The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

State Papers Online: tips and tricks, part 1

The Calendar of State Papers is a well-known historical resource for early modernists across a variety of disciplines. This “calendar,” or register, documents the workings of the British government during the reigns of the Tudors and Stuarts, 1509–1714. For decades, researchers used printed volumes of these calendars to search for the existence of specific documents.

Print edition of the Calendar of State Papers
Just some of the many volumes of the State Papers in the Folger’s Reading Room.

With the advent of online databases, and the cooperation of repositories such as the British Library and National Archives (where many of the documents recorded by the calendars are preserved), a database called the State Papers Online was created. It brings together not only all of the calendars but digitized versions of many of the actual documents, giving researchers a one-stop shop for their needs.

Sounds like a dream, right?

In some ways, it is. But it can also be a very frustrating experience for researcher, as they try to find the materials that they think ought to be in this database. This series of posts will hopefully help to alleviate some of that frustration, by providing some tips and tricks for working with the State Papers Online. 1 

A few notes before we begin:

  • This post (and those following) assume a basic familiarity with the State Papers, both in terms of what they are/how they’re organized, and with the online interface.
  • State Papers Online is a subscription database. That means it is only accessible through institutions which have paid for it. For Folger Readers, you will be able to access it only when you are on-site here at the Folger. Other institutions may allow off-site access; if you are unsure, please contact the librarians at your institution.
  • My way is not the only way! These are tips and tricks that I’ve picked up from working with the database, and in consultation with the people who create the database. They may not work in every situation, and you may find methods that works better for you. Feel free to share in the comments!
  • This post will focus on how to find materials in the State Papers Online when you already have a citation, and you’re just trying to track down the specific calendar entry and/or document. A subsequent post will explore strategies for searching the database as a whole.

And so, we begin:

Many scholars approach the State Papers Online with a citation (cryptic though it might be) in-hand. Unfortunately, most citations to the State Papers consist of an SP number, a volume number, and document number (for example, “SP 11/1/15” refers to State Papers 11 (the Domestic Papers of Mary I), Volume 1, document number 15).

This is unfortunate because the way the documents of the State Papers have been digitized, you need a folio or page number, not a document number, in order to be able to jump directly to said document. There is, however, a work-around.

Browsing the State Papers—more clicks, fewer(?) frustrations

In these cases, one way to find the document that you’re looking for in State Papers Online is to use the database’s “Browse” function and navigate to the document that way, rather than trying to search for it.

When you click on “Browse” just below the State Papers header on the site, you will see that you have two options, Browse Manuscript and Browse Calendar:

The browse menus of State Papers Online
Browsing—more clicks, but you will get there!

For cases where you have a document number, rather than a folio or page number, you will want to browse the calendar entries. So for our example above, SP 11/1/15, you would choose Browse Calendar and scroll through the various calendars until you got to the one for the domestic papers of Mary I, and then click on it to bring up the calendar entries. You would then page through the Mary I calendar until you got to document 15:

Browsing to a specific calendar entry in the Mary I papers
We have found our document! Well, almost.

At the bottom of the calendar entry, you may see a button that says “View Manuscript”: 2

Link to manuscript from calendar entry
The manuscript is within reach!

If you click on that button, you will be taken to the digitized manuscript that corresponds with that calendar entry:

View of the document from the calendar entry
Do make note of the folio number once you’re here…

Does this seem cumbersome and clunky? Yes. Will it get you there? Absolutely. Unfortunately, because of the ways in which the calendars and documents have been digitized, you often have to choose between an access method that will be faster but may have to be repeated several times and might ultimately fail, or a method that will be slower and involve a great deal more clicking, but that is more likely to get you where you want to go in the end.

