Introduction

The following text explains some specific archival terms and concepts and should allow you to successfully conduct research in the archives of the SBB Heritage Foundation, the archives of the Swiss Federal Railways. You will find more information on the archives and the foundation as a whole on our website www.sbbhistoric.ch. The menus and the individual menu items of this program are explained in the separate help file (button on the left with question mark).

Description of the SBB historical archives

Structure of the archives

The archives of SBB Historic are arranged according to provenance, i.e. according to where the funds came from. A system of order according to themes would be almost impossible to achieve in such a large archive. This structuring principle means, however, that you will have to search in several locations to cover a certain subject. Typical offices of origin are e.g. the General Secretariat of SBB, the marketing department of SBB or the former Gotthard Railroad Company.

Most of the time, your search will return the description of an archival item (document, photo, etc.) - also called metadata -, and not the archival item itself. You will have to come to our archives in Berne to see the item itself. In the photo archive as well as in the art and poster collections however, you will often find a digitized version of the original on-line. With the button imagelist (on the left of the screen) you can change into a view that displays only the items with a digitized version.

Important Note: Documents that are less than 30 years old (50 years in the case of sensitive personnel files) are protected by an access restriction. You will see the meta data for such documents; they can only be consulted by special permission, however. Photos are usually excluded from this rule. The use of film and video documents requires special permission due to copyright regulations.

The main departments of the archives

In the historical archive (Historisches Archiv), you will find the documents of the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) from their foundation in 1902 up to 1998 as well as the documents of the railroad companies bought by the Swiss federal government in order to establish the SBB (i.e. the Jura-Simplon and the Gotthard railways). You will also find some non-SBB funds (Fremdbestände) such as the technical archives of the Swiss Locomotive and Machine Factory (SLM) in Winterthur.

Documents from the limited company by special law, SBB AG, founded in 1999 as the current Swiss Federal Railways, are not yet to be found in this data base.

In the photo archive (Fotoarchiv), you will find a continually increasing selection from the photo collection of SBB. This collection contains over 350'000 images primarily after the 1940s (a good source for older railroad photography is the archive of the Swiss Transport Museum in Lucerne). As of 2009, about 200'000 descriptions of images are in the data bank, about 55'000 images are already available to view on-line. In the next few years, about 100'000 images should be available in digital form. The images are protected by a copyright marking. Through the shopping cart-function, you can order pictures for private use or purchase the rights for scientific or commercial use (for the applicable tariffs see www.sbbhistoric.ch).

The audiovisual archive (Film- und Videoarchiv) comprises more than 1'400 films and videos in different types (totaling 5'000 documents). The use of films and videos is restricted and the archive may only be visited upon appointment (E-Mail: roman.sticher@sbbhistoric.ch). The copying or screening of films and videos is subject to usage fees and copyright regulations.

The poster collection (Plakatsammlung) contains about 1'000 posters produced by the SBB marketing department as well as a large collection of posters on public transportation and tourism. In order to protect the fragile material, the poster collection is only accessible for scientific research. Posters cannot be loaned except for major exhibitions.

The art collection (Kunstsammlung) contains about 300 works of art, mostly original drafts for SBB posters, time table covers, etc. The art collection can also be consulted for research purposes only. Parts of the poster and art collections are regularly displayed in SBB-buildings and at exhibitions.

Researching in the archives

A first look at the archives

In the archive plan, a tree structure represents the diverse levels of the archive from the top (holdings) to the bottom (the individual documents). You can browse this tree at your leisure.

On the top levels (record group, series), you will usually find a short history of the organisation that provided the documents (history of archival fund) as well as the archival history. View this information by double-clicking the item in question.

The Full Text Search

The Full Text Search is a full text search mode that searches the most important fields of the data base. You can type in some words without knowledge of a search language and will get some quick results.

It can be useful to first limit the search to a certain part of the archive in the archive plan view (select the section you would like to search and then select reduce view to selected unit of description). Back in the quick search view, you can select whether to search in the whole archive, in the part just selected only or within the last search result. It is also possible to only search in a certain range of dates.

Examples: Uzwil (finds all archival items with a connection to the city or train station of Uzwil); Stellwerk mechanisch (finds diverse combinations of the two terms, also in diverse cases and the plural form. Most archival items were entered into the data bank in German, some in French); Rotte (also finds Rottenköchin and Rottenwagen); "Re 4/4 II" (when looking for locomotive types, the use of the quotation marks is important in order to find exactly the type you are looking for).

Important search hint: Also try the (German) plural form, an old way to write the term (especially geographical) or the term in another Swiss national language (German, French, some items also in Italian). Since the data was entered over a number of years and in different languages, the consistency of the data can not always be guaranteed.

The Field search

With the Field search function, the searches can be targeted very finely, including full text search over many fields and truncation. Please do consult the help file, since there are two different search languages for the normal search and the full text search.


The search by document type is usually not advisable, since not all archival items have been coded by type yet. It is better to use the reduce view function (see Full Text Search above).

How to continue?

Printing and saving search results

Search results can be displayed as a PDF-document with the PDF-button; they can then be saved as well as printed. If you need to create more complex lists and compilations, please use the Workbooks-function (see below).

Working with workbooks

With Query you can create so-called workbooks in order to store search results and sort them according to different criteria (reference number, year, or alphabetical by title). There is also a function to create and print PDF-documents. In order to use the workbooks-function, you need to sign up with your e-mail-address and a password (free).

How to order documents and photos

If you wish to order documents for consultation in our reading-room or reproductions of pictures please use the shopping cart. You may also send us a pdf-copy of your workbook (see above) by e-mail to the following address: lesesaal@sbbhistoric.ch. Please indicate the date you wish to visit us and please remember that we will need at least two working days to fulfill your order. Please call ahead to make sure the documents are ready: +41 (0) 56 566 52 22.

Please note that the reproduction of photos and larger archival plans is based on fees. You will find our usage guidelines, tariffs and the pre-order form mentioned above on our website www.sbbhistoric.ch.

Viewing of film and video documents

The use of film and sound documentation is subject to timely prior registration and agreement. The documentation may be viewed independently or under the supervision of archive employees during the archive's opening hours. Loans are only permitted in justified exceptional cases - such as the creation of a publication in the interests of SBB - and in the presence of written consent. Such exceptions are approved by archive management.

The basic service offered by the archive - providing documentation and allowing viewing - is generally free of charge. For more complex research lasting longer than half an hour, a fee will be charged. Independent viewings are only permitted if suitable consultation copies are available. Otherwise, a viewing is only permitted under the supervision of archive staff, for which additional costs apply. Services such as the copying or other reproduction of documents are fee-paying and will be performed by external providers.

You can help us improve!

The archival data base of SBB Historic contains over 500'000 records that have been entered by diverse persons over the time of 20 years. Please write to us about mistakes or additions - i.e. if you know where exactly a certain photo was taken. You can contact us at lesesaal@sbbhistoric.ch. Please mention the reference number (Signatur) of the document or the ID-number found at the bottom of the detail view, so we know which record to change. The corrections are added regularly and uploaded to the Internet regularly.

Thank you for your support!
The archive team of SBB Historic

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