A post by Bavardess got me thinking that I ought to put these notes up somewhere where they can do most good. I prepared them at the request of some grad students in the USA a couple of years ago after I’d completed a three-month stint working on my thesis materials at The National Archives in Kew, UK. The staff there were extremely helpful, and the archive itself is reasonably conveniently located for emergency trips to buy batteries and tissues, and whatever else one may suddenly discover one needs, but it pays to learn from the mistakes advice of others.

Using The National Archives – A Survivor’s Tale

TNA’s website has comprehensive orientation notes which are very useful to consult before planning a visit.


The National Archives (TNA) is located near Kew Gardens Tube station, which is the second last stop on the Richmond arm of the District Line. It is about a 5 – 10 minute easy walk to the archives from the station. Exit the station to your left in the direction of travel if coming from the centre of London. (The station has both an underpass and an overpass if you find yourself on the wrong side.) Walk down W Park Rd and take the first left (Burlington Ave). At the end of Burlington Ave, cross Mortlake Rd (there is a controlled pedestrian crossing) and continue down Ruskin Ave. The main gate of TNA is at the end of Ruskin.

You can also reach TNA by bus from Richmond station, which is on the District Line as well as being a British Rail mainline station on the routes to Reading and Windsor (among others). The R68 bus from Hampton Court via Richmond terminates beside the strip mall adjacent to the car park entry for TNA on Bessant Dve. Board the R68 at Richmond by exiting the station, crossing the road and waiting at the bus stop immediately to the left of the pedestrian crossing. You must hail the bus or it will not stop. To return to Richmond, board the bus on Bessant Dve at the same stop where you disembarked.

I recommend obtaining an Oyster card (London public transport card) as soon as you arrive in the UK. Travelling on Oyster is considerably discounted compared with purchasing individual tickets. You can purchase an Oyster card at any station and some newsagents (which display signs to this effect in the window). The card costs a small amount to purchase, and then you charge it with any amount you choose. To use Oyster on trains, tap the card on the yellow disc by the entry point and walk through; do the same thing to exit the train station. On buses you only have to register your card upon boarding, as all bus trips are charged at a flat rate.

Comprehensive directions for coming to TNA by car, and alternate bus routes can be found at: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/visit/where.htm

Opening Hours

At last check, TNA was closed on Sundays & Mondays. It is unlikely that they will move to opening 7 days in the foreseeable future because of costs, but they may decide to close on other days, so always check: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/visit/times.htm. TNA is also closed on Bank Holidays (the term for public holidays in the UK). These closure dates are advertised online too. TNA is generally open late two nights a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Free orientation presentations occur daily at 11.30am in the seminar room on the first floor (British system, i.e., one floor up). There is also a ‘welcome desk’ on this floor as you enter the main public area, and staff here can direct you to the seminar room if you are lost!

Registering for a Reader’s Ticket

You need a reader’s ticket to use original manuscripts (but not to enter main areas of the building). You need two forms of ID to obtain a reader’s ticket (see TNA website: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/visit/readers-ticket.htm). Registration takes place on the top floor, to the left at the top of the stairs. The reading room for manuscript work is on the same floor. There may be a queue to register, but once you begin the process it takes about 15 mins.


Before using the reading room, find an empty locker in the locker room on the ground floor (bear right after the museum space and before the stairs). Lockers are free: simply take the key with you for the day. (NB. You must leave the key behind in the lock at the end of the day. You cannot leave things in the lockers overnight). There are large lockers available for suitcases if you are on your way to or from the airport… which is neither as crazy nor as rare as it may sound.

Small lockers for laptops and purses are available at the top of the stairs if you want to secure your belongings during your lunch break etc.

Using the Reading Room

All maps and any medieval materials must be consulted in the “Map Reading Room” on the top floor. You must swipe your reader’s card and clear security to enter the room.

