How to Research Local History: Libraries and Archives
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How to Research Local History: Libraries and Archives

This guide offers useful techniques for research on any aspect of local history. It explains research methods used by local historians and suggests some of the most useful primary and secondary sources available. It takes time to build up research skills, but here are a few useful tricks of the trade.

This guide offers useful techniques for research on any aspect of local history. It explains research methods used by local historians and suggests some of the most useful primary and secondary sources available. It takes time to build up research skills, but here are a few useful tricks of the trade.

Please note that I am using the North  East of England as a case study.  Your own area should have comparable institutions.  The major libraries and archives in the region are listed below in alphabetical order.

City Library and Arts Centre

The Local Studies department of the City Library has a wealth of local information, including local and family history. Its holdings cover the historic County of Durham, with particular emphasis on Sunderland. It contains over 10,000 books on Sunderland and other places in the county, as well as journals, maps, photographs, newspapers and official records. Many of these are kept behind the counter so you will need to ask the staff for help. The computer catalogue can also be used to find books in stock.

Major holdings include:

- Copies of local newspapers from 1831 onwards. As well as the Sunderland Echo (from 1873 to date), this includes discontinued papers such as Sunderland Herald and Sunderland Gazette. These are available on microfilm, so will need to book a microfilm reader in advance. For more details see:

- A large collection of maps dating from 1723. This includes every Ordnance Survey map of Sunderland from the 1st edition of 1855 to the latest printed editions. Also available are the 6-inch to the mile maps of County Durham. There are geological maps of the area and some specialised plans, such as Admiralty Charts of the local coastline. Maps are invaluable for gaining a sense of Sunderland’s urban form and charting its evolution over time.

- Trade directories such as Ward’s and Christie’s. Trade directories are crucial sources for local historians. They reveal which businesses were operating in the town and can be very helpful in tracing the history of individual streets and buildings.

- Alf Rodenby Collection, a lifetime's worth of research concerning Sunderland shipping. The collection covers many aspects, although the principal focus is Sunderland shipowners and their vessels.

- Corder Manuscripts, a unique source written in the early years of the last century. The volumes cover pedigrees of Sunderland families and shipbuilders, together with histories of older Sunderland streets.

- Census Data

- Electoral Registers

- Parish Registers

- Photographs and Prints

- Facsimiles of the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Codex


The Library has copies of Antiquities of Sunderland, the journal of Sunderland Antiquarian Society. Published from 1900 onwards, it is now called Sunderland’s History and features many useful articles. A partial index was published in volume XXI (1954).

Other local journals include:

- Archaeologia Aeliana

- Durham Archaeological Journal

- Durham County Local History Society Bulletin

- Northern History

- Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne

Durham Chapter Library

Durham Chapter Library has a wide-ranging collection, including material on the history, life and culture of the North East. The library contains material pertaining to Sunderland north of the Wear, including 12th century deeds relating to Monkwearmouth and Southwick, 19th century accounts of the Durham Priory cell at Monkwearmouth, as well as leases and estate records for Dean and Chapter lands.

Items include:

- Longstaffe and Sharp papers

- Mitchison photo album

- Raine’s collection of early 19th century election material

- Alan Heesom's published lists on Durham election material

- Charles Thorp's visitation books of church plans

Durham County Record Office

Durham County Record Office is responsible for collecting and preserving the archives of people and organisations in County Durham. Before 1974, County Durham stretched from Tyne to Tees and included Sunderland. The DRO collection includes the records of the County Council and other local authorities, the Durham Light Infantry, churches, businesses, families and estates, schools and colleges, and clubs and societies. There is a wealth of material pertaining to Sunderland.

The online catalogue for Durham Record Office is exceptionally detailed, and in some cases full transcripts of documents are available. In general, though, you will need to visit DRO and other record offices to do your own searches, or commission a local researcher to find what you need.

Durham University Library Archives and Special Collections

Durham University Library Archives and Special Collections are rich with resources about the history of Sunderland. Founded in 1833, the Library is located on Palace Green. The collection includes over 70, 000 books printed before 1850, as well as medieval manuscripts, maps, prints and photographs.

Living History North East

Living History North East is an oral history resource established in 1995. Based at the Donnison School in Church walk, it is dedicated to recording living memories from across the North East. Oral History can be defined as the recording, preservation and interpretation of historical information, based on the personal experiences and opinions of the speaker. The database already registers over 1000 oral history recordings and related documents from across the region. Living History North East also holds an outstanding collection of historic photographs.

Sunderland Antiquarian Society

Sunderland Antiquarian Society, founded in 1900, has an extensive archive relating to Sunderland and its history. The archive is accessible to members and visitors, but an appointment must be booked as the society relies on volunteers. The society is currently based in Sunderland Minster.

The collection includes parish registers, trade directories, school records, maps, posters and bills for County Durham elections, the Doxford Shipping Archive, River Wear Commissioners files, a large collection of North East Methodist material, collections on football, transport, shipping, mining and glassmaking. A copy of Rain’s Eye Plan is available.

Tyne & Wear Archives

Tyne & Wear Archives Service is the record office for the metropolitan districts of Newcastle, Gateshead, South Tyneside and North Tyneside, and includes many documents relating to the history of Sunderland. Based in Blandford House, Newcastle, the Archives holds documents from the 12th century to the present.

There is more detail about the Sunderland collections at the Tyne and Wear Archives on the Access to Archives website:

Tyne and Wear Historic Environment Record

Based in the West Chapel of Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle, this collection offers information on archaeological sites, finds, historic buildings and industrial and war time sites in Tyne and Wear. Excavation reports, desk-based assessments and other grey literature, books and journals, photographs and maps are also available.

Additional resources:

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Comments (5)
Ranked #13 in History

I personally went to Manila Historical and Heritage Commission for my research and they grant a group tour of our two local buildings and to where library I can get the info I want, another superb work here Michael

Ranked #1 in History

Thanks, Ron.

Wow, you really know how to articulate your thoughts on a valuable topic. Excellent work as always, Michael.

You have spurred me into looking into my institutions for extensive searching on this topic done so well by you. Promoted

Returning with a well deserved vote up.