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    Document handling at LMA

    Document handling

Useful tips from London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) staff to help you get the most out of our resources.

Document handling

Document handling sessions

Those consulting original documents need all sorts of skills to access the information they contain. In previous Top Tips we've mentioned deciphering handwriting and the sessions LMA runs to help you do this, but did you know that we also hold sessions on handling documents?

One of the major causes of the degradation of documents is inappropriate handling so making sure that unique and irreplaceable items are handled properly is essential to ensure that they are preserved for the future. If you struggle when faced with a recalcitrant roll, a devilish deed or a massive map, or wonder how best to turn the pages of a tightly bound tome, then these sessions are for you.

The practical and interactive sessions aim to help you to handle archival items in the most appropriate way. As well as demonstrating how to handle various archival formats, a conservator will also explain the dos and don'ts that apply in the Archive Study Area. If you have any questions about handling specific formats or particular problems you have encountered, the conservator will help with that too.

Sessions are held regularly on the second Wednesday of each month at 1pm and last an hour. The sessions are FREE, but you will need to book on Eventbrite to be assured of a place.

Onsite staff help and guidance

LMA's visitor regulations state that visitors to the Archive Study Area are required to handle material with care in accordance with LMA's Handling Guidelines. From 1 March 2016 new users obtaining a History Card for the first time will be asked to read the Guidelines immediately on receipt of the card. Copies of the step by step illustrated Guidelines are available for consultation in the ASA to all users so please ask staff for a copy. ASA staff will help you to handle documents appropriately, and in case of difficult handling issues will call on the duty Conservator to advise. Please take LMA staff advice (staff will intervene if they see items being handled inappropriately) and use the book supports, weights and other aids provided. In the year when LMA celebrates 950 years of London's archives, we need to ensure that our records survive the next millennium!

LMA's online catalogue - making sense of your search results using Sort

Making sense of your search results using Sort

If you have performed a search within LMA's online catalogue and have been given a bewildering number of results, you can refine your search to cut down the number of search hits. Look at our previous Top Tip on Search Filters to get you started. However, you can also sort your results so those most likely to be useful will appear first.

If after applying filters or otherwise narrowing your search, you still have a lot of hits, you can sort your hits in one of four ways. The default order in which the catalogue displays your results is by 'relevance'. This means it puts at the top all instances of your search term which appear in the main descriptive fields such as 'title' or 'scope', followed by instances of the term in other fields. You can change the order of your results by selecting one of the following options which appear along the top of your display of results:

Sort by reference code

This will display all results from an individual collection together, as the reference codes of all your hits will display in alpha-numeric order (the prefix of every record’s reference code corresponding to the unique reference code of the collection to which it belongs). This sort is useful if you are looking for results within a specific collection or collections.

Sort by title

This will display the titles of all your search hits in alphabetical order. This sort is useful if you are looking for a specific type of record, as all records with the title 'minute book' will be displayed together, as will all records with the title 'account book' etc.

Sort by date

This will display your results in date order. However, this type of sort needs to be used with care, as LMA's date descriptions, as mentioned above, are still in several different formats. This can skew your results, as the sort is performed over data at the beginning of the field. For example all instances of dates beginning 1975 will display together, but dates beginning 28 Mar 1763, 28 Mar 1764, 28 Mar 1865 will also display together, and all dates beginning 'circa' will also display together. LMA's house style is to catalogue dates with the 4-digit year first, followed by a 3-letter month and a 2-digit day, to allow easy searching and sorting of date fields. Unfortunately many records catalogued in previous years and decades are not in that format and it is these that will cause problems with a date sort. We are gradually changing all our dates into the house style, but until then beware of using a date sort on your search results.

Sort by relevance

As mentioned above this is the default order in which your results will display. If you have applied a reference code, title or date sort to your results and wish to return to the default order, you can do this by selecting 'sort by relevance'.

