Geeking out at The National Archives

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!


My National Archives reader’s ticket, now one of my most prized possessions.

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.

19T Wanted Poster

From The National Archives, just one of the cool things you’ll find in The History Behind THE QUIETNESS iBook!

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?


6 responses to “Geeking out at The National Archives

  1. I haven’t been to the National Archives, though my dad used to spend hours in there researching, so I grew up knowing about it, and wondered what he spent all that time doing!

    I felt the same way as you though, when we were researching A World Between Us Ibook, and I visited the Bishopgate Institute – I couldn’t believe I was holding a pamphlet actually printed in the 30s, or that I was even allowed to hold it for that matter. I was looking around at the shelves and shelves of books and filing cabinets thinking of all the amazing stories that must be housed inside – and what a remarkable job the archivists who look after everything do.

    Particularly being I’m so bad at filing myself!

  2. Me too, me too! After hearing about Amy’s adventure, I just couldn’t let her have all the fun. So, the day after my maternity leave officially began, I begged my husband to take me into London (he wouldn’t let me go on my own in case I went into labour!) so I could play, too.

    Because we also had a four-year-old to entertain, I was on a very tight time frame. Luckily, the National Archives are happy for you to photograph the documents yourself (no flash) so I ended up taking over 200 pictures of six files of Victorian baby farming paperwork.

    It’s so amazing to me. When I was in school, I would have rolled my eyes at all of this. And now all I want to do is go back – or find other archives with baby farming materials to try to find out more and more of the story.

    Just WAIT until you see what Amy’s done with the iBook for THE QUIETNESS – soon you’ll all be begging for your own National Archives reading ticket!

    And… one other comment: when I was wooing said husband many years ago, one of the dates I took him on was to the British Library’s reading room. He had no idea why I was forcing him to bring his passport and a bill or where we were going, but he was into all things weaponry, and rather than pay £250 for an out of print copy of CARDS AS WEAPONS by Ricky Jay, I took him there to read one for free. He thought it was awesome and bizarre, and in the end… he married me!

  3. As hotkeysarahb’s dad if you’re now hooked on archives I’d like to suggest you also pop round the corner from your offices to check out the London Metropolitan Archives in 40 Northampton Road, Clerkenwell EC1R 0HB
    And I also admit to an unhealthy amount of time myself spent in archives over 30 years researching a variety of family & local history obscure topics although these daysmuch is on line! Enjoy.

  4. I agree with you Amy on the emotional aspect of reading and handling documents from all those years ago. I can remember being handed folders tied up with tape and knowing for certain that I was the first person to untie that tape for years. It gave me the shivers!!!

  5. Pingback: Sneak a peek at The History Behind THE QUIETNESS | Hot Key Books Blog

  6. Pingback: The facts behind the fiction: our new iBook! | Hot Key Books Blog

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