How to get the most out of the Churchill Archive’s resources

  • What are the challenges in using an archive?
  • What is in the Churchill Archive?
  • The key principles – put into practice in our resources for schools
  • Using the whole archive

What are the challenges in using an archive?

For most students, the main challenge is usually that they either have no idea what an archive is or what it does, or they have an idea which isn’t quite right and then they struggle because the archive isn’t what they expected.

An archive isn’t a textbook which provides answers. It isn’t even a library which might contain reference books to find answers. An archive is a collection of the raw material – or ‘primary’ sources - which researchers, historians and writers use to create the textbooks and reference books. They differ from printed sources (books, journal articles) because they’re contemporary with the events described and were created by the people involved. Types of primary sources found in the Churchill Archive include letters, photographs, government documents, military commands.

Archives – or primary sources – are the evidence of what happened. That’s why they’re important.

This is what the Churchill Archive looks like – and where all the documents are kept – at the Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge, UK. (Copyright: Cambridge Newspapers)

This might look daunting and not much of an advantage to many students! In one respect this is true. If students simply want to find out the main events of a particular period then they’ll be better off with a textbook or in a library. But archives can take us deeper into the past ...

Textbooks might tell us what happened, but archives can tell us how people felt about what happened, how people reacted to what happened and in some cases why key players acted the way they did to make events happen. Archives give us the opportunity to interact with people from the past in their own words and images. Instead of us absorbing information second-hand, from authors of textbooks, archives allow us to explore for ourselves the values and assumptions, fears and worries, likes and dislikes and the highs and lows of life in the past.

Explore our guide to using primary sources.

What is in the Churchill Archive?

The Churchill Archive contains nearly 800,000 items. This includes private letters, speeches, telegrams, manuscripts, government transcripts and other key historical documents. Here’s just one example.

This is the telegram sent from ‘Admiralty’ (under Churchill) to All Ships, stating that the War Telegram, to be issued at midnight on 4 August 1914, would authorise the commencement of hostilities against Germany – and the start of the First World War.

As such, the Archive is a gold mine for historians, including students at school level. The range of documents and other materials means that this is much more than just the personal collection of one prominent man. For example, many of the letters which were written to Churchill were written by the people he represented as a Member of Parliament. So these letters tell us about the concerns of ordinary members of the public. In the same way, the other materials in the collection can be used to reveal much more about Churchill, his times and the people around him. Working with the archive is an excellent training ground for young historians, and it’s also excellent training in problem-solving and lateral thinking.

You can find out more about the potential ways to use the collection here.

The key principles – put into practice in our resources for schools

We believe that the most effective way to introduce students to archive sources and engage them with the materials is to present them with a challenge in the form of a document-based question - or investigation. The investigations provided are all centred on a challenging question which requires considerably more than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer and in most cases encourages students to challenge the very premise of the question itself.

In order to step up to this considerable challenge, students are provided with a range of documents from the Churchill Archive. They’re also provided with support in interpreting each document as an individual source but also as a source which is contributing to their view on the overarching enquiry question. The best way to learn the structure of the resources is probably to dive in and look around. However, there’s sometimes a danger that students can miss support material available to them so the following list of features might be helpful.


This page usually sets up some or all of the following points in order to ensure that students are clear about what they’re being asked to do and why they’re doing it:

  • the main subject of the investigation;
  • how and why the subject is significant;
  • the debate about the issue in question;
  • the main investigation question.


This isn’t a replacement for a textbook. It is meant to provide a helpful guide to the issue rather than a comprehensive summary of the content. The Background page also provides recommended links for further reading. These are thoroughly checked and can be considered high quality and authoritative references.


