Our Visit to the National Archives

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 Photo of National Archives taken from Wikimedia Commons

On Wednesday 23rd November, MSc Library Science students from City were offered the chance to visit the National Archives in Kew (many thanks to David Haynes for organising everything for us). I just wanted to take this opportunity to share a few thoughts and observations on the day’s activities…

Once we had all arrived and had been ushered into the Training Room, we were greeted by Val Johnson and the programme began in earnest. Firstly, we heard from Chris Day about the role riots and public disturbances had played in the history of the Archives. Frustration at the voting restrictions in 19th century England (where only landowners had the vote and so-called rotten boroughs were disproportionately represented in the House of Commons) had led to a wave of popular protest, culminating in events such as the Peterloo Massacre in 1819. The reaction of the authorities was to quite literally read the Riot Act to the protesters (!) and this naturally led to a glut of paperwork which then needed a home. This certainly contributed to the founding of the Public Record Office in 1838, which was originally in Chancery Lane. The talk was a good illustration of how political events can have long-lasting and often unforeseen consequences. Chris’ section was then followed by Howard Davies giving us a brief overview of the history of the Archives which was both informative and entertaining. We were then split into two groups for the next lot of activities.

My group was first given a tour of the public exhibition gallery which had some interesting sights to take in. There was a display on the Cambridge Spies which looked intriguing (unfortunately time was a bit limited) and also items connected with William Shakespeare (it being the 400th anniversary of his death in 2016). There were also some eye-catching visual installations that were linked to the Somme centenary commemorations. I thought the one of the machine-gunner was particularly memorable, though a bit frightening…

After an introduction to the cataloguing system used by the Archives (I remember David Haynes asking some pertinent questions about metadata) and a short tea break, my group was then shown around the repositories by Document Services. Needless to say, there are a huge number of documents at the Kew site and a vast amount of space is needed to hold them (so much so that many of the lesser-requested items are now held in a former salt-mine in Cheshire), although they do use mobile shelving to cram in as much as possible. It was interesting to see the employees at work and impressive to find out that they aim to supply the document requested by a reader in under an hour. Understandably there is a system to control the climate in place at the repositories and, although there are alarms, it is usually the staff who report it if something seems wrong. It was also fascinating to see the variety of documents such as being shown a 18th century map of the British invading one of the French colonies in the West Indies (our guide explained that you can tell it was a British map because it showed the French running away!).

Once we returned to the Training Room, we were given a useful introduction to Discovery by Tom Storrar, which is the Archive’s online database which is free to use and contains documents like service records from the First World War. After that, Diana Newton gave a brief talk about the challenges of archiving all the web pages produced by the various departments of HM Government (she estimated there were around 800 URLs currently in use!). It can take a web crawler weeks to go through them all. And then it was time to head home so it just remains for me to thanks everyone at the Archives for putting together such a diverse programme for us.

 

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