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.