Thursday, 9 April 2009

Genealogy heaven

A visit to The (UK) National Archives last Tuesday, my first in two years, was a pleasure. Not only did I find the information I sought but the atmosphere made the occasion.

This started when I entered through the barrier into the FREE parking lot. You take a ticket to open the barrier and validate it inside the building just before leaving to exit the lot.

You know you're entering a building of significance as the entrance is suitably impressive. The information desk, staffed by two people and a security person with, as elsewhere in the building, security in the background. The atmosphere is one of welcoming visitors and facilitating their experience rather than regulating it.

The entrance also has a desk to sign up for FREE one hour access to the indexed 1911 census, available on 66 dedicated computers. When there is excess capacity you can book additional time.

There is a small cyber-cafe available in the entrance too. You walk past this, the bookstore, a small museum and adequate restaurant to the lockers and toilets. The main research room is up a flight of stairs. What was a series of rooms on my previous visits is now opened up into a large research room. Most of the space that was taken up with microfilm machines is now occupied by computers. They are modern so that response is usually fast, and there are lots of them.

The change of layout puzzled me for a bit. A staff member approached and asked if I needed help. She provided a ticket for the afternoon lecture and directed me to where I wanted to go. When I had trouble getting started on the computer a distinctively dressed person, with a name tag, all staff wore a name tag, was there to help. In 90 minutes, 60 with the 1911 census, 30 with Documents Online, I'd found more new information than I'd dreamed. Rather than making printouts I took digital camera images of the screen -- quite adequate for research purposes.

There was a wide selection of "How to .." guides, mostly just a single page with step by step instructions aimed at solving a particular problem rather than explaining a larger area of records. Examples are: "How to decide whether a seaman is a commissioned officer, warrant officer or rating", "How to find a Death Duty Register 1858-1903" and "How to find a Metropolitan Police Officer's record, 1830-1933 (MEPO 4)."

A large collection of historic publications, like military and street directories, were in the open area. Apparently the security cameras and other unobtrusive security were considered adequate protection so no reader pass was required to access any of the areas I visited that day. I noticed an area where reader passes were being issued for people who needed to access original documents.

Not everything was perfect. I couldn't get my laptop connected to the wi-fi system, and was told at the information desk it was OK to take pictures only to be told later my a security person that shots with other people in were not allowed, information that came a bit late.

These were small matters, ones I might have resolved with more time. I did drop a note in one of the prominently displayed suggestion boxes. A poster with the photos, names and responsibilities of TNA's senior managers displayed discretely in the entrance hall suggested another avenue for comment.

After attending a FREE afternoon lecture, which I'll blog later, I left feeling very positive about the experience, and it didn't cost a thing. But on leaving I did stop at the bookstore for the purchase of $100 worth of books.


Richard said...

Its nice to see such a positive review of our archives, thank you. People often focus on the negative and forget to mention the positive. It does make me wonder though - if so much is on pcs these days anyway, what's the real point in going there? You could have done most of the same research from your home.

Jacky said...

Fascinating entry - I've been promising myself that I would make the trip south to visit the archives for ages, now it's really enticing!
Do you just turn up and hunt, or do you have to book things ahead? Thanks for a great blog!