To clear security you must put all the stuff you plan to bring into the reading room in one of the clear plastic bags provided in the locker room. Don’t forget to bring your reader’s ticket, as you need it to enter and leave the reading room. You can bring pencils but not pens. You can bring your laptop and any power cords etc.; you can also bring your own digital camera, batteries, memory cards etc, and even your cell phone as long as it is switched to silent. It is a good idea also to switch your camera to silent so that you don’t drive your neighbors crazy with clicking sounds! You may bring a notebook, but it should be spiral bound. Loose sheets are discouraged following a scandal in which material was fraudulently introduced into parts of the WWII collection. Present your bag to the security guard before swiping your card on entering and leaving the room for inspection. You will also be asked to open your laptop, so carry it separately. The guard will pass your items to you once you swipe your card and step through. (Stepping through without swiping will set off alarms). If you are using TNA for an extended period, it pays to get to know the guards and give them a cheery greeting each time.

You must register for a “seat number” to use the reading rooms. In the lower reading rooms (mainly for modern print materials) you are normally expected to sit in a seat with the corresponding number. In the Map Reading Room, which is where all manuscripts and medieval material must be consulted, there is no similar seating system. Here, your “seat number” is used only to identify your items when you claim them from the collection desk. Register for your seat number at any of the terminals in the reading rooms by following the prompts (normally requires swiping your reader’s ticket/card).

Actual seating is on a first-come, first-served basis. A small number of tables are equipped with adjustable tripod-like apparatus for use with digital cameras. It is considered extremely rude to leave your belongings on one of these tables if you are going to be gone more than about 15 mins, since they are in high demand. Conversely, it is typical to leave your belongings (eg. notebook and pencils, etc. although not normally laptops and so on, unless locked down) on the general use tables while at lunch or similar. The end of the room closest to the collection desk is reserved for users ordering large volumes of material and also has large, high surfaces for unrolling large maps and Rolls.

The reading room is wireless equipped. Ask at the info desk (see “Help” below) for connection instructions. It’s free to use, and there are a number of subscription-based online resources available free for use when working from a TNA IP address. All the reading tables have power points for charging laptops etc., but you will need to bring your own appropriate international adapters. You can print from terminals on the first floor. Purchase a printing/copying card from the wall-mounted dispenser nearby. Be sure to check if the printers have A4 (UK standard size) paper in the tray before sending to print or your documents will come out on larger sheets and cost more. If the paper is out, alert one of the staff at the nearby help desk. (NB. Not all of the print terminals will permit you to access web-based email, so if you want to open a word document or similar, you may need to transport it physically on a flash drive.) To order documents you must use the designated computer terminals in the reading room (see below).

To order documents, use any of the computer terminals on the far wall of the reading room from the entrance. Identify items on the catalogue and follow the prompts to order them. This will require you to swipe your reader’s ticket. There will be a limit to the number of documents you can order at one time. Once those documents arrive in the reading room, you can order more. Documents will take some time to arrive in the reading room, so if you have several to request, order as many as you are permitted to in a batch.

The collection desk is located through the sliding doors to your left once you enter the reading room. The staff in the collection room are incredibly overworked and under appreciated, so if you show them consideration and a friendly word you will find them much more helpful than otherwise. A swipe point immediately outside the collection room can be used to check the status of your document orders.

Foam rests, weights, and gloves are provided and you should use them. Just help yourself from the piles on the shelves in the centre of the room. If in doubt about how best to use these facilities, ask the security staff patrolling the room for advice: they have all been trained in manuscript handling and will help you out. (They will also come and tell you if you’re “doin it rong”!)

There are also adjustable study lamps available throughout the reading room. These are not placed at every seat, so it’s best to choose a seat with a light or move one that is not in use by another reader to your place when consulting documents. You will need at least one and maybe two if photographing documents since the lighting is low in the reading room.

The reading room has a substantial collection of essential secondary textbooks, printed sources, indexes and calendars relevant to pre-modern English history. It is well worth exploring the open shelves for useful things while waiting for document deliveries.

When you finish using items, they must be returned to the returns table in the collection room (to the left of the desk). If you want to retain your items for the following day, you need to do two things:

1)      FIRST: Reserve your seat number using the computer terminals in the reading room. This is not a self-evident process, so if in doubt, ask someone from the help desk to give you a hand the first time.

