A sunny Monday afternoon in February found the London Library Trainees visiting Britain’s National Archives, in the wonderfully suburban setting of Kew. A short walk down leafy streets brings visitors, rather abruptly, to the expansive National Archives.
The National Archives is a government department and serves as the official archive of the UK government. It stores and manages 900 years worth of records and takes the lead on information management policy, ensuring that today’s data is available for tomorrow’s researchers.
Helen Pye-Smith, Head Librarian of the Archive’s Library was our guide around the public areas of the archives. Helen explained the services available to visitors and the procedure for requesting and receiving archive material. Many of the trainees were surprised at the relaxed and informal atmosphere, which seemed to foster a sense of trust between staff and researchers.
We also received an overview of the kinds of materials collected by the archive. The archive is primarily used by those researching family history along with professional genealogists and historians. Census records are particularly popular and when first released often require staff to make special preparations in order to cope with the high demand for access. For the family history researcher the archives provide a wealth of electronic resources for free, which commercial genealogy websites often charge for.
The Library has been incorporated into the reading room and visitors are welcome to use the library for reference, borrowing is not permitted. The library mainly collects historical texts. Though the library is relatively large it is run by a small number of staff. As well as maintaining the library and its services, staff are also encouraged to take part in projects, often with a significant historical research element.
There is also a museum, which we didn’t get time to visit, mainly due to the absolute necessity to sample the cafe’s coffee and cake and to catch up on trainee news. With past exhibitions on topics ranging from alcohol to pirates, I think it would definitely warrant a return trip.