The National Archives

01 Mar 2013

My British adventure is coming to a close. No matter how long eleven days seems in the planning, it speeds by in a flash. Today I spent a wonderful and highly productive day at The National Archives (TNA). Unfortunately, I missed my great friend (and a great friend to all genealogists) Audrey Collins, who was out with a bit of a cold.



The National Archives was created in 2003 when the Public Records Office (created in 1838) was merged with the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts (formed in 1869). Her Majesty’s Stationery Office was part of the Office of Public Sector Information which merged with TNA in 2006. TNA holds the records of England, Wales, and the United Kingdom. The records of Scotland are kept by the National Archives of Scotland, and those of Northern Ireland are held by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

TNA is located at Kew in the Richmond area of London. A friend of mine actually grew up on the street leading up to the archives, but not being a genealogist I’m afraid it was a bit lost on him, unfortunately. The building is rather modern, having been built in the 1990s. Access is free to everyone (not just British citizens). To access manuscript material, one needs to get a reader ticket (make sure you look pretty, because that photo on your reader card lasts for three years!).

The ground floor has a gift/bookshop, coffee/tea shop, and a cafeteria. This comes in handy, as there are not many restaurants close by. I usually arrive first thing, order my documents, then pop down for breakfast.  The main area is upstairs on the first floor (Yes, Americans, remember that in Europe the ground floor is the entrance level and the first floor is one flight up. You would call it the second floor, but you will get into trouble).

The first floor has dozens of computers for researchers. There is a desk where you enter to help first-timers get around. There are also two areas for consultation with staff to provide more detailed assistance with records and how to access them or to provide advice about your research problems. The TNA reference library is located on this floor as well. The London Family History Center is also temporarily located here, which is a great boon for researchers, as you get to access both collections in one place!

To access manuscripts, you swipe your reader card through the reader attached to every computer. You can order up to three documents at a time, providing you have no more than 21 items out at any given time. It usually takes between a half hour and 45 minutes for your materials to be paged, transported, and delivered to one of the reading rooms. When ordering for the first time for the day, you select a seat for the day, and everything is delivered to a locker in the manuscripts reading room on this floor.

The second floor reading room is for maps and oversize items. There is a staff consultation area on this floor as well. I spent a great deal of time on the second floor today, working with records of the British Army. I was surrounded by people using everything from 19th-century ship records to medieval court rolls (which are literally very long scrolls, all rolled up. The one drawback to working here is that half the room is sneezing and coughing from all of the stuff floating in the air from these ancient documents.

TNA has been working to digitize their collections in multiple ways. Some documents, such as passenger lists and census records, have been digitized and are available on commercial websites such as Ancestry and FindMyPast. Others are available on the TNA website. The Documents Online collections provide access to digital images of valuable original records, including wills from the Prerogative Court of Canterbury through 1857. For a small fee, you can download a PDF file of the original directly to your computer. In addition to documents online, a number of microfilm collections have been turned into “digital microfilm.” These items are marked in the Discovery catalog as such. You can view PDFs of the images. A number of these are indexes to non-digital collections. But with an index reference, you can order a copy of the material from their reproduction services.

TNA is a fantastic place to research. It is a bit of a tube ride from Central London to get there (about 45 minutes to an hour, depending on where you are), but it is worth every minute once you are there. One more day of research tomorrow before heading home. I shall be spending it at TNA to follow up on my findings so far this week. See you back in the States on Monday!