Archive Guide

Trawling through archives can be a confusing and often bewildering experience.  Obviously, they all have different content, but they also have different systems and approaches to the material they house and different means by which the general public can access what they have.  These are my thoughts on just a few:

The National Archives, (TNA), Kew, London, USA
Most countries have their own national archives and over here in Britain we now have one of the very best.  Until a few years ago, this was called the Public Record Office, known the world over and given the acronym ‘PRO’.  For some inexplicable reason, the British government changed its name to The National Archives (TNA), just like most other national archives.  Nonetheless, this name change has also coincided with a major re-vamp of their site at Kew, West London.  The National Archives have, it must be admitted, moved with the times a lot better than most.  Cataloguing of their vast numbers of documents has not always been consistent, but by and large it is easy to find what you are looking for and there are plenty of staff around to help too.  There are computer terminals in abundance and everything is listed on their online catalogue as well as in the old-fashioned paper indexes.  Unlike almost any other archive, the catalogue can also be accessed at home, and pre-booked, which is a real time-saver.  The opening hours at Kew are helpfully long, documents can be ordered at any time and will be brought up throughout most of the day, and although you can only order three items at a time, you are allowed up to twenty-one pieces in your allotted locker.  Digital photography is allowed, as are laptops and scanners and there are now more large photocopiers (actually, they are scanners) and microfilm printers than ever before.  Photocopying is expensive at 30p a sheet, but overall Kew is a dream.

The National Archives & Record Administration, (NARA), College Park, Maryland, USA
If only the same could be said about the National Archives in the United States.  NARA at College Park, Maryland, just north of Washington DC looks slick, has fantastic electronic facilities (digital cameras etc are allowed and there are also a large number of inexpensive photocopiers), but has two major flaws.  The first is the inevitable post-September 11th security measures, which are draconian to the say the least, and second is its incomprehensible and fantastically out-moded ordering system.  You can only order documents three times a day – these are known as ‘Call Times’ and if you miss one of them by a minute you’ve got two wait several hours for the next one.  This is bad enough, but just trying to order what you want is mind-bogglingly complicated.  There is no on-line catalogue, so researching what you want has to be done by looking through books of indexes and then cross-referencing with bound folders.  There is absolutely no logic to the ordering method, which is incredibly complicated and involves cross-referencing shelf numbers, stack numbers, record groups and so on. It’s all too easy to order up completely the wrong thing and then find you have to wait further hours to try again.  The staff are begrudgingly helpful, clearly worn down by having to repeatedly explain their impossible system.  You can order quite a lot of documents at one time, however, and if they could only sort out their cataloguing, NARA would be a different place.

Army Records Center, Military History Institute, (MHI), Carlisle, Pennsylvania, USA
In sharp contrast to NARA, MHI is a dream.  It is nothing like as busy as College Park, is run by the military and the archivists and staff there are fantastically helpful.  There are no ‘Call Times’, digital photography and laptops can be used and ordering is easy and the staff are happy to help with your research and to suggest other material that might be of use.  For anyone researching the Second World War, they have a really fantastic amount of material, including a great deal of translated German material and numerous oral history documents.  Carlisle itself is not the most exciting place, but it’s fairly close to Gettysburg (which is fascinating) and working there is a complete pleasure.

The Imperial War Museum, (IWM), London, UK
The IWM has a slightly confusing online catalogue, but that it has one at all, that can be accessed from home, is to its credit.  They also have a vast collection of papers, memoirs, oral histories and photographs.  The Sound Archives – as they call their oral histories – and the photograph collection are in a separate building from the main museum, a few hundred yards around the corner in what is known as the Annex.  Documents, however, can be viewed in the hexagonal dome of the museum, in what was once the Bdelam’s chapel.  It’s a great experience, and like MHI, the staff, led by the legendary Roderick Suddaby, are enormously helpful.  Laptops can be used, but sadly, not digital photography, which is just about its only draw-back.  Ordering up of documents can be pre-booked or done on the day – and it’s quick and easy.

Bundesarchiv-Militararchiv, Freiburg-im-Breisgau, Germany
This is an extraordinary place, tucked away in a modern little building on the edge of a lovely Black Forest town.  Laptops are allowed, but not, if I remember rightly, digital photography.  There is a photocopying service, but it is not done in house, and is quite a complicated procedure that takes several weeks (although it is not expensive).  There is an in-house online catalogue, but there seems to be no well-organised or especially consistent cataloguing system.  The staff alternate between being incredibly helpful one minute and impossibly unhelpful the next.  For example, I ordered up a couple of memoirs that simply did not appear.  I repeatedly asked where they were and received only shrugs in return.  After three days, I eventually discovered I would never be getting them: permission had been denied me for some reason, although no-one had bothered to tell me this or explain why.  On the other hand, there are archivists there who, like at MHI, are eager to help and will suggest other things that might be worth looking at.  It’s all rather chaotic, but forewarned is forearmed.

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