Trip to the National Archives, Kew

Emily McIndoe, Economic and Social History, University of Liverpool, 2017 Cohort

I have always thoroughly enjoyed archival research trips, especially to the National Archives in Kew, there’s something incredibly exciting about getting away from your desk to go and find your own primary sources. I find it such a satisfying process, although trying to explain to other people exactly what is exciting about sifting through boxes of government documents can be somewhat of a challenge. When I booked to go to the National Archives at the end of August, I knew it was going to be a different experience and I wasn’t sure what to expect, or even if I would find what I was looking for.

I’m coming to the end of the second year of my PhD researching British aid to El Salvador between 1970-2009. I’m using a combination of oral history interviews and archival research, and whilst moving the interviews online has been a fairly straight-forward process, keeping up with the archival research has been more of a challenge. After having to cancel my fieldwork trip to El Salvador earlier this year, I had pretty much written off my chances of getting back in the archives this year, focusing instead on my interviews and available online archival collections. However, the National Archives reopened with limited slots at the end of July with increased cleaning measures, social distancing and other COVID related procedures. They also have an online booking system, which in August was quite difficult to find available slots but they have since increased the number of slots per day. One slight drawback to their system is that you can only book one, one day ticket per week, and the reading rooms are only open between 10am and 2.50pm. You can also only pre-order between 6 and 10 documents and can’t order any additional documents once you’re onsite as the documents are quarantined prior to your arrival. Whilst all of these measures make perfect sense given the current situation, it means you have to be really clear on what you need to look at and prioritise if you have a long list of things to look at – something I found particularly difficult!

Having spent the last six months working from home, I was apprehensive about the prospect of travelling down to London and spending a day in a normally busy archive. I decided to drive to avoid potentially crowded commuter trains, and when I arrived at the archives, I was pleasantly surprised by how clean and safe it felt. On arrival, there were one way systems around the whole building, masks were mandatory inside, the usual security procedures were all conducted at a safe distance and there was hand sanitiser at all high-touch points. In the reading room itself, the occupied desks are well spaced out, and your ordered documents placed on a trolley next to your desk. Although only having a few hours to conduct what would normally be a full day’s research added a certain level of urgency to the day, I still managed to find what I was looking for and even enjoy the process. It’s also given me a bit more confidence that archival work during this pandemic is actually possible under certain circumstances.

Overall, it was well worth doing as I got what I needed without having to compromise on safety. I’m impressed with the systems the National Archives have put in place and how thorough and supportive the staff were at all points. Even better, from a research point of view, I have some really interesting documents to work with that, had I waited longer to visit the archive, I might not have had time to engage with in as much depth. I’m hopeful that other archives that are in the process of opening are going to be similarly efficient and safe, and that those that have remained closed will be able to reopen soon.

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