LMA's online catalogue - filtering search results

Making sense of your search results using Filter

If you have performed a search within LMA's online catalogue and have been given a bewildering number of results, you can refine your search to cut down the number of search hits.

When the catalogue displays a list of search results it also gives the option to apply a filter. You will find the filter options down the right hand side of your display of search results. There are three filters to choose from:

Filter by Level

This allows you to narrow your search to only those records which you can request to view in the Archive Study Area, or only to Collection (or top) level records. To narrow your search to records which can be requested to view, click next to File level; to narrow your search just to top level records, click next to Collection level. When you have chosen your level, click on the ‘apply filter’ button immediately beneath and your search results will be amended.

Filter by Date

This allows you to narrow your results to a specific century. At present it cannot restrict more specifically than to a century, as LMA's date descriptions are in many different formats which the software is unable to interpret. Click next to the century you require, or if you are looking for pre-17th century records, click on the first option (1000-1600), and then click on 'apply filter' immediately beneath.

Filter by Format

This allows you to narrow your search to a specific type of record, such as photographs, films, maps and plans etc. Filtering by the term 'textual document' will remove all non-textual records such as photographs, films, maps and plans etc from your results. Again, click on your format and then click on 'apply filter'.

Applying multiple filters; changing and removing filters

You can apply more than one of the above filters to your search results at any one time. If you change your mind about one or more of them, click on the ‘remove filter’ button immediately beneath the filter. To remove all filters you will need to click on 'remove filter' for each of the filters you have applied.

LMA's online catalogue - bookmarks

When you are searching LMA's online catalogue, bookmarks are a useful way to keep track of items which you may want to use in the future or catalogue entries you may want to refer to again.

To bookmark an item, click on 'Bookmark this item' at the bottom of the screen. Then to view your bookmarks, click on 'My bookmarks' under 'Your account' on the left hand panel on the screen. Once saved, a bookmark will remain on your personal list of bookmarked items until you remove it. Selected items from the list can be exported as a data file or printed out.

Bookmarks are separate from 'My requests' which lists the details of items which you have previously requested to see in the Archive Study Area at LMA and allows you to keep track of your current orders.

In both cases, if you click on the item reference you will be taken to the detailed catalogue entry for the item.

Events at LMA

LMA runs a diverse and vibrant events programme, including regular how to sessions, monthly clubs and groups, behind the scenes tours, talks, walks, seminars and conferences. Did you know that you can go to one convenient place to find out about everything that's on at LMA? Visit LMA's Eventbrite pages to see what's on and book your place.

Use LMA Sessions

If you are struggling with getting your head around our catalogue, don’t know where to begin with Family History, or would simply like an introduction to LMA, why not look into the regular Use LMA sessions run by our Public Services team?

Use LMA: Getting started offers a broad introduction to LMA and outlines how you can get started on using our resources to begin your research. This is ideal for users new to LMA.

Use LMA: Using the catalogue focuses on how we catalogue our records and gives practical advice and tips on using our electronic and paper finding aids to find the right records amongst our collections.

How to Use Digital Sources at LMA for Family History is an introduction to using the electronic records available on websites like to begin your family history research.

Each session lasts up to 45 minutes and is free to attend, though you do need to book in advance as numbers are limited. The two use LMA sessions are run twice a month each, while the Digital Sources session runs on the Thursday before our monthly Saturday opening, making it an ideal way to make a start with your family history before getting expert help from our Saturday Family History volunteers. Just check the LMA's Eventbrite website for upcoming dates.

Deciphering old handwriting

Having run palaeography sessions for LMA staff and volunteers, we are pleased to extend these to the public and invite you to a new workshop at LMA which will help you to decipher documents at LMA and online.

These practical sessions give expert help in reading different types of handwriting from the 18th to early 20th centuries. You will practise with copy documents from LMA's collections and get tips for deciphering all kinds of writing. Suitable for beginners.

