Feeds

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

El Reg visits the National Archives

Beginner's guide to SSL certificates

National treasures

Just imaging a small collection - say 5,000 images - takes about four weeks. Larger collections take months, or even years. It’s a job for the patient.

So, if the rest of the building felt generally focused and calm, the National Archives’ conservation department