A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Archive

Steer Clear of the Swans. British National Archives, Kew, UK (Photo Credit: Jennifer Vannette)

Steer Clear of the Swans. British National Archives, Kew, UK (Photo Credit: Jennifer Vannette)

By Jennifer Vannette

We talk about archival work as if it’s always important and serious. To be fair, it mostly is. But sometimes it can be a comedy of errors. Every archive trip is different and every archive you visit has its own rules, style, and vibe.

When I was studying in the UK, I needed to use some Foreign Office papers, which are housed at the National Archives in Kew. I successfully navigated my train south to London and then the Underground out to Kew and was feeling very pleased with myself as I used my smart phone’s GPS to help me find my lodgings and then walk to the archive the next morning. I was there too early, but it was a beautiful day and the grounds were lovely so I wandered around and enjoyed myself. The doors opened, and I walked up to the desk to ask where to go. I still don’t know why they were surprised by my question, but they pointed me to the coat room. In this room, there were all sorts of helpful directions posted about using the lockers, what you could take into the reading room, and the clear bags you would need to use to carry your supplies. They also had umbrella stands, which although immensely practical for the UK, were still a fun novelty for an American. Basically, this room told me everything about using a locker -- something I have know how to do since middle school. The instructions were about to get less clear.

It took awhile to shove everything in the locker and sort out what I could take with me. Feeling a bit warm from my labors of shoving a backpack and coat into the too small locker, I nevertheless felt ready to get to work. There were signs pointing up the stairs to the reading room, so I started climbing. I came to a landing and found a billboard-sized sign emblazoned “Start Here.” So, I went up to the desk to start.

It turns out that that is not where one begins. Of course not. That would be silly. So, up one more flight of stairs I found a little room where I had to fill out more paperwork, sign more things saying I wouldn’t steal stuff (I had already done this once online), and then wait for my photo to be taken for my Researcher’s ID. Now, at this point I had walked a mile and a half to the archive, wrestled with my locker, walked up two flights of stairs and was super confused about where I was supposed to be. You can imagine how great that picture turned out.

ID in hand, I was sent back down stairs. But not as you might have guessed to the “Start Here” sign. Nope, I had to go to the other side of that floor and go through security. (I still don’t know who actually starts at the desk with the sign. It remains a mystery.) I went to hand over my bag and computer for inspection and dropped the bag; the contents spilled out. I walked through the security barrier and set off the alarm. I was sent back through twice and finally it was okay. At this point the security guards and I are having a good laugh because it was just so ridiculous. It was the start of our ongoing bit. You know, the classic “not you again!” bit. I was a hit with security.

The National Archives houses vast amounts material and hosts so many researchers that it’s no wonder they have really modernized the process. I checked in and was assigned a table at which to sit, and my table number corresponded to my locker number where they would deposit my requested materials. To request materials, I went to a computer bank and swiped my ID. That brought up my table/locker number and then any materials requested would automatically be linked to my number. It was pretty cool. When I finished with a box of materials, I took them to a return desk. The only downside is that unlike smaller archives, there was no personal attention offered by the archivists. And, unlike the security guys, they weren’t very friendly. I discovered that somewhere I lost my pencil (probably when my bag spilled) and the archivist-on-duty would not loan me one. He helpfully suggested I buy a new one at the gift shop. The souvenir pencils were £2 a piece. So helpful.

From the outside, it might look like researchers seem calm, cool, and collected, but some days it's really difficult to not feel foolish. That first day at the National Archives was one awkward moment after another. Every archive is different, so no matter how many you visit, it's just hard to predict what is going to happen. The best thing to do is roll with it and learn to laugh at yourself.