Researching at Kew
A beginner's guide to the National Archives.

If you are travelling by train you will alight at Kew Gardens station. It is about 10 minutes flat walk to the National Archives but it is well signposted. Drivers should follow the directions on the National Archives website at  National Archives >>. There is a large public carpark, and a row of disabled parking bays at the back of the building; access to them is via a security barrier press the button to alert the security guard.

 

Researching at Kew
A beginner's guide to the National Archives.

If you are travelling by train you will alight at Kew Gardens station. It is about 10 minutes flat walk to the National Archives but it is well signposted. Drivers should follow the directions on the National Archives website at  National Archives >>. There is a large public carpark, and a row of disabled parking bays at the back of the building; access to them is via a security barrier press the button to alert the security guard.

If you have mobility problems but don’t have a disabled driver’s badge you may park there but you will need to put a note in the windscreen to that effect and notify the security guards inside that you have done so. If you don’t you may be tannoyed and asked to remove the car. There aren’t many disabled bays if they are all taken when you arrive, security turns a blind eye to people parking by the flower pots. There is good access for wheelchairs or disability scooters throughout the building, including the toilets. Loos are on the ground floor, and there is a disabled toilet on the top floor.

Inside the foyer you will need to have your bags checked, and then join the queue at the computer terminals where you put in your details, and collect your ticket. You will need to show some form of ID including your name and address. You can now register on line for your ticket but you will still need to take ID with you. There is more information on the website at  Access Planning >>. It is advisable to register in advance, your day will seem shorter than you expect so you need to do anything you can do to speed things up. If you have already decided what documents you will need, you may also order up to 3 in advance too. When you collect your ticket, you may be encouraged to join an orientation tour they are interesting, but you don’t have time to accept it.

Coats and bags need to be left downstairs in the cloakrooms there are lockers for valuables. You are only permitted to take 10 loose sheets of paper with you (but notepads are fine) and that includes any of your own reference material. It’s a good idea to check in any original documents that you have with you, with the security guards your papers should be checked when you leave, and it avoids any awkward questions. It’s lead pencils only, and no erasers. Security is tight, and while this may at times be a little frustrating, once you have seen HMS Victory’s logbook for the Battle of Trafalgar and realised that the signatures of Horatio Nelson have been sliced out you will realise why it has to be so.

You can buy pads and pencils in the shop but it’s cheaper to buy them elsewhere. Ignore the cafeteria for the moment and head upstairs to the documents! There are stairs, and a lift to all floors. To help you identify in advance any documents you need there are leaflets covering the main topics available on the website  leaflets >> and at Kew, The catalogue itself is at Catalogue >>. Staff working at the various help desks around the building are mostly very knowledgeable but you can help them a great deal if you arm yourself with all the possible information you might need.

Documents are ordered by swiping your card (Reader’s Ticket) and entering the document references into computer terminals in several locations around the building there are on-screen instructions, but the staff will help if you are stuck. At the time of writing, the main reading room requires you to have a seat number, but the top floor reading room (Map and Large Document Room) doesn’t you will need to put the seat number (or ‘MR’ if you know you will be in the Map Room) into the computer when you are prompted to do so, regardless of where in the building you are at the time.
Readers who bring a laptop computer will need a seat in an area set aside for the purpose on the first floor where the constant tap-tapping is less likely to interfere with other readers. On the same subject (of noise), talking is forbidden in the reading rooms, and some people find whispering even more irritating. If you absolutely have to speak, you need to keep it brief or the security guard on duty (or indeed fellow readers) are likely to ask you to be quiet! The bottom line is that if you want to talk, you will have to leave the reading rooms. The documents themselves will take around 40 minutes to get to the counter, less in very quiet times; large documents will be delivered to the counter in the Map Room. You can order three at a time, but the computer won’t allow you to order more while an earlier order is still being processed. There are various screens round the building including in the cafeteria where you can swipe your card and check on the progress of your order that saves gulping down a cup of hot coffee and rushing back to the counter only to find there is a hold up somewhere along the line.

There are photocopying areas in both rooms (the National Archives word for that is ‘reprographics’). There is a ‘while you wait’ facility if you only want a small number of copies; some large documents can’t be photocopied at all in which case you will be given various options instead scanning or digital images for example. You should be aware that photocopying is very much more expensive than most copy shops. Digital cameras are now permitted provided that their use does not damage the documents (no flash is allowed) and that is ideal if you want a large number of reproductions.

Some records have been filmed there are notes in the catalogue to tell you that, or you will get an on-screen message. The microfilm reading room is on the first floor - take a marker (card for fiche readers or box for film readers) from the table inside the door, the marker corresponds with the number on the machine. You may find it helpful first to locate the filing cabinet and note the number of the machine nearest to it. There are several card/coin op copying machines for self service copying, but there is often a queue.

After a couple of hours you will probably need to acquaint yourself with the cafeteria! It’s on the ground floor so you will have seen it on your way in. You may prefer to avoid the 12-2pm time when it tends to be at its busiest, but research doesn’t always fit in so you may have to put up with the queue. The food is good quality and well presented with an excellent choice from hot meals to sandwiches, but it is not cheap by any means – many people bring a packed lunch and rely on the cafeteria just for coffee. You should be prepared to do no more than two hours researching without a break, or you risk missing something vital.

A day at Kew can be tiring on the legs, the system can be a little daunting, and there is a fair bit of hanging around waiting you may well not achieve as much as you hoped. The secret of a successful day at Kew is planning. Opening times vary, and the office is closed on public holidays and at certain other times so double check the National Archives’ website before you leave home. Remember to register online for a ticket, and if possible order documents in advance. Make sure you have all the information you need, and take a back-up search with you how frustrating to complete a search (successfully or not) by 11am but not have names, dates or places to allow you to hunt for something else instead! Search the catalogue, read the leaflets and educate yourself as much as possible about what may or may not be found, before you leave home. If all else fails, you can hire a researcher to undertake the search on your behalf. There is a link on the National Archives website at  Hire A Researcher >>.

This information was current at the time of writing but the National Archives (Public Record Office) is constantly updating and reviewing its procedures so it is possible that some things will have changed you may wish to contact them at  Contact >>.

Finally, check that you really do need to go to Kew to view the documents you need!
Read ‘Are You In The Right Place?’ on the website at  Is Your Journey Really Necessary? >>.

Researching At the National Archives


Debbie Beavis