Dec, 2007 | Publications

Published: Pathways & Passages volume 24, number 1, winter 2007.

Winston Churchill once opined that the final victory over an enemy is only possible by taking possession of that nation’s archives. This statement illustrates the huge significance that archival documents possess, both for the functioning of the country as well as to create a feeling of national unity among its citizens. It is therefore difficult to think about the future if we separate ourselves from the guardians of history and gather both spiritual and material heritage of a nation. It would not be an exaggeration to label them as the national memory of a people. The word archive itself does not come from the Greek word archaion, “ancient”, as many think, but from the word archeion, meaning “power”. Archives have gone hand in hand with government power from their very beginnings via the gathering and making available their records.

Every time period and every culture left behind numerous traces of the institutions which shaped them. Paper records, or records in other formats, constitute and archive in the modern sense of the word. The first archive in mankind’s history where in fact not paper records but Sumerian clay tablets. In Poland, the first archives appeared at the end of the 12th century, and were created by church institutions, cities, princes, and other members of the aristocracy. In the mid-14th century, the Crown Archives (Archiwum Koronne), also called the Kraków Archives, were established, and parts of this collection still survive to the present day. Over 2.000 documents from this collection which survived centuries of war are located at the Main Archive of Historical Documents (Archiwum Główne Akt Dawnych – AGAD) in Warsaw. Another 350 documents from this collection can be found at the Czartoryski Library in Krakow, and several other smaller parts of this archival collection are scattered among various institutions in Poland. These documents dealt with the holdings of the king, the events of his reign, and relations of the crown with other countries and the Church in Rome. They also confirmed laws made by the monarch and included international agreements, general laws, and privileges, laws pertaining to the royal treasury, and correspondence received by the king.

After Poland’s capital was moved from Krakow to Warsaw, two Crown Archives existed simultaneously in both cities, and they were largely of a diplomatic and political nature. The Warsaw Archive was destroyed, for the most part, during the Swedish Wars (1655 – 1660). In spite of that, a sizable number of documents survived and are currently housed at AGAD in Warsaw.

Other archives of considerable age also existed, such as the Archiwum Metryki Koronnej, which was a “travelling” archive of sorts, as its headquarters accompanied the King, wherever he was. This mobility ended in 1596 when Warsaw became the nation’s capital. The archival collection found a permanent home in the Royal Castle. This archive maintained registers of documents issued by the royal chancery. From the 12th to the 18th centuries, court archives were established for both land and civil courts. This era also witnessed the establishment of municipal archives (including monastic archives), the archives of schools, and institutions of higher learning, archives of schools and institutions of higher learning, archives of charitable institutions, as well as those of professional guilds.

During the partition period, the fate of the archives was dependent on the governments of Russia, Prussia and Austria who occupied Polish territory from the late 1700s to the end of the First World War. A large amount of archival material was seized by the occupying powers and shipped to places within these three empires. Catherine II, Czarina of Russia, was especially greedy in stripping Poland of archival materials. A portion of these sequestered materials was irrevocably lost. Poland currently has not recovered all of the documentation that was appropriated during these 123 years of enslavement. The central governments of these nations have retained many of these records, but more locally generated records may be possible to locate in Polish archives, especially within the borders of present-day Poland. Negotiations with neighboring nations for the return of these materials were begun in 1918 and continue to the present time. International agreements on the return of such material shave been made only with Austria and Czechoslovakia (that is, during the time that Czechoslovakia existed as a nation state).

Several month after regaining independence in 1918, the National Archives of the Republic of Poland were established. Aside from the central headquarters, regional archives were established in the provincial capitals, and municipal, church and personal archives began to recover from foreign occupation. Archivists in this time period had daunting tasks before them, namely the arrangement and description of materials created in the partition period which many of them had witnessed and lived through. The largest and most significant archives in the Interwar period were located in Lwów, Lublin, Kraków, Wilno, Poznań and Bydgoszcz. The Lwów archive had an especially large number of documents and materials of the Galician administration. The Wilno archives were also significant and collected an appreciable number of post-war materials. Many of these repositories of our national history unfortunately once again find themselves outside the borders of Poland.

The Second World War brought with it enormous losses in archival resources. The most pronounced losses were in Warsaw, where 90% of the collections were lost. Large losses were also seen in Poznań and Płock. Archivists and members of the general public are to be commended for their efforts in saving what was possible. The Polish people were well aware of the importance in protecting and preserving their national history and heritage and many removed and hid old registers and documents until a safe place could be found for them. Territorial changes after World War II forced Poland to restructure and rebuild its archive system. Poland lost nearly half its territory to the Soviet Union and received in recompense one-third of the area in the West. These territorial changes brought about numerous problems in determining which document collections were to be placed under the jurisdiction of which archive. It is estimated that in the western recovered territories (formerly under German administration), the Polish archives were able to obtain 50% of the resources. Even today, it has not been possible to determine what of the remainder of the other 50% were lost or destroyed and what is tucked away in various German archives. The arrangement and cataloging of these materials is on-going.

Today, Poland’s State Archives are quite well organized and fulfill their obligations in Largely satisfying manner. The main task of the modern archivist is that of preserving and describing collections and insuring their safety and integrity as well as making them available to scholars and interested parties. Archives also perform research and issue publications not only about their collections but on scholarly topics based in the documentation held within. Recently the polish archives have taken action to popularize them and make the general public aware of their existence and their collections. They also issue copies of materials held or issue certificates or descriptions of the content of documents that are unable to be copied because of their delicate condition.

