Key Strategies for TNA and Discovery

So you want to visit The National Archives (TNA) at Kew? What to do first?

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Your first instinct may be to go straight to the “Discovery” catalogue. This can be quite daunting, even for non-newbies and it is easy to wind up down a rabbit hole if you follow links from here.

Keep it simple: Choose one of the three options below:

  1. the Search box at the top: type one or two words or a reference number (e.g. WO 94 or “Tower of London”) and click “Search our records”;
  2. the central red “Menu” button followed by “Records Guidance A-Z”. Click the appropriate letter (e.g. M) then choose one of the keywords (e.g. Medals);
  3. the central red “Menu” button followed by “Visit Us”. You can apply for a Reader’s Ticket and order documents in advance from here.

Next steps…

  1. Search Results – If the search result gives you the option to “Browse by Reference”, click that link to see all the files that make up that series then make a note of the ones that you might like to order (e.g. WO 94/4 – “State Prisoners: Commitments and Orders 1672 to 1818”). Click “Details” under the document reference to see if it is available to download – downloads of records available online cost £3.30, regardless of size.
  2. Records Guidance – Even if you don’t normally “read the instructions”, it’s worth using these pages as each Guidance page has links that take you to the records you want to look at, e.g. after arriving on the “Medals” page, try clicking on “British Army soldiers after 1913”. When you follow the link for “First World War army medal cards” the page you arrive at contains a link to the catalogue page for WO 372. Scroll down to “Browse by Reference” as you do with search results.
  3. Visit Us – If you are a first-timer and want to view original documents, register up to 6 weeks in advance for a Reader’s Ticket; it will save time when you first visit. If you already have a Reader’s Ticket, you can order up to 6 documents in advance. Check a week beforehand whether the records you want to see are stored on-site or off-site. If they are off-site, you need to order before 11 am three working days before you visit.

What is there to see?

Original records relating to war & the armed forces, private railways & shipping, the high courts, political history, foreign & colonial affairs and public health including poor law. Browse this Subject List.

How to get there?

  • By Coach from further afield: Find out when your local Family History Society is running their next trip to be dropped at the door; or ask your local coach firm when they’re next going to Kew Gardens – TNA is only 15 minutes’ walk!
  • By Rail or District line to Kew Gardens if you can connect at e.g. Hackney, Hampstead, Richmond, Reading or Upminster.
  • By Car: Parking is limited but free. Don’t tell anyone, but last time I visited, the car park was half empty!

Do take:

  • relevant ID if you are applying for a Reader’s Ticket;
  • a blank sheet and/or A4 and A3 paper to slide between tissue-thin pages when copying records;
  • a bag of £1 coins to charge your Reader’s Ticket to print document copies;
  • a square electric adaptor if your laptop lead has a “chunky” section under the plug!

Don’t bother taking:

  • your own camera, unless you want really high quality images (in which case, put it on silent); there are eight desk-mounted cameras at TNA and images can be cleaned up and enhanced at home. Tip – when using TNA cameras, use your Reader’s Ticket (rather than a finger) to gently tap the screen when taking photos;
  • a packed lunch: the canteen-style restaurant does a good two-course meal for around £6.50.

When you arrive

  • Go straight to the cloakroom and lock up everything except your laptop, cables, phone (on silent), research materials, pencils, £1 coins, ID and/or Reader’s Ticket. Put these in one or (preferably) more of the (not super-strong) plastic carrier bags provided;
  • Go to the 2nd floor to get processed and learn about document handling if you need to get a Reader’s Ticket;
  • Go to the 1st floor and quiz staff at the Helpdesk about anything you’re unsure about;
  • When you have ordered documents, use one of several terminals around the building to check if they are ready to view – it will generally take around 40 minutes – and to see what table/document locker number has been allocated to you;
  • Reading Room security will want you to open your laptop and they will riffle through your papers and check for contraband, e.g. biros, pencil sharpeners or pencils with rubbers on the end! Be happy that they do this! You can then swipe your Reader’s Ticket to gain access.

Keep your Reader’s Ticket handy at all times. You will need it to:

  • Charge your card with money to print document copies;
  • Check terminals to see if documents are ready to view;
  • Enter and exit the Reading Room;
  • Order documents from computer terminals;
  • Gently tap the screen when using TNA cameras!

Enjoy your Visit! Or if you cannot get to The National Archives yourself, contact Woods for the Trees and we will be happy to do TNA research for you.