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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Researching at the National Archives, Kew

The National Archives at Kew is one of the world's great treasures.  It's huge holdings, comprising over a billion documents covering a thousand years of history, have been digitized to a surprising extent (look at their website, and start hunting), but if you are a serious historian or genealogist, the odds are that you will have to pay a visit.

It is a rewarding experience in more ways than one, as it is one of the most efficient libraries around.  And, what's more, it's free!

On your first visit you will need to obtain a reader's ticket, as it can only be done in person.  It is an easy process, just as long as you have TWO crucial items of identification.  One must have your photograph -- your passport or driver's licence is usual.  The other holds hazards for the unwary foreign visitor -- it must be a formal document, addressed to you at your home address.  A utility bill such as your electricity account or your rates demand would work.  (They also suggest a credit card bill or bank statement, but for security reasons I don't personally recommend it.)  The main thing to remember is to pack something suitable before you leave New Zealand or wherever is your homeland, as it must be an original document; a faxed one will not work.  For other essential information, such as directions and opening hours, study the "Before you visit" page.

Once you have your reader's ticket, it is useful to call on the very pleasant, friendly officer at the help desk. If this is the first time you have researched in any repository, it would be worth attending the free 'New to Kew' talk at 11.30, for a general overlook, and then proceed to the specialist desks to find out how best to research your area of interest -- how to use the catalogue, order material, and so on.  Bring cash for photocopying, but the use of a digital camera (no flash!) is encouraged, to the extent of giving you a desk with good lighting.  And once you have that reader's ticket, carry it with you, as you will need it to order documents.  You can order six at a time now (it used to be three), and even more if they are from the same series.  Beware of some categories being held off-site (which I think means Cheshire), where 48 hours notice is required whether ordered on line or in person.

The reading rooms, though very comfortable, are HUGE, and as they have big windows (though not open) and people are coming through the doors all the time, it can be quite chilly.  So, it is a good idea to carry a cardigan or light jacket.

Getting there.

Trains are frequent and very convenient, and Kew Station is just a very pretty ten-minute walk away from the Archives, which are set in a beautiful and extensive park.  There is a lot of work being done on the underground system, so it is a very good idea to check the London transport website before you leave home or hotel.

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.

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