I made a small pilgrimage last Monday - to London to visit the National Archive in Kew. Last time I was there it was known as the Public Record Office and there was a lot of building work going on in the grounds. All the indexes were on paper and the canteen was shared with the staff who worked there. I remember sausage and chips, after a morning peering at manuscripts, with great fondness. Now it is a huge modern building with a restaurant, coffee bar and Internet cafe, all the indexing and procedures are computerised and, with the explosion of interest in family history, the place was buzzing.
Many of the documents you need for that type of research are available on line these days - from newspapers to census returns, but there is still a lot of material that you can only get at Kew. It wasn't family history I was after, though. I wanted access to original documents relating to the Second World War for a major academic project I hope to embark upon. The object of Monday's visit was to renew my reader's ticket - with that you can order documents over the Internet, before you visit. I'm planning an intensive research campaign, during the summer.
Having produced the necessary identification - and my old reader's ticket - the officials were suitably impressed. "Don't see one of those very often these days." Well it was nearly 20 years old! I got my new swipe card, complete with picture. Less said about that, the better.
The arrangements for viewing actual manuscripts are stringent - no bags, pens, anything that might cause damage and the rooms that are set aside are cool and quiet - in contrast to the bustle of the rest of the building.
I called up a few old friends - documents that I'd used all that time ago for my thesis - and waited for them to arrive. It's a bit like Xmas, the larger files are parcelled up with string. I unwrapped them and that was it - a direct link with the past. The documents were typed and hand written, they were fragile, they had that distinctive smell of old paper - I was reading and handling records produced over sixty years ago. It's a very strange feeling and one that I find addictive. I can't wait for my next visit.