The Historic England Archive
Reviewed October 2017
Reviewed October 2017
Shelby Merritt, Assistant Curator
Visual Resources Center, Vanderbilt University
The Historic England Archive is an online archive produced by the Historic England organization, a public body of the British government sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport. Its mission is to protect England’s historical environment by preserving and listing historical buildings and ancient monuments, a mission achieved in part through the Historic England Archive located in Swindon. The archive’s website, launched in 2010, boasts more than one million catalog entries describing photographs, plans, and drawings of England's buildings and historic sites. Entries include domestic, public, archaeological, and industrial sites alike. Materials date as early as the sixteenth century, though the bulk of the entries are from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
No software is needed to gain full access to the catalog entries: an internet connection and a web browser will suffice. Visitors to the site are not required to create an account, but doing so will unlock additional features such as the ability to save records and searches and to order high-resolution copies of materials. Accounts, called Heritage Passports, are free and can also be used across all of Historic England’s online resources.
The Historic England Archive site offers two methods for searching: quick and advanced. Quick search is keyword-based and searches for matches in the full text of records. Advanced search allows the user to focus on numerous specific fields relating to geography, date, organizations and people, and types of materials. The interface provides only three options for sorting search results: by reference number, by date, and whether the entry includes an online image. Searching will often return both file-level and item-level archival records, which can be difficult to distinguish in the results list. Nevertheless, file-level entries will link the user to any associated item-level records in the database.
Many of the entries do include an image such as a photograph, architectural drawing, or a copy of a text document. However, these images are very low resolution and not suitable for either close inspection or reuse. The small size of images may be intended to prevent copyright infringement, but users will find it is necessary either to visit the Swindon archives in person or to purchase copies of materials in order to conduct in-depth research. (Fees for digital or print copies of materials range from approximately $6 to $55.)
Overall, the interface is clean, functional, and free from potentially distracting bells-and-whistles. Users will find that the site’s intuitive structure is easily navigated. Its major drawback is the absence of a browsing function or other method of casual discovery; users must approach the archive with a clear query in mind in order to glean useful results.
It is unclear when the site was last updated or whether new content is being added on a regular basis. The last publicized update to content occurred in 2015, and a handful of broken links suggest that the Historic England Archive may not be investing much time in the upkeep of the site. Despite its shortcomings, historians, architectural experts, and other knowledgeable researchers will find that the site is a useful starting point for conducting research on England’s historic sites and buildings. Students or casual visitors to the site may find it less useful without the inclusion of a browsing feature to guide them. The Historic England Archive website is an online finding aid, not a fully-realized digital archive; users who keep that distinction in mind will be pleased with what the site offers.