The Churchill Archive

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    Bloomsbury Publishing launched a digital version of the Winston Churchill archives in October, 2012. The archive is held in the Churchill Archives Centre (CAC) at Churchill College, in Cambridge.

    May 17, 2024 7:37pm
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    Bloomsbury Publishing launched a digital version of the Winston Churchill archives in October, 2012. The archive is held in the Churchill Archives Centre (CAC) at Churchill College, in Cambridge.

    The content, amounting to more than 800,000 pages from 1874 to 1965, is comprised of letters, public and political papers including correspondence with Stalin and Roosevelt, literary papers, and speeches. This documentation of over six decades of the life of the famous wartime prime minister contains correspondence with constituents, government leaders, and important figures in British 20th-century society. In addition to critical policies carried out during World War II, documents address the rise of the Cold War standoff with Soviet Russia, as defined in Churchill’s seminal “Iron Curtain” speech. It will support research topics on many aspects of British culture and politics in addition to World War I, World War II, and the Cold War.

    On the provenance of the Churchill materials, the CAC reports that “Churchill College began to collect papers in 1965, with the papers of Clement Attlee being the first collection. The Archives Centre was purpose-built in 1973 to house the papers of Sir Winston Churchill. His papers dealing with his life after 1945 were given to the college by his wife but the papers dealing with his life pre-1945 remained in family ownership (though housed in the Archives Centre) until 1995 when they were bought for the nation. The grant to purchase the papers also included funding for a dedicated team of archivists to catalogue the papers. This task took a team of five archivists five years to complete: the catalogue to the Churchill papers was finished at the end of 2000 and was made available online 12 months later.”

    The archive consists of two parts: the Chartwell papers (acquired in 1995),  which cover the years up through July 1945; and the postwar material, known as the Churchill papers, covering 1945–65. The Chartwell papers, initially arranged and cataloged by the British Public Record Office (PRO), comprise 3,640 files in approximately 1,385 boxes. The postwar Churchill papers comprise 1,412 files in approximately 800 boxes. The online archive is planned to include more than 800,000 individual page files.

    More than 90 percent of the materials are being digitized for the first time. The content is primarily high-quality image files with less than 1 percent color images, and some full-text files. Full-text is primarily limited to the planned contextual essays, ebooks, and document annotations. The publisher inidcates a commitment to select original documents for transcription, placing a priority on those referenced by the contextual essays, but also inviting users to recommend items for transcription. It is curious, since a large part of the correspondence is in typescript, why it was not OCR'd to render a broader range of at least minimally searchable text.

    The publishers designed the database to include an expanding collection of secondary pedagogical and contextual resources, including ebooks, reading lists, and teaching modules on themes such as “Churchill and Empire” and “The Cold War.” It will link to selected external resources including video and audio files, contemporary newspaper articles, and biographical databases. (Some external links are to subscription resources such as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.) An announcement indicated that individual book titles would also be published as ebooks by RosettaBooks LLC, with up to 40 originally expected by spring  2013.1

    Selected documents from the CAC and the Chartwell papers have been on exhibit at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York from June to September 2012.2


    With 70,000 entries, the 2001 online catalog of the Churchill Archive is extensive and has a robust interface. It provides access to personal and corporate names, places, and topics. Many document annotations are quite detailed.

    The platform functions are based on the structure of the archival cataloging metadata, In fact, there is an option of simply browsing the catalog directly. On the database interface itself the user can browse major topics or search, and can apply various faceted filters to either, such as region, time period, or additional topics. While the logic of the archival-type cataloging seems very straightforward, there are challenging limitations to accessing specific document items within folders, or pages within longer documents. Indexing is applied to headings and annotations for full documents or folders; there are currently very few transcribed or OCR'd documents. A search result can lead the user to a folder of dozens or hundreds of pages, with no specific indication of where the indexed term resides. Documents are not even marked up to indicate the beginning and ending of a multi-page letter, or page numbers for larger documents (such as the 155 page Colonial Conference  document from 1902, CHAR 10/1).

    There are a few idiosyncracies to the interface design which could use improvement as well. The user might imagine that the prompt "search again" is an option for clearing a search; instead it is the command for applying limitations to search results.  In the prompt for clearing a search or browse is very hard to find. Also, when returning to search results there is no highlight to indicate which item has just been examined. Further, the repeated display of icons indicating the type of result is potentially annoying, since most results refer to catalog records for folders (indicated by picture of index cards), while references to broad facet terms are also included, as an apparent hybrid approach facilitating subject browsing within a search. A more useful application of labels for item type labels would be to differentiate specific document types such as letters, memos, or speeches. (This information is generally indicated in the annoations but it would be useful to filter results by document types.)

    The publishers originally announced plans to add personalized tools including citing, and extracting and sharing content. The sharing function seems to consist of providing persistent url's. They indicate that "feedback from the market has not highlighted annotation tools" as a priority.

    One interesting feature is the accessibility to the general public of the browse and search functions, rendering the folder annotations. Most page images of documents are not visible without paid access.


    The database will be available for annual, calendar year subscription or a one-time, perpetual access purchase. Purchasers will also be billed an annual hosting fee.

    Strengths and Weaknesses

    This digital collection offers a rich collection of background material on the political and cultural activities of a key twentieth-century historical figure. The interface could be more intuitive. A critical shortcoming to using the database lies in the lack of granular metadata: while the folder level cataloging is exemplary, the lack of item level indexing and page markup makes access to specific documents within folders, or to specific pages within longer documents very burdensome. Access would also be improved by further investment in OCR or transcription. The publisher's plans to continue adding supplementary materials is admirable and should support the use of the collection for education, although it is not clear how many of these materials will be accessible within the Churchill Archive digital collection itself.


    Center for Research Libraries

    • Virginia Kerr, Digital Program Manager

    Center for Research Libraries

    • Ann Okerson, Senior Advisor on Electronic Strategies
    Additional Reviews in Other Sources

    1Jeffrey Trachtentberg, "Churchill's Writings Headed for E-Books",  The Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2012.

    2Edward Rothstein, "Successes in Rhetoric: Language in the Life of Churchill," The New York Times, June 8, 2012.


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