The administrative offices of the Polish archive system (Naczelna Dyrekcja Archiwów Państwowych located at Długa street in Warsaw.

Oversees all archival functions in Poland. It’s director currently is Dr Sławomir Radoń.

There are three central archives in Warsaw.

The archives of Old Records (AGAD – Archiwum Główne Akt Dawnych), 7 Długa Street, Warsaw. This archive basically holds archival materials pertaining to the activities of the central government and partially conserves local nobility materials of the Polish Commonwealth, principally the oldest records created up until the Third Partition in the late 1700s. The exception, time-wise, are two collections which date from the 19th century. These include manuscript collections of wealthy magnate families such as Radziwiłłs, Paździeckis, Branickis, Potockis, and Zamoyskichs. To be found among the varied documentation of these leading families are university degrees, government and military appointments, and the granting of honorary citizenship. We visit the Archive of Old Records when we want to have an encounter with the true past of the Polish nation or if our genealogical research has led us to aristocratic roots. Here we find royal land grants, documentation of titles bestowed, and details of transactions conducted between the Crown and the nobility, especially from the Mazowsze, Podlasie, and Wielkopolska region. In short, we can discover confirmation of the blue blood which flows in our veins.

Archiwum Akt Nowych (Archive of Modern Records), 1 Hankiewicz Street, Warsaw. In general, this archive houses material created after 1918 by the central government as well as collections on notable individuals who were prominent political figures. From the genealogical point of view, most of the holdings of this archive do not lie in the sphere of our interest. One exception is the collection of materials on soldiers of the Home Army Underground (Armia Krajowa), which may contain genealogically pertinent material.

Archive of Mechanized Documentation (Archiwum Dokumentacji Mechanicznej) 1 Hankiewicz Street, Warsaw. This archive is a collection point for materials of an audio-visual nature and includes photographs plus radio and film broadcasts. The oldest collection is that of vintage postcards covering the period 1900-1960. Thanks to these postcards and photographs, we can become closer to the spirit of times gone by. If any of our ancestors took part in significant historical events, we may even be lucky enough to find our family member in the collection of images.

Poland currently has 31 state archives and 48 smaller branch archives. The state archives and their branches preserve the records of the local authorities and state institutions; the judiciary organs; administrative and self-governing bodies (including the records of towns); educational, religious, and social institutions and organizations; industrial enterprises and economic institutions; the archives of families and land estates; the papers of individuals; as well as various regional collections. The majority of these archive materials date from 19th and 20th centuries. Some contain records reaching back to medival times. The most valuable and oldest records are to be found in the state archives in Gdańska, Kraków, Olsztyn, Poznań, Szczecin, and Wrocław.

The main categories of documents held by the State Archives that are of interest to genealogists include vital records; church registers; records of monasteries and religious orders; censuses, notary and court records; and records of universities, guilds, schools, political parties and organizations, as well as those bodies whose purpose was to investigate claims of noble status

Each archive operates on two basic tenets – the geographical location where the records were created and keeping the record collection intact in its entirety. At times, these two basic principles are in conflict. Also, not all archival collections have been processed and some are only partially processed. New materials come to the archives on a regularly schedule basis and create an ongoing need for processing. Each archive will have a guidebook which may be very specific or merely a generalized description of the holdings. There are also thematic inventories which span various record collections (i.e. passport records, which can be found in the documentation of various record collections) A great help to researchs are various databases created by the State Archives, such as SEZAM, PRADZIAD, ELA and IZA, which can be accessed on the internet pages of the State Archives ( ) However, it is also a good idea to compare the information obtained from the databases with the published archival guides or by being in contact with the archive itself.

Access to the materials in the archives is free. Photocopies of materials, when permitted, must be paid for. Each archive determines the fees for photocopies and these range from 5 – 15 złotys per page (approximately 2-6 dollars) Many archives also have digital equipment and can take photographs of documents for clients. Only a small percentage of the archival collection have been microfilmed. Every person using the services of the archive must fill out a form providing personal data and the subject of his or her research. Archival officials compile topics being researched and the collections used to do this research to determine which record groups are heavily used by the public. Every archive is monitored by camera; any inappropriate behavior will be seen by archival officials and legal action will be taken against any individual committing criminal acts. As of 2000, foreign researchers do not need the permission of the central archives in Warsaw to utilize the Polish State Archives. This permission is now granted by the director of each individual archive.

Every visit to an archive is a visit to the past, both a material and spiritual visit. Touching the old registers takes us back in history to a different time and places. The moment at which we see our grandmothers birth certificate, signed by our great-grandfather is akin to a mystical contact with our ancestors. Seeing their names on the yellowed pages of a register inspires us to further research as is they beckon us to forge on…. And we will!


  1. Archiwa Polskie i ich Zbiory – praca zbiorowa pod redakcją Kazimierza Kozłowskiego, Warszawa-Szczecin 2000
  2. State archives website:

Two years have passed since this article was published. During this time significant changes were introduced to the way the archives are operated.

  1. The fee for a xerox or digital photo of a record is still set individually by each archives office. However, this fee is a little bit lower, from 5-15 it went down to 2-10 zlotys.
  2. Archive of Mechanized Documentation (Archiwum Dokumentacji Mechanicznej) 1 Hankiewicz Street, Warsaw, has changed its name into National Digital Archives (Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe). . NAC gradually makes its records avaialble on the internet, so its worth checking.
  3. A lot of effort is being put to introduce the integrated system of archival information – ZoSIA. The introduction of this system will allow the users to search the archival data more easily.