To find out the next dates for this course, please visit our page on Eventbrite.

Please don't delay booking your place as we expect these workshops to be popular and numbers are limited to allow space for individual assistance. We will consider running sessions on 16th and 17th century handwriting if there is interest – if you might be interested in this, please email us via

If you cannot visit LMA, The National Archives have a good online palaeography tutorial which covers 16th-18th century handwriting. Dave Postles' course covers both medieval and early modern palaeography. Some other UK record offices and local studies libraries also run sessions on reading old handwriting so it's worth checking out what’s on offer close to where you live.

LMA Library

LMA Library

LMA's library of reference books provides a good source of background information about all aspects of London's history as well as holding titles which complement individual collections held in the archive. The library actively acquires new titles which relate to the history, geography or architecture of London as a whole or to the individual organisations represented in the archive, although as a rule it does not collect titles which relate only to specific London boroughs or small areas or districts of the capital.

Around ten percent of the library's volumes are available on the open shelves in LMA’s Information Area. Please feel free to browse the shelves, but remember that none of the books can be taken out of the Information Area. The shelves are arranged by subject and library reference and a guide to the subject areas and references is available on top of the library card catalogue at the back of the Information Area.

The remainder of the titles held in the library can be ordered using paper slips in the same way as items from the archive collections, although it is not possible to order library books online. After adding your name and the date to the slip, enter the shelfmark of the book, as it appears on the spine, in the Reference/Call Number area of the slip and circle 'Library Book' so our Service Assistants know to look for your item in the library. Also please add the name of the author and the title of the book in the relevant spaces on the slip.

At present, the catalogue of books held in the LMA library is split into two and it is highly recommended that you search both catalogues:

  • Details of books acquired by the library before or during 1995 can be found in the card catalogues at the back of LMA's Information Area - there is one catalogue for authors and one for subjects, the latter is searchable using the guide to references and subject areas available on top of the card catalogue.
  • Titles purchased by the library after 1995 can be found online as part of the City of London Library catalogue. To search for titles in the LMA library, choose the 'Build Search' option, enter your search term in the Search box, change the 'Author' menu item to 'Location' and choose 'London Metropolitan Archives' from the drop down list of Locations. When your results appear, click on the title of a book to access details of where it is held and how it can be ordered - please note that the reference to write on the paper slip to order a book at LMA can be found under 'Shelfmark'.

The City of London's Libraries Information Services Section are currently working to transfer the full contents of LMA's card catalogues into the online system. Eventually the aim is to have all of LMA's library holdings searchable online via the Guildhall Library catalogue, but with a library of 100,000 volumes to transfer this will take some time.

How to use citations properly

Archival documents held by LMA are used regularly during research for published books and articles. It is vital that documents are cited correctly within footnotes or bibliographies: to allow readers of the published works to research further into a subject by visiting LMA to consult the original documents used; and to enable the document to be easily identified by the researcher and by LMA staff. It is also important to record details of the archival collection to which a document belongs, both to add context and to allow identification of the copyright owner.

If you are planning on publishing your research, please read LMA's recently published guidelines for the citation of documents (120KB) to ensure that you record all the essential information in the correct format.

Searching the London Metropolitan Archives catalogue

This Top Tip deals with the nature of archival cataloguing and the problems and pitfalls it can cause when searching the LMA catalogue. The 'Help' option under the 'Search' banner in the left hand column of the electronic catalogue also contains some of this information – just click on the hyperlink 'How do archive catalogues work?'