However, using this browsing method isn’t all bad news. If you have a citation that includes a specific folio number, your life is FAR easier. In these cases, you can skip browsing by the calendar entry, and go straight to browsing by manuscript. For example, if you had a citation that referred to “Cotton MS Caligula D VII fo. 216,” you could navigate to the browseable list of Cotton manuscripts:

Browseable list of Cotton manuscripts
Click on browse, and then expand the manuscript collection

And then select the manuscript you want. Clicking on it will bring you to the beginning of the digitized manuscript. In the upper right of that part of the screen, you will see the option to jump to a specific folio:

Document view from the browseable Cotton list
Select the manuscript, and then enter the folio number you want to jump to

Once you click “Go” next to the folio number you’ve entered, it will jump to that opening, and give you the option to view the calendar entry for that part of the manuscript (in this case, there are two options for calendar entries, because the verso on the left side is the end of the previous entry, while the recto on the right begins the next):

Folio 216 of the Cotton manuscript
Manuscript and calendar entry are both easily reachable—if you know the folio number!

Searching for a specific document—with a little bit of luck

As I intimated above, when you have a specific citation, browsing through either the calendars or manuscripts is not the only method to get you to your document. You can attempt to search for it. However, you need to know a few things ahead of time, and get a little bit lucky.

The Advanced Search page of the State Papers Online contains a myriad of options to help you navigate this complex series of resources. When you have a citation to a document already, the option you want to select from the drop-down menu is “Document reference number (drn)” and make sure that NO other options are selected anywhere on the page:

Advanced Search page with Document Reference Number selected
Search by Document Reference Number (DRN)

Of course, in order to effectively search by this number, you need to know how it is formatted, and have a complete citation (including the folio number). The DRN for the Mary I document is “SP 11/1 f.23” and the one for the Cotton manuscript is “Cotton Caligula D/VII f.216.” This format is followed fairly consistently for all of the collections that I checked, but getting the exact format right may involve a few attempts. 3

Even when you do have the exact formatting of the DRN correct, your search results may not always be as clear-cut as you would wish. For the Mary I document, my search actually yields two different results:

Search result showing both SP 11/1 and SP 1/11
Order matters.

You can see in the upper left corner of the image that I did indeed search for “SP 11/1 f.23”. However, the search engine doesn’t seem to be able to differentiate between 11/1 and 1/11, so I’m seeing the result for SP 1/11 f.23 as well as the one I’m looking for!

For the Cotton manuscript, I get two results as well, but this one has a more understandable explanation:

Two results for the Cotton manuscript
One manuscript, two collections.

This document, a letter from Sir Richard Wingfield to Cardinal Wolsey, appears in the calendars of both the Cotton collection and of the Henry VIII papers. Therefore, it is completely understandable that you should be able to access the manuscript from either entry point. You can see that both calendar entries are pointing back to the same document, as the DRN on both is the same.

In my experience, using the browsing method is more consistently reliable to get to specific documents. However, it can also be somewhat time consuming. If you have a long list documents that you are trying to track down, it may be worth your time to try to play with searching by DRN—assuming, of course, you know the folio number of your document.4

In my next post about the State Papers Online I will explore strategies for searching the calendars and documents when you do not already have a citation, and I will point out some of the database features such as printing or downloading document images.

EDIT:: Part 2 of the tips and tricks has now been posted!

  1. and, if nothing else, letting readers know that no, it isn’t just you!
  2. If you only see a button that says “View Calendar” it is because the manuscript for that entry has not yet been digitized, so all you will have is the calendar entry.
  3. When in doubt, pick a random manuscript from the collection you need and see how the DRN is formatted for that manuscript. The format should be consistent within a collection.
  4. And for goodness sake, be flexible! I encountered a situation where a reader and I knew, without a doubt, that a document existed. We were reasonably confident that the document had been digitized. But it wasn’t linked from the calendar entry. We were stumped, until we started flipping through the manuscript volume, page by page. Whereupon we discovered that only the odd numbered pages were indexed in the volume, and thus only the calendar entries on the odd numbered pages were linked. So we went to the odd numbered page near the document in question, and oh look what we found.

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