So is a trip to the national archives really worth it? When I went a short while ago, for my area of research, it certainly seemed not. Researching in advance is most definitely worthwhile. You can see what documents are available before you arrive and therefore you have some idea of what you’re looking for. Also, many documents are available online and so this could save you a trip altogether.
It might take you quite a while to get there. It’s on the end of one of the tube lines and then involves a 10 minute walk from Kew Gardens Station. It isn’t a stressful experience as it is well signposted which is incredibly useful. When arriving at the archive building there is a reception area that helps to point you in the right direction. Without it I think it would be a complicated place; at least they are there to start you off in the right direction. The usual rules apply when it comes to visiting record offices; no sharp objects, only pencils, no bags, etc. Lockers are provided free of charge which is useful so that you can store any other rubbish you may have carted along with you.
Registration is the next step in this very ordered process. The on-screen instruction manual on how to handle documents seriously questions the common sense of most of the population, yet must be necessary in that it even exists. It’s not the best system for those that are computer illiterate – a surprising number of people bearing in mind many people who visit the archives are more elderly and therefore have not been bought up with computers. Yet the process itself is reasonable simple. It’s worth noting that it’s worth doing your hair and make-up for the lovely photo they then take to put on your readers card. When you’ve got your card you are set up and ready to go.
So, you’ve been there for the best part of an hour (possibly after a long trip across London to get there), and all you’ve managed to achieve is a card that will allow you to access the documents that you wish to see. Next you have to find the documents on the computer system and order them so that you can see them. This requires booking a seat – fine in theory – only you have to select where you want to sit which is quite difficult if you’ve never been in the room before. Who knows whether sitting in one place is better than another when all you’ve got to judge it by is the computer screen? And then you can only order three documents at a time.
When you’re documents are ordered it is a reasonably simple process of finding your seat, collecting your documents and of course making sure that you are looking after them properly. You are free to use them for as long as you need. Just a shame mine weren’t as useful as I would have hoped. Not really the archives fault eh! The amount of information stored there is seriously impressive. The huge amount of documents cannot even be imaged.
If you want to go and get something to eat there is a café provided. You can also take your own food there which is nice. Means if you don’t want to spend your money there, you do at least have somewhere to eat anything you may have provided from home. It gives that much more flexibility. The surroundings of the building are also reasonably pleasant with an area of water and a small shopping park just round the corner which can provide a welcome break from the difficult research being undertaken at the archives.
Overall, a huge amount of documents and research is available at the archives. The location could be better but they make the most of their surroundings and at least sign post clearly. It is incredibly time-consuming the first time you visit because of getting your reading card, but after this initial visit, it becomes much easier just to head in and get on with it. Finding your documents is fairly straight forward on the computer system but do your research first and see what’s there! Allow the time to go through things properly rather than rushing and you shouldn’t have any problems!