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Archives and Special Collections

Welcome to the Searching our Catalogues guide

This guide provides an overview of how to search for archives and rare books held by the University of Exeter.

The boxes below provide guidance and tips on how to search the catalogues, as well as links to the online catalogues, through which you can explore the collections further. 

Archives and rare books held by Special Collections are available for everyone - students, staff and members of the public - to access in our reading room for general interest or study. More information about accessing the collections can be found in our Visiting Heritage Collections LibGuide.

Searching for books


Rare books and reserve collections can be found by searching the University of Exeter Library catalogue

  • Enter a keyword, title or author in the search bar
  • To restrict the results to a specific time period, enter a date range under *Refine your results* and *Creation Date*
  • To restrict the results to results to Special Collections materials, select *Special Collections, Old Library* under *Location*


Once you have your search results in the Library Catalogue, use the 'Creation Date' option in the left hand column to refine results to a specific date range. You can then use the 'Sort by' dropdown under Refine your Results to display your search results in date order.

Once you have your search results displayed in the Library catalogue click on a book title to view the full item record.

From here you can scroll down to virtual browse. This allows you to browse a virtual bookshelf to see other similar titles shelved nearby. Click on the arrows to scroll through the shelves, click on a title to view the full item record.



Work to update this section for the new library catalogue is currently in progress

Watch the video explainer above for a quick guide to searching the archives catalogue

Searching for archives

Archive material can be found by searching the University of Exeter Special Collections archives catalogue

  • Narrow down your search by going into advanced search
  • Enter a keyword or title (you can search specific people as a keyword)
  • If you already know an item’s reference number you can search by this
  • Restrict the date to a specific period if required by entering a date range (e.g. 1910s, or 1900-1920)

EXAMPLE: A search for the keyword “Blast” restricted to 1910s will bring up 1 result:

 You can then click on the Ref No to see a more detailed catalogue entry:

Getting to grips with hierarchical structuring

Information in archives is arranged according to the person or organization that created it, to reflect how the records were created/ used. This results in hierarchical structuring. It also means that researchers may have to search across several archives (possibly in different countries) to get the fullest possible picture of their research topic.

Hierarchical structuring refers to the different levels of description in an archive catalogue, beginning with the fonds, or collection level. This top level description provides a broad overview of the archive as a whole, including its size, information on the origin of the collection and the creator, a date range, and information on catalogues or guides associated with the archive - often known as finding aids. It may also tell you whether there are any specific access conditions or copyright requirements.

The catalogue is then arranged in levels from largest [collection] to smallest [item] as below

  • Collection
  • Section
  • Series
  • File
  • Item

Not every archive will use all these levels, and occasionally there will be additional sub-levels for complex hierarchies. To view the full hierarchy of the archive collection that your search result belongs too, simply click on the Ref No in the detailed catalogue entry.

This will bring up a hierarchical depiction of that specific archive collection. You can then click on the plus symbols to expand the levels, and on individual record titles to open their detailed catalogue entries.


Viewing descriptions over several levels

With collections that have been fully catalogued the information tends to become more specific the further down the hierarchy you go. However, archivists try not to duplicate information down the levels so it is good practice to look at the collection, section, series, file and item descriptions from a particular items hierarchy in order to build up a full description of that item and where it fits within the archive collection.

Our reference numbers reflect the hierarchy of a record so EUL MS 397/8/3/1 denotes the collection (EUL MS 397), the section (/8), the series (/3) and the item (/1). The hierarchy of a record is always shown at the top of the catalogue entry for that record; click on these links to read the catalogue entry for each level.


Searching by reference number

You can search within one particular​ archive collection rather than the whole archive by entering the collection's Ref No into the advanced search. If you are searching using the Ref No for the entire collection (eg. EUL MS 397), or for a large section within this, consider using "/*" at the end so that all the records lower down the hierarchy within that collection will also be displayed in your search results.

  • A Ref No search for "EUL MS 397" will deliver one result – the collection level catalogue entry
  • A Ref No search for "EUL MS 397/*" will deliver 3171 results – all the catalogue entries for that collection


Assessing the amount of material

Take a look at the extent field for any search results you think you would like to research. This will provide you with an idea of how large that section is and allow you to judge whether it is practical for you to consult that much material in one visit. For example, in the image above you can see that the reference number EUL MS 397/8/3/1 comprises 1 item, however if you requested EUL MS 397/8/3 (the series level reference) it would comprise 129 items. If you request an entire collection/ section we may ask you to narrow it down as this can be several hundred boxes.


Information that is not on the catalogue

Collections that have not yet been fully catalogued may have legacy finding aids that aren’t on the online catalogue. Special Collections staff will be able to advise you on accessing these. It is always worth emailing Special Collections staff and asking for suggestions on material to research around your topic; we often know of connections that aren’t easily seen in the catalogue

Step-by-step tutorial for using the archives catalogue

This step-by-step tutorial will guide you through searching our archives catalogue and the key information to look for to make a request to view the materials in our dedicated Reading Room.

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