Unlike library books which stand on their own, archival items can only be understood in relation to other documents within the same collection. For example, a set of minute books may have been created by a specific team within a specific department of a large organisation and the team, department and organisation will all have created many other types of record in the course of business which may have a direct or indirect bearing on the information in the minutes. One of these minute books can therefore only be put into context if a researcher knows which organisation, department and team it originated from. This is the basic premise of archival cataloguing, which is necessarily hierarchical as it sometimes needs to describe large numbers of items in relation to each other, and to address questions such as 'who created these items, which team, which department', 'why were they created', 'what else did that team create'? There will be a number of different levels within the hierarchy, which can be seen in terms of a family tree, with the organisation at the top, followed by its departments, then maybe teams within that department, then different series or types of records created by that team, then finally the individual volumes or files within that series. All our catalogues at LMA are arranged in this way and we use between three and six levels of the 'tree' for every catalogue we produce, depending on the complexity of the creating organisation.

The levels we use are as follows:

  • Collection. The record describing the overall creating organisation
  • Group. Usually a department within the organisation, only used for more complex collections
  • Series. Often a type of record such as 'minutes', 'ledgers' etc. or a Team/Section within a Department
  • Sub-series. Only used with complex collections, again for individual creating sections or types of record
  • File. The main 'producible unit' which can be ordered from our strongrooms, usually an individual file, bundle or volume, box of photographs or map
  • Item. Used when we have catalogued a specific File to a more detailed degree, for example when photographs within an album have been individually listed

This hierarchical cataloguing can be difficult to translate into a searchable electronic form. This is because different pieces of information are held at different levels in an organisation's 'family tree' and most software is unable to search more than one level at a time. For example, if someone was looking for a minute book for the Finance Committee of the Camden branch of the Family Welfare Association and they entered 'Family Welfare Association Camden Finance minute book' into the Simple Search box on our electronic catalogue, they would get no hits. This is because that information is available in our catalogue at three different levels and the software is unable to put the three levels together in one search. The information concerning the Family Welfare Association sits at one level, records created by the branch area covering Camden are at the next level down and the Finance Committee minutes sit at a lower level as one of the many types of administrative records created by that branch.

The easiest way to navigate the LMA catalogue, and minimise this particular issue with hierarchical cataloguing, is to perform your search in stages. Start with the name of the organisation you wish to search within. Searching for Family Welfare Association will bring up the collection level record for the whole of that organisation. You can then use the 'level down' button to navigate your way through the collection. You will find the Camden, Islington, Hackney, City and Tower Hamlets area at the next level down; choosing that record and 'level down' again will give you the options of Administrative Records or Case Papers for that branch. The same process on Administrative Records will find the Finance Committee minutes. Don't forget that if you prefer, you can browse the full catalogue of an organisation in pdf form, as if it was a paper catalogue. Stay within the Collection level record and choose the 'Catalogue' option.

This hierarchical cataloguing may also cause confusion when searching for more general terms, as you may find that the results returned are at various levels and have been taken from the 'trees' of several collections. A search on 'Smithfield Market' will return hundreds of results, at Collection, Group, File and Item level, for many different collections. We have tried to make this a little easier for you by always telling you which level a record is at, and also which collection it is from, ie its ultimate creating organisation. It is important to remember that you can only order a record which is at ‘File’ level. This is because records at Collection, Group, Series or Sub-series may, of course, consist of dozens, hundreds or even thousands of documents. Conversely, records at Item level may be bound into volume or album form and naturally we cannot produce less than the whole volume or album. You can use the 'level down' button to navigate to the File level, or 'level up' if you find yourself at Item level.

We want you to be able to access LMA's collections as smoothly as possible so if you have any specific queries relating to the catalogue, please contact

Revised user regulations 2014

Useful tips from LMA staff to help you get the most out of our resources.

Revised user regulations

Like all major archives and libraries, LMA has rules to ensure the security and protection of the items held here. We know it can be confusing for users, particularly those visiting for the first time, so in 2014 we reviewed and revised our visitor regulations (130KB) to make things clearer. We would ask that you help us to safeguard the records by taking a few moments to read them. You will also find a quick checklist of items which can be taken into the research areas and those which are prohibited. This list is available to read in our Visitor Lounge so that you can do a final check when you still have easy access to the secure lockers.