Sunday, August 29, 2010
Researching at the National Archives, Kew
If you are driving, you will find there is a small car park attached to The National Archives. At one time, according to one researcher, one drove in, parked and that was that. Since early this year they have restricted access, and charges are going to be introduced on 14 September. Apparently, you will have to book and pay on the day before; to find out how to do it, keep up with the news.
The website specifies what is and what is not allowed, and the staff at the entry to the archive library are strict. Keeping everything in a transparent plastic bag is a good idea, but it will be inspected thoroughly. You will have to open your laptop on leaving the reading room, so the security staff can make sure a document hasn't been slipped inside. Free lockers are available just outside the archive area, and you will have to store your laptop bag there, along with other forbidden items, such as food and drink. Cameras need to be registered on first checking in. You are allowed to carry your mobile phone and take photographs with it, but it must be in silent mode, and only texting, not talking, is allowed.
It doesn't need much imagination to guess what damage could be done to the historical records, either by accident or design. Pencil erasers are banned, as there is a great deal of value in the pencilled notes left in the margins of Admiralty papers by long-dead officials and early researchers like John Hawkesworth. This rule has now been extended to the small erasers to be found on the back end of both wooden pencils and push-pencils - they are removed at the turnstiles and left on the security officer's desk for you to pick up and re-insert on departure. This poses a hazard for the unwary. I always carry mechanical pencils -- the sort that you push at the end to release more lead -- and was quite happy for the little eraser to be removed. It was not until my first attempt to take notes led to a spectacular scattering of leads all over the table that I belatedly realized the eraser does double duty, as it holds the leads inside the casing of the pencil. Ron very cleverly solved the problem by cutting the little eraser short -- not much fun when you are doing crossword puzzles and sudoku, but equally impossible to use for erasing important archival material.
Nothing with a blade is allowed, for obvious reasons, so there are pencil-sharpeners at the enquiry desks in each of the document reading rooms. There are also security cameras in the ceiling, so be aware that everything you do will be watched.
Feeding the inner researcher
There are coffee bars and a restaurant on the ground floor, as well as vending machines for drinks. After the privatisation of this complex, eating of food procured elsewhere was banned, but this led to such an outcry that the ban was repealed, and you can now use the restaurant for eating your own (cheaper) food. There are two counters, one a coffee bar with sandwiches, toasties and so on, and with a coffee-card system whereby every sixth (or is it seventh?) cup of coffee is free. If you can afford it, the food is tasty and wholesome and with reasonable portions. A reader recommends the baked potato (always standard cheese, but fillings such as tuna are available) or soup-and-a-muffin. Either way, it costs about five pounds, including a large strong coffee.
It is possible to eat in the village, just a ten minute walk away. I noticed a fish and chip shop, and also a restaurant and bar in the railway station. The Maids of Honour restaurant at 288 Kew Road is recommended by a fellow researcher, and I see from the website that the snack menu is very enticing. As another friend observed, though, if you want to lash out on a "real" meal, it might have to be reserved for celebrating some marvellous and unexpected find in the archives - the dinner menu looks scrumptious but not at all cheap.
Hopefully, you will find this once-over-lightly useful. I thank Nicholas Blake, David Asprey, John Weiss, Allan George, and Martin Evans for their lively input.