Document ordering at The National Archives

(Photograph obtained via Wikipedia. Taken by Nick Cooper and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license)

The recent outcry about changes to document ordering at The National Archives has led me to reflect on my experience of using the archive. It is by far my favourite archive in the country and I have really enjoyed making use of it.

It has a huge collection of records dating from the Middle Ages to (almost) the present day. As a medievalist, it contains most of the surviving records of English government and is an invaluable resource. The vast majority of my research has involved consulting documents at TNA. Being able to order and receive large numbers of documents without paying any fees for photography (and until recently free parking) makes it such a pleasant experience to use. It compares favourably to many (if not all) other archives in the country. I really enjoy visiting TNA, eating lunch, having a coffee, and catching up with acquaintances.  

Have (some) users such as myself *overused* the system? I will confess that when I was carrying out research for my PhD, I would frequently place a bulk order in advance of my visit and would then continuously order documents throughout the course of the day. If I had not done so, it would have been impracticable for me to research the topic in such detail. I would not have made the archival discoveries that I did and my thesis (and book) would have definitely been of far worse quality for it. 

Yet this undoubtedly placed a burden on the staff at TNA. On a fair number of my visits, the issuing staff appear to have struggled with the sheer volumes of orders. By lunchtime, the returns table was often filled with items and there was a long queue to be served. Resources are, as with other government organisations, bound to be limited and threatened by budget cuts. The placing of some restrictions on what has thus far been a very liberal system make sense in this context. 

Nevertheless, the change is so dramatic that I feel that it is an overreaction. As others have pointed out, this will have a negative impact on many professional historians who need to consult large numbers of documents at the archive. For those with low incomes or who have travelled a long way to get there, the new ordering limit will be a serious handicap. It will be a great shame if future historical research is curtailed simply because of this. I hope that the feedback provided to TNA will encourage them to reconsider the policy.  

It is also important to recognise and acknowledge what a fantastic archive it is and how fortunate we are to have it. Let us celebrate what a useful resource it is (and the great work carried out by its staff) and do what we can to help make it even better.  



3 thoughts on “Document ordering at The National Archives

  1. Colleen Goos says:

    As a librarian it is heart wrenching to me when access to information in archives, and especially those that are viewed as belonging to the country and its people are limited. That said you are correct a lot of work by librarians down to pages often goes unnoticed by most people and tend to fall into the “do more with less” mindset by administration and budgets are cut or they must decide on how to gain income elsewhere such as more fees or lay people off.

    Do we consider those using the archives/librarians as overextending the services? I personally do not, in fact I appreciate every patron I have served in the past, even in my position as library page. I also enjoy learning from those who use the resources regularly regardless of their “status” and disability etc in society. Everyone has a story that I could learn from. I hope that the administration for the archives has the ability to ensure that patrons of lower income or those that must travel will continue to be served and that limits will be lifted at some point. 🐾


  2. Colleen Goos says:

    I hope so too, patrons are the backbone of all library and archive services and should never be made to feel they are burdens. I think there is the possibility of more creative ways to balance the budgets than knee-jerk fees and fines. The number of items allowed before being charged fees seemed a bit extreme to me and will definitely cut out who uses the archives. I know that here in the states people start questioning the balance of services they receive without paying fees etc, when paying their local, state, and national taxes.

    I hope someday to get over to England, Scotland, and Ireland to see the archives there. How fantastic it must be to actually see items that date back to the medieval era and beyond. Digital files are fine, but they are not the same as being right there.

    Have a great day/evening.


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