Visiting the National Archives

As I've got some days off work soon I thought that rather than spending them on here (as I do at work) or in front of the tele I would go and visit the National Archives and try and do some more research on my family military history. Has anyone been there recently? And how easy is it to use the records?
Not sure but I think you have to book in advance.

This is an article I completed for another site about 14 months ago:

I have recently made my first visit to Kew, and thought I would share my thoughts and hints with those who live outside the London bubble and perhaps are contemplating their first ever trip to the Mothership.

1. Pre planning is vital prior to your first visit. Don't be over ambitious, set yourself a couple of aims. Try and understand from the NA website what is available to you. Pre register online for your readers ticket in advance of your visit, when you turn up, the booking process will only then take a couple of minutes, and means you will not have to queue. Remember to take Photo/Signature ID.

2. We were traveling from the north so we booked into The Ramada Ealing for £55 per room, carparking is £4 perday. We traveled in along the M40/A40. The hotel is only a right turn followed by a left turn from the A40, which is important if you don't know London. Additionally the hotel is only 200metres from Ealing Common Tube, which is one change and a couple of stops from the Tube at Kew. When you arrive at Kew Tube Stn, the Archive is a pleasant 5 Minute walk, and is well signposted.

3. On arrival at the National Archive, book in and receive your readers ticket.(remember each person entering will need one). Then make your way to the cloakroom, and make use of the free lockers for valuables. No bags can be taken past security, they will provide you with a large clear bag for your note book, camera, pencils etc.

4. At this point you then enter the "Mothership" proper. Many of the records are on Microfiche, if your familiar with Family Records Centres, the system is the same. If you have no previous experience, ask a member of staff, they are very helpful, and used to dealing with the same questions day in and day out. Another point to remember is that your Readers ticket gives you access to the NA online catalogue. There are PC's dotted throughout the research areas for you to make use of.

As an example, I wanted to find a court martial record from 1920. I logged onto one of the PC's, located the file ref for court martials in 1920, I then ordered it to be brought up from the vault, and allocated myself a desk space in the Document Reading Room, all this was done online using my readers ticket number. 30 minutes later, the very large handwritten book was available for me in my allocated pigeon hole. I then sat at my desk and 15 min's later had found the entry I was looking for. I then took the book to an adapted photocopier, which has a camera mounted above it, and photocopied the entry. Each copy costs 30 pence, alternatively you can take your own pictures(no flash).

5. Refreshments - The Archive has an excellent and reasonably priced cafe, which serves good hot and cold food, great coffee and is clean, modern and spacious.

6. Within the Archive, they provide leaflets for each area that you may be researching, they are more detailed than the ones provided on the website, and are an excellent tool for a beginner, as they give you all the file numbers for the specific documents. Take as many as you need while you are there, these will also help you plan further visits. If in doubt ask!!, the staff won't do your research for you, but will always give you a strand of thread to follow when you are completely up against a brick wall. Make a copy of everything you find of interest, it may become apparent after you leave the archive, that something that caught your eye but you ignored is important(I missed my grandfathers brother whilst looking through the merchant seamens cards......

Its a great place,
I echo all that is said above - it is a very user friendly place and certainly if you're looking at your family military history it should be a doddle as there are plenty of leaflets regarding individual service records.

To give you an idea it took me about 30 minutes to pull the records of one of my distant relatives who served with the Durham Light Infantry and was killed at Ypres in November 1917. That said I did a bit of research to start with in that all I had was his name and the fact that he was killed in Nov 1917. I first of all searched the Commonwealth War Grave site and from that got his service number and cap badge. Armed with that pulling the fiche with his record on at the National Archive was a doddle.

I then spent the rest of the time pulling the War Diaries of the Battalion, Brigade and Division for the period and reading those. Fascinating stuff and well worth visiting the place. The one word of caution is check that the place is open before you go - the place shuts occasionally for various reasons - I got caught out like that once but luckily I hadn't travelled far so it was no great drama. The website will tell you when they're open.
When I was at Kew for my dissertation, it was easy.
Cost one pound fifty, for "membership". Geneology was on 1st Floor (IIRC) and they had some "how to" leaflets for non Historians.
Go for it!
A top tip for TNA is to take a digital camera with you. You can copy as many documents as you like, both from the original and from microfilm, for FREE.

They do have an extensive range of copying facilities available from a standard Xerox to digital scans but they are expensive.

Over recent years TNA has improved remarkably. Ten years ago you had to search through paper indexes and card files, manually fill in a request slip and wait over an hour to get your documents. You were notified by bleeper that they had arrived then you'd queue at a counter to pick them up. Often most of your time there was spent tracking down the documents you needed.

Now you can use the online catalogue before you visit and even order your documents in advance. Ordering is computer based and the documents arrive in less than ten minutes and are left in your own locker.

Another tip. You cannot take anything into the reading rooms, apart from notepaper (they don't even like notebooks), a PENCIL, a laptop and digital camera. No coats, no bags, no food and no pens. Your gear can be left downstairs in lockers though.
Thanks for your input! It sounds like a really interesting place. I'm sure I could easily spend a day or two there looking up my family history. I think I'll go for it and let you know how I get on.
Take a digital camera, spare memory cards if you have them and plenty of batteries. Propelling pencils are also useful if you do a lot of scribbling.

No flash photography is allowed so make sure you can turn the flash off. Taping over the flash is the last resort but will obviously affect results.

The lighting in the reading rooms is not particularly bright so it's worth practising taking photos of documents at home to find the least unreliable settings. Consider black & white modes or turning up contrast settings.

Spend some time practising with the catalogue online - it's what they use on site. It is not particularly intuitive and can be a pain to find things that should be there. The staff at the information desks are a great help but obviously don't have the time to do everything for you.

Try to plan what you want to look at and pre-order your first batch so you can get straight to work (after you've ordered your second batch on site, of course).

The library is also very good but you can't photograph the books in the same way as you can the 'public' records.

It is daunting at first but you will soon get the hang of it. Then you can be daunted by the GBs of data you'll end up with at home...

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