National Archives

On December 1st, I attended a tour of the National Archives at Kew, organised by the M25 Consortium of Research Libraries. The National Archives is the official archive of the UK government, which manages and preserves over 1,000 years worth of records and which works with 250 government and public sector bodies, helping them to manage and use information more effectively, as well as ensuring that the general public can access these records. They hold government, military and court records, as well as maps and historical documents. They also provide online access to resources kept elsewhere, such as births, marriages, deaths, census records, more recent military records, medical practice records, wills and parish registers.

National Archives

The tour was conducted by the Librarian of the National Archives, Helen Pye-Smith. We began by sitting in on the orientation talk given to all new visitors to the National Archives, which described, with the aid of power point and a sign language interpreter, how to search the catalogue, what resources were available, what events were on, and how to access different materials. After this, she showed us around and elaborated on the content of the talk as she showed us around the banks of computers on the first floor. As a great deal of material in the National Archives is now digitised, a decision has been made to allow the public to access this without a reader’s ticket. So once past the well-appointed bookshop, spacious cafĂ©, and museum showcasing the Domesday Book on the ground floor, the stairs lead to the first floor, full of computers, where members of the public can access online government, military and census records, print scanned documents off in A3 and speak to the staff at two specialised information desks. The space is also currently shared by the London Family History Centre, run by the Church of Latter Day Saints, which specialises in providing access to genealogical material.

Also on the first floor is the library. The space has recently been refurbished and is now entirely open-plan, as the previously-enclosed library had been difficult to find and was consequently not used by many visitors. The library is one of the few research-quality reference libraries in the UK that is accessible without a readers’ ticket to the general public. The collection is designed to complement the archives, focusing on topics pertaining to the records (government, military, social history), and the collection development policy is to primarily select works that use the archives as sources, meaning that in addition to providing further information on topics to those researching, they can also provide further sources and directions for research within the archives themselves. Incorporating the library into the general research floor also involved a restructuring of library staffing. Rather than manning a dedicated library information desk, the library staff were given additional training and now work on one of the floor’s general information desks, answering queries about archive searches as well as the library, a set up which has proved fruitful both for archive users and for the staff themselves, who have gained a much more comprehensive picture of how the collection relates to the records and documents held, and how they are used.

London - Archive Research

We then moved to the other side of the floor, to view the document reading room. To consult documents themselves, a reader's ticket is required. This can be gained by anyone on the provision of two forms of ID, but also requires those registering to undertake a short document-handling course and quiz on a computer, which must be successfully completed before a card can be issued. Documents can then be ordered up from the catalogue, and the reader is assigned a seat and locker number. After the document has been brought out from storage, it is placed in the numbered locker for collection, and must be taken to the assigned desk. As these records are unique, security is very high, with uniformed staff patrolling the desks and many security cameras – allowing a wide variety of access to these records is not without its challenges! However, while they take great pains to avoid any documents being mistreated, they also go to great lengths to make sure that people can record the documents in the best possible format for their research. They not only allow and provide stations for people to photograph documents with their own cameras, but also have set up cameras on adjustable frames, connected to computers, from which researchers can photograph documents and email the images to themselves (USB sticks and similar are not allowed as they could potentially introduce viruses). They also provide a copying and scanning service for larger documents.

London - Research Material

The tour then progressed to the second floor, where readers could register for tickets and where the maps and large documents reading room is situated. This room provides access to the largest, and usually oldest, documents, with big workspaces where they can be safely rolled out. The floor has a dedicated information desk, with staff well-versed in Latin, paleography (the study of historic handwriting), and even Norman French! Unlike the first floor, where many of the readers were more casual, perhaps researching family history, the second floor seemed to be the preserve of academics and researchers, although the National Archive offers online guides in deciphering older documents on its website which, along with the reading room's dedicated staff, should make older documents accessible to anyone with an interest!

After the tour was finished, the Librarian answered any questions that we had, such as why we were unable to go 'behind the scenes' (security concerns, though it is apparently a strange netherworld of archivists riding buggies around miles of shelves of identical brown cardboard boxes), the practicalities of registration and security, and the challenges of managing a library within an archive.

Altogether, a very interesting introduction to a fascinating place!

Images via Flickr users Ewan-M and Magh under Creative Commons.

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