Feeds

How the UK's national memory lives in a ROBOT in Kew

El Reg visits the National Archives

Remote control for virtualized desktops

Geek's Guide to Britain The UK’s National Archives in Kew have enough gems and hidden secrets to keep Indiana Jones or Robert Langdon in sequels for the next couple of centuries, with everything from the Domesday book to the UK’s official UFO records socked away safely in its sanctum.

But for the swashbuckling archaeological hero of the future, whips, guns, and medieval symbolism will not be enough to unlock all of Kew’s secrets. They will also need the ability to manipulate a tape library and emulate long-dead file formats.

That’s because over the next couple of decades, the expansion of the UK’s official national memory will no longer consist of handwritten vellum-based documents and lovingly typed Cabinet meeting minutes in buff-coloured folders. Rather, with government business increasingly being conducted electronically, the National Archives will also expand virtually, one cartridge at a time.

As the national memory of Britain, the National Archives is a comparatively recent invention. For centuries, official documents, crucially the statutes passed by Parliament and the judicial decisions that defined the UK’s common law, were dispersed across bundles and trunks at sites including the Tower of London and the Palace of Westminster. Other key documents were in private hands.

A little history of a lot of history

Things became more systematic with the creation of the Public Records Office in the early 19th century. This was long headquartered in a soaring Victorian Gothic building on Chancery Lane, though procedures were occasionally subject to the whim of individual “keepers”.

The Grigg report of the 1950s laid down a new mission and methodology for choosing which documents should be preserved, including the 30-year rule*. This new modern approach to document-keeping clearly required a new modern building for the documents.

The Ministry of Works, in its wisdom, chose a site in Kew: a WWI era hospital, which already housed the government’s National Savings and Investments operation. The deeds of the historic few won out out over the chances of riches for the modern hoi polloi, and ERNIE (Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment - the machine that generates the winning Bond numbers each month) and the National Savings Institute staff were shunted off to Blackpool. The new PRO building was opened in 1977.

Kew gained The National Archives moniker in 2003 after the PRO was merged with other record-keeping organisations including the Historical Manuscripts Commission. The current site comprises the original PRO building, a fine example of '70s municipal brutalism designed by the Ministry of Public Works, and a newer, lighter annexe.

The original building is saved from looking like a 1980s dole office or job centre by being skinned in light-coloured concrete, rather than the shit-coloured pebble-dash of so many of its contemporary government buildings. It is linked to the new building by a light-filled atrium/reception. With the enormous water feature out front and the leafy riverside location, it really is a nice place to visit. You’re as likely to be run over by a bunch of over-excited schoolkids as hordes of tweedy encased researchers.

National Archive Entrance

To reach the dark archive, first cross the water

Despite the name change, the operative word is still “public”. Anyone can walk into the lobby, veer left and hit the small museum covering some of the key items in the collection, including the Domesday book, or head upstairs to the public reading rooms, where you can consult records online or on microfiche. Register for a “readers' ticket” and you can request original documents.

Beyond the museum is the inevitable bookshop and a canteen, also public. When we visited there was chocolate bread-and-butter pudding on the menu, and the BBC’s favourite current favourite historian Lucy Worsley signing books in the bookshop. You might not be so lucky when you visit. Sometimes it’s rhubarb crumble.

After tea in the canteen with CIO David Thomas, we were taken into the newer wing, the domain of the archivists, web and database developers, historians and restorers who maintain the collection, and ensure that it is available to the people who pay for it - ie, you.

The new wing has a long light-filled atrium, which is lined with framed photographs. On closer inspection these prove to be the staff’s own work: holiday landscapes, wildlife, still lifes. Dotted amongst these are also lots of posters for yoga and meditation classes. They must work. The people we met there seemed engaged in their work, but not unduly stressed. The archive has been a thousand years in the making, so perhaps that gives you a slightly different perspective on time.

It possibly also helps that the site - or at least the repositories where the documents are kept - is literally bombproof. Fire safety is also paramount, with suppressant gas on tap rather than water. And unsurprisingly, the site is built to withstand floods, reassuring given its Thames-side location.

As you approach the repositories themselves - the actual document storage areas - you are gently reminded that these are pencil-only areas. Got that? No pens, no food, no drink. No smoking too? Need you ask.

Beginner's guide to SSL certificates

More from The Register

next story
MEN: For pity's sake SLEEP with LOTS of WOMEN - and avoid Prostate Cancer
And, um, don't sleep with other men. If that's what worries you
Voyager 1 now EIGHTEEN LIGHT HOURS from home
Almost 20 BEEELION kilometres from Sol
HUGE SHARK as big as a WWII SUBMARINE died out, allowing whales to exist
Who'd win a fight: Megalodon or a German battleship?
Jim Beam me up, Scotty! WHISKY from SPAAACE returns to Earth
They're insured for $1m, before you thirsty folks make plans
ROGUE SAIL BOAT blocks SPACE STATION PODULE blastoff
Er, we think our ISS launch beats your fishing expedition
Comet Siding Spring revealed as flying molehill
Hiding from this space pimple isn't going to do humanity's reputation any good
BAE points electromagnetic projectile at US Army
Railguns for 'Future fighting vehicle'
LONG ARM of the SAUR: Brachially gifted dino bone conundrum solved
Deinocheirus mirificus was a bit of a knuckle dragger
prev story

Whitepapers

Cloud and hybrid-cloud data protection for VMware
Learn how quick and easy it is to configure backups and perform restores for VMware environments.
Getting started with customer-focused identity management
Learn why identity is a fundamental requirement to digital growth, and how without it there is no way to identify and engage customers in a meaningful way.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.
Intelligent flash storage arrays
Tegile Intelligent Storage Arrays with IntelliFlash helps IT boost storage utilization and effciency while delivering unmatched storage savings and performance.
The next step in data security
With recent increased privacy concerns and computers becoming more powerful, the chance of hackers being able to crack smaller-sized RSA keys increases.