Today we visited the superstar of British archives: the National Archive in Kew. They hold books, scrolls, and maps, and everything else archive worthy from British history.
I visited the archive together with my husband to look at maps of our home towns from the past. In my case, these are hand drawn maps of the colonial era Hong Kong. In his case, these are maps of Berlin and Germany used by the allied military in World War II.
If you want to visit the archive yourself to look at things, you have to register online for an account. The process is hassle-free and in the unlikely event that you do mess up your registration, the archive staff replies to emails quickly and gets you started. An interesting tidbit about the registration is the compulsory online course on proper item handling you have to pass before getting your account. It is made clear that generations of archive engineers have devised the perfect foam wedges and weights of all different shapes to fix whatever item you may want to study. Once you have your account, you can then use the online catalogue to reserve items. To do this, you need to specify your day of visit and the seat number you want to take in the reading room.
Now here comes the first tip to get the most fun out of your own archive trip: the reading room a bit crowded and the individual reading spaces are quite small. Because we wanted to look at maps, which are very large when unfolded, we requested to be upgraded to the “map room” which is a very nice room with huge tables, lots of space, and no allocated seating. This change comes however with a cumbersome procedure: all items have to be transferred upstairs. It takes a person about 30 seconds to ascend to the next floor, but in the archive world the many guidelines made it 15 minutes in archive time. And of course carrying your things upstairs yourself would be against protocol.
Afterwards there is another checkpoint at the map room. The general archive already has a rule of allowing only pencils as writing utensils and clear plastic bags to transport things, and we came prepared for that. However upon arriving, the friendly archive staff informed us that our pencil was too pointy and we would certainly understand that bringing it into the map room would put the precious documents at risk. In addition, the archive told us our bags were too noisy to be used inside the archive, as it might distract other archive users. Of course we were more than happy to be handed an archive grade clear plastic bag instead.
We arrived in the map room at the same time as our maps, and subsequently indulged in studying them in detail. The materials were impressive and we recommend everyone to go on a trip to the archive–to study the extraordinary materials and learn more about how to handle them.