Celebrating 40 years of The National Archives at Kew

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23 February 2018
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Queen1978-25096.jpg The Queen visiting The National Archives at Kew on 23 February 1978
Four decades ago today (23 February 1978) The National Archives opened its doors to The Queen at Kew, London. And in the years that have followed many of us – family historians (and other visitors!) – have pored over the 11 million records, stored on its 155 miles of archival shelving, spanning a thousand years of history...

Four decades ago today (23 February 1978) The National Archives opened its doors to The Queen at Kew, London. And in the years that have followed many of us – family historians (and other visitors!) – have pored over the 11 million records, stored on its 155 miles of archival shelving, spanning a thousand years of history. This is quite some archive! Helen Tovey explores…

Now fondly known by the archives’ staff as ‘our Brutalist masterpiece’, the architecture of The National Archives at Kew is severe, even militaristic, but it certainly looks like a place that means business when it comes to the safe storage of the nation’s history.

While it exists to store the record of the past, the building itself is all about the future. It was the first fully air-conditioned archive in the world, and the first public building with a large-scale TV surveillance operation. From the outset a computer system was used for placing an order to view a document in the reading rooms. So vast are the archive collections that right from the beginning staff were equipped with bicycles (complete with storage boxes) to speed them on their way along the miles and miles of shelving to find those documents you’ve ordered (when you think of this, it’s remarkable that they can find a record for you within 40 minutes of you placing your request!).

Nowadays – in addition to the archives themselves at Kew – the Discovery website is a must-visit for family historians: search the catalogue, browse the gallery, order documents to view at Kew and downloads to pore over at home.

Currently 5 per cent of The National Archives’ collection has been digitised and made available on Discovery or partner websites, and this figure will only grow.

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Q&A with Audrey Collins, Records Specialist at The National Archives

The sheer scale of the archival holdings at Kew are mind-boggling, and the pace of technological change – providing ever-easier access to digitised records – is something that we relish as we research our histories. But the stats are only part of the story – it’s the tales that they tell that matter.

‘Our collections are the nation’s treasure trove,’ explains Jeff James, Chief Executive and Keeper of The National Archives. ‘We want to put The National Archives at the heart of the nation’s collective memory.’ It’s a vision that the team at Kew are passionate about. ‘Institutions and buildings alike have the ability to be reimagined’ and this is a goal that they continually strive towards, reinventing the ways that people can enjoy and learn from the history held at Kew – from family days for children, to conferences such as this autumn’s Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities event (http://dcdcconference.com). ‘It’s all about letting the public discover their place in history – documents hold immense power,’ continued Jeff James. ‘Engaging with archives in a digital way is the future.’

PS And, as we’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of The National Archives’ being housed at Kew, it’s worth remembering that this year is also the 180th anniversary of the Public Record Office, established by Henry Cole. Brandishing a rat in the House of Commons, Cole was passionate about ensuring the safe-keeping of the records of history. It’s a challenge he set in motion in 1838, and is a value that is upheld to this day by the staff of The National Archives at Kew.

Images © The National Archives

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