NOTE: This article contains several pictures that I took. Click on any of them to see a larger image.
I had an opportunity yesterday to visit one of the great genealogy resources found in London: The National Archives. Although housed in a modern building at Kew, The National Archives contains the official public archive of the United Kingdom government, including records covering more than 1,000 years of history.
Many of the records are being digitized, but the conversion of everything is a Herculean task requiring many, many years to complete. Instead, the focus is on first digitizing the most-requested items from the collection, then working down the list towards those of less interest.
Travel to The National Archives is simple on the London Underground. Even this tourist was able to find his way to the District Line. Then board any west-bound train labeled "Richmond." In fact, Kew Gardens is the next to the last stop before the end of the line at Richmond. You might also want to visit the Royal Botanic Gardens, which are nearby. I didn't visit the gardens, as February isn't the best time to do so.
Once you exit the Underground station, you can follow the signs to The National Archives. In fact, the signs are for automobile traffic and direct drivers properly on the numerous one-way streets in the area. Pedestrians can save a few steps by walking in a bit more of a straight line up the sidewalks of a primarily residential area. Don't worry, you won't miss The National Archives; it is a large building and is visible well before you reach the place.
I joined a good-sized group that had been invited to tour The National Archives. Included in the group were a number of foreign visitors who were in the city for the Who Do You Think You Are? Live! conference. I counted a number of Americans in the group, along with others from Canada, Ireland, and New Zealand. We were graciously hosted by Audrey Collins, Family History Specialist at The National Archives.
We started in the in-house museum that houses some of the oldest documents and other artifacts held at The National Archives. As an American, I was fascinated by the chance to look at documents from the twelfth century! We don't have those back home!
Another item that caught my eye was an original copy of the U.S. Declaration of Independence that was on display. In fact, The National Archives in London has three original copies. About 200 copies were printed during the night of July 4, 1776, although only 26 are known to exist today. The copies were distributed to each of the thirteen colonies as well as to other concerned parties. I guess someone had to let King George know that his subjects were revolting, so a copy was sent to him as well. That copy now resides at The National Archives in London, along with two others that came from other sources.
The copies were made by John Dunlap and were delivered to the founders early on the morning of July 5, 1776. You can read more about these rare documents of American history held in London at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/5727812/Rare-copy-of-United-States-Declaration-of-Independence-found-in-Kew.html.
As we toured the facility, we were shown original documents from the American Revolution, from the War of 1812, from Ireland (concerning claims for damages caused by the I.R.A.), and more. Old documents always fascinate me, but these were older than most and, in many cases, gave a different viewpoint from what we were taught in American history classes at grammar school.
As you might expect, millions of documents are available at The National Archives. The catalog is available online at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/catalogues-and-online-records.htm. You can learn more about the available records at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/.
Available online documents may be found at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documentsonline/. Most birth, marriage or death records for England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland are not held at The National Archives, however. Instead, those are available (since 1837) from the General Register Office, with separate offices available for England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.
Walking through The National Archives was an interesting experience. Not only was it a modern building, but it was well laid out with a lot of room for researchers. Computers for visitors' use are everywhere. A smaller number of microfilm viewers are also visible in many places.
Audrey Collins explained that the number of microfilm viewers in use by visitors has decreased over the years as the demand has decreased. Indeed, keeping microfilm viewers operational was a somewhat simple task since they are mostly large boxes with bright lights, some lenses, and a projection screen. Occasional maintenance is required, but keeping them operational has not been a huge problem. A bigger problem, however, is keeping the microfilm-to-print machines running. These are highly mechanical devices containing many moving parts. Keeping them operational has proven to be much more difficult. Luckily, fewer and fewer visitors are asking for prints of microfilms as more and more documents become digitized. The staff and visitors alike find printing of digital images to be much easier and more reliable than the printing of images from microfilms.
Visitors can scan and digitize original documents, with a very few exceptions for very old or very fragile materials. As we walked around, I saw a number of digital camera stands, all of them located next to a window where natural sunlight could provide the best lighting of all. Visitors can even bring their own cameras, attach them to the top of the camera stand, place the document below, and snap a picture. All of this is available at no charge. Audrey explained that the Archives personnel found that the cost of creating and implementing a payment system would be more expensive than the amount of revenue to be collected, so they believe it is cheaper to not charge anything at this time.
If you have English or Welsh ancestry and if you can get to London, you will want to take a trip to The National Archives. I'd suggest you do your homework before leaving home; you should walk in the door with a list of the items you are looking for. Make sure you also check the available online sources before leaving home as you might find some of the items you seek are already available to you. For the remaining items, a prepared visitor is more likely to be a successful visitor.
My thanks to Audrey Collins and her associates for this great opportunity to visit The National Archives.