A few weeks ago, I set out to go to The National Archives to do a bit of research for our latest enhanced ebook project. It’s going to be a non-fiction companion to THE QUIETNESS by Alison Rattle, which is the Victorian-era story of two girls from very different families who ultimately get entangled in the dark world of baby farming. Fortunately, because this book is set in London, and because the Victorians were obsessed with paperwork and their brand-new police force, there was a plethora of material available for perusal in The National Archives.
If you’re coming from central London, getting to The National Archives is quite a journey. A pretty direct journey on the overground, but about an hour nonetheless. There’s a sort of strange path between the archives and the train station, one that takes you through a residential area, and (if you get lost like I usually do) through a strip-mall parking lot. But if you follow the signs, you eventually end up here:
If you’ve never been to The National Archives, there’s a fairly lengthy bureaucratic process you have to complete before you can start your research. Now, because I used to work for a bureaucracy and I’m pretty used to getting my fingerprints scanned every time I come back to the UK, I had thoroughly prepared all my documents before I went to the Archives. I even brought extra IDs and called to make sure I had the right proof of address in hand.
But the documentation is only the beginning.
In order to get your “reader’s ticket,” you have to take a 15-minute tutorial, complete with periodic quizzes, about how to use the archives. It’s useful information actually — it helps you understand how to handle big old books and ancient text scrolls. Once you complete the quiz (with passing scores of course), you get cleared to move onto the next step — the final document check. At this phase, a nice staff person checks your ID and proof of address, takes your photo, and voila! You’ve got your fancy reader’s ticket!
And now the real fun begins. Because once you have your reader’s ticket, you have access to the millions of primary source documents stored in the archives.
And I can tell you, it’s totally, TOTALLY worth it.
In a single day, I held letters written by convicted baby farmers, the original report on Amelia Dyer’s execution, a wanted poster in near-mint condition (it’s going in the iBook!), and Victorian police reports, all written in a nearly indecipherable long-hand.
It felt humbling to touch these documents, like someone had given me the keys to a time machine just because I answered some questions on a computerised quiz correctly. It was an oddly emotional experience, several steps beyond reading about baby farmers in a book. I know I’ve waxed poetic about archives before, but this research experience was intense, both because of the subject matter and because of the quality of material I was able to touch.
And I’m curious — have you been to the archives? What did you find? What was your experience?