2)      THEN: Return your items to the collection desk and ask them to keep them for you. You may be asked if you have reserved your ‘seat’, which means, “have you already completed the abovementioned step?”.

Before you finish for the day, it’s a good idea to order documents for the next day to save time waiting about in the morning. Last document orders are taken about 45 minutes before closing each day, and an automated announcement should alert you to this as the time arrives.

NB. In my experience, if you build a good rapport with the collections staff and let them know you are in for the long haul, they will save your butt when you do stupid things like fail to reserve your seat: like not sending your items back if they know you probably still need them. This is incredibly valuable, since they otherwise can’t be re-ordered for 24 hours!! When staff did things like this for me during my research trip, I brought them small thank-you gifts, which I think can only have encouraged them to continue helping out. Face-to-face staff assistance is under extreme funding pressure, so I also left a thankyou note and chocolates with the security staff to be delivered to the staff room when I finished my research to show how important it had been to me. You might also want to write to the Director to commend particular staff members who are helpful to you. Every bit of positive feedback helps preserve the valuable work of these hardy folk!


The desk immediately to the right as you enter the reading room is for information and advice. If you have any queries about how to order documents, reserve your seat for future days, find books shelved in the reading room, or identify items in the online catalogue, ask the staff at this desk. Staff at this desk rotate and are not always medieval specialists, so you may want to ask for advice as to who will be able to give you the most detailed research assistance.


TNA has a cafeteria with reasonable hot meals, sandwiches and coffee. However, you will get a better deal if you bring your own lunch. Numerous stores in the UK sell ‘lunch deals’ for £2 – 3, which normally includes a sandwich, a snack (eg. chips, chocolate bar or fruit), and a drink. These deals are advertised and available from supermarkets and from Boots (a pharmacy chain similar to CVS or Walgreen’s in the USA). There is a Tesco express supermarket near Kew Gardens Tube station on the right hand side of the station in the direction of travel if coming from central London. There is a Boots and a Marks & Spencer supermarket in the strip mall by the R68 bus stop near TNA’s carpark entry. You can eat your own food in the café area inside TNA, or out in TNA’s gardens if the weather is fine.

No food or drink of any kind is allowed in the reading rooms, including gum, lozenges, and candy. Leave any food you bring with you in the free lockers.

There are good pubs at nearby Kew Green, and a less fabulous but still OK one at Kew Gardens Tube Station, if you are looking for post-research refreshment or a place to meet up with colleagues after TNA closes. To get to Kew Green from TNA, walk out the main gate and along the street until you come to a T-intersection. Turn right (along Mortlake Rd) and follow the footpath under the Tube line and along the road for about 0.5 miles. There are at least 3 lovely pubs (that all serve food) positioned around the Green, and you can enter Kew Gardens itself at the far side of the Green. (This is a pricey exercise, so don’t do it just for lunch hour!)

Other facilities

There are rest rooms on the ground floor to the left of the stairs. There is also a disabled access restroom on the top floor near the reading room entry. It’s acceptable to use this if there are no disabled patrons waiting to do so.

There is a shop on the ground floor which sells TNA publications and postcards, etc., as well as pencils, notebooks and batteries if you have forgotten any essential research supplies. It is relatively expensive to buy these items there, but very convenient!

The locker room contains notice boards which may have medieval seminars and courses advertised. This is also a good place to look for longer term accommodation if you are planning to stay a while and haven’t made advance plans (see below).

Beyond TNA, there are shops by Kew Gardens tube station that provide for most emergency needs. The majority are on the right of the station in the direction of travel from central London. In addition to the Tesco, there is a chemist store, a newsagent, a Starbucks, a book store, a butcher, a shoe shop, a post office, two ‘off licenses’ (selling wine and beer), a hair dresser and several small restaurants. Some days there are also market stalls in the street outside these shops, especially one selling delicious pastries and pies which I highly recommend!

Accommodation in Kew

Accommodation in Kew and Richmond can be pricey. If you’re planning to stay a while and using mainly TNA, I recommend going online at http://www.spareroom.co.uk and arranging to rent a room in a share house nearby. This seems to be a more reliable site than gumtree.