portraits, paintings and more recently, photographs, film footage, voice recordings and digital archives

Archival materials may contain author or subject bias.  With any historical source, researchers need to interpret them very carefully using various methods to interrogate the data and to assess their authenticity, credibility, sincerity, accuracy and consistency.   

Where do I find archival collections?

The holdings of many collections can be found on data hubs. A good place to start might be the National Archives ‘Find an Archive’ page. Their search aid Discovery contains more than 32 million descriptions of records held by The National Archives and more than 2,500 archives across the country. Over 9 million records are available for download.The JISC Archives Hub, provides details of the contents of over 350 repositories.

Most professional organisations house their own archives and may offer specific guides to their collections. For example, if you are a pharmacist, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society has prepared a guide Discovering Pharmacy History.These are also worthwhile places to begin searches related to the health care or professional history.

The role of archivists

According to The International Council on Archives, archivists might be described as ‘the custodians of society’s memory’. Their role may be unfamiliar territory to many and visiting an archive for the first time can be a slightly daunting experience. A useful insight into the modus operandi of archival institutions has been provided by The Peel Art Gallery and Archives to help you familiarise yourself with the environment.

Medical collections of cases were often compiled by doctors (and for that matter by several eighteenth-century midwives).The University of Cambridge offers comprehensive information on medical case books. National vital statistics can provide useful sets of data in order to study population health/disease trends.

Preparing to visit an archive for the first time

Dr Patricia Whatley, University Archivist and Head of Archive, Records Management and Museum Services at the University of Dundee, provides guidance on visiting an archive for the first time. [add link]

Additional useful archival sources


The Workhouse: the story of an Institution
Peter Higginbotham’s extensive website documents all you might want to know about workhouses – has it got an archive?

More recent hospital records have been preserved to varying degrees by health authorities, for example, at York Hospitals Trust.

The University of Aberdeen – special collections

Contact Details are shown on the website

Online Collections
Pre-1860 Collections
Throughout this period Aberdeen was unique in having two universities awarding degrees in medicine: King College, established in 1495 and Marischal College founded in 1593. Both institutions maintained close links with other early European universities, a fact reflected in the volume and geographic span of many of the collections, making them a rich resource for British and European medical history from the medieval through to the modern period.

Highlights include a late 14th-century compendium of medical receipts; the papers of key Aberdeen Enlightenment figure, David Skene (1731-1770), whose voluminous medical case notes provide wonderful detail for medical historians, especially those interested in obstetrics and gynaecology; and the records of other local physicians whose surviving papers illustrate medical practice in the British colonies, aboard East India vessels as well as whaling vessels. European medical history is represented in a rare 10-volume set of manuscript notes of the lectures of Leiden professor, Herman Boerhavee (1668-1738), widely regarded as the first great clinical teacher. But by far the largest collection included in the project is the Gregory Collection, which contains the personal and professional papers of 20 members of this internationally-renowned scientific family, which over the period 1582-1912 produced no fewer than 16 professors within five generations.The collections are available via the University’s on-line archival database.

Post-1860 Collections
The collections submitted for cataloguing reflect the University’s expertise, from the late-nineteenth century, in the allied fields of anatomy, physiology, pharmacology and pathology. They provide researchers with the opportunity to explore the unique contributions made by significant members of this community to their professions; and to trace the developing role of these relatively new disciplines in medical education.

The collections are available via the University’s on-line archival database.

Manuscript & Archive
Special Collections is home to more than 5,000 collections of manuscripts and archives, dating from antiquity to the 21st century.
Contributed by Mike Davidson

Also remember thatgrey literature‘can be very valuable to historians of medicine.


London Metropolitan Archives

Hospital Records research guide (London Metropolitan Archives)

The Royal London Hospital Archives
The archives of The London Hospital (now The Royal London Hospital) date back to 1740, although patient records are only complete from 1883. The archives also hold records of numerous other hospitals, charities, training institutions and individuals and most of these are available for research, 

St Bartholomew’s Hospital Archives
St Bartholomew’s Hospital Archives hold records dating back to 1137, including volumes documenting the impact of the plague and the Great Fire of London, as well as staff and patients and buildings throughout the hospital’s history. The archives also hold the records of other related hospitals, institutions, organisations and individuals.

The Bethlem Museum archive catalogue the records held at Bethlem Museum of the Mind

Lost Hospitals of London
This website records the hospitals that have closed in London since the NHS came into being in 1948. Not all hospitals have completely disappeared.  Some have moved into new purpose-built premises, others have been absorbed into other hospitals .