Students are provided with a list of sources, usually between six and eight, which will help them to reach a judgement about the investigation question. They need to study each source individually but they also need to consider how the source contributes to their view on the main question in the investigation. As well as the document itself, the source pages contain a number of supporting features:

  • Simplified transcript: Many of the sources are complex and use technical terms or difficult language. This feature simplifies the source, although the simplified version may not be adequate to tackle all of the tasks set on the source.
  • Transcript: This is designed to help particularly in cases where a document is handwritten or difficult to read for some other reason. It can also be used by students if they want to quote an extract from a document by copying and pasting into an essay or a report.
  • What is this source? This is an extended version of the caption, adding a little more detail about the nature or context of the source. This can be very useful in deciding how far students accept the account being set out in the source, or possibly how typical the view in the source is compared to the views of the wider public.
  • Background to this source: This feature provides general background in terms of events relating to the source or referred to in the source. Where available, the feature also provides additional information about the provenance of the source.
  • How can we use this source in the investigation? This section comprises two parts. In the ‘Surface level’ section students are given relatively simple comprehension questions mainly as a guide to key points in the document. These questions should be seen as a stepping stone. Once students are familiar with the content they can begin to interpret it, although most students tend not to work in this linear fashion and begin to think as they comprehend. The ‘Deeper level’ section requires more thought and analysis and takes the form of hypotheses to test. Ideally students would begin to make inferences like the ones in these sections for themselves but this is a skill which needs to be developed and practiced.
  • Need some help interpreting the source? In this section students might be given some leading questions or simply some more detailed contextual information which might help them unlock the meaning within the document.

Flexibility in using the resources

At the risk of stating the obvious, neither teachers nor students are restricted to using the investigations as they’re set out. They may not align fully with the courses being taught. Teachers may feel that they simply don’t have enough time to tackle whole investigations. Teachers should feel free to use the sources, and indeed the Background page and other resources, in ways which suit them. For example, one source might prove to be very useful as an engaging starting point for a lesson. A source might be chosen because of its powerful content. For example, the graph below gives a very real sense of the devastating effects of the U-Boat campaign against British shipping in the Battle of the Atlantic.

  • Challenge students to apply their historical knowledge and the methods of the historian outside the history classroom

Example: When looking at websites which inform or purport to inform about historical events, students who have a good working knowledge of the subject matter and understand how the historian works will question not only the content but also the purpose and intent of the author of that content.

This set of approaches is adapted from ‘What’s History Got To Do With Me?’, an online resource from the Historical Association (England). The resource is free to access if you log in to the site. The resource contains a wide range of worked examples and resources on how to help students to see the importance of what they are studying and to care about modern world history and, indeed, history in general.

Image: CHAR 20/238/3 - graph of shipping losses.

Alternatively, a source might be chosen because it presents challenges which allow teachers to model for students the kind of thinking required to flourish in history. Look at the example below. The first challenge is the handwriting, of course. But this needn’t be a problem – and can even be an advantage. By pretending that you, the teacher, are struggling to read it, you can draw students in as they try to ‘help’ you. (But you’ll find that the catalogue description within the Archive is a useful tool for helping you to check you’ve deciphered the handwriting correctly, as well as giving lots of other information, too).

Once the writing is deciphered, we discover that a senior Liberal politician is telling Churchill his copy of Seebohm Rowntree’s book Poverty: A Study in Town Life has been lent. This might seem mundane at first but there’s a mass of thinking to be done on the basis of this letter and a range of inferences which can be drawn and this source could be used to model the process. By projecting the source on to a whiteboard or copying it into PowerPoint presentation teachers could get students to consider what can be learned from the source by building up answers to a series of questions.

In the example below the teacher is encouraging pupils to think about the significance of the fact that two very important, wealthy and powerful people are showing an interest in a study of social problems. This in turn suggests that Rowntree’s research had a profound effect. This in turn suggests that powerful people are concerned about social problems and are looking for possible measures to tackle the problems.

Click here to download this resource as a PowerPoint file.

There are numerous other ways of adapting the sources in the investigations to specific situations and purposes.

• Teachers could divide classes into groups and get these groups to study smaller collections and then report back on the sources they have studied.
• The sources can be used independently of the questions. Students could be given one or more sources and simply asked what they think ‘their’ sources reveal. Possible areas to consider might be whether particular sources provide examples of attempts to:

  • persuade
  • criticise
  • warn
  • persuade
  • complain

Using the whole archive

We very much hope that using the resources we’ve provided will give students and teachers a taste for exploring and using the complete archive. If so, our guide, ‘Ask the Archivist’ – or ‘How do I use the Churchill Archive?’, written by the archivist at the Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge, provides the best advice you can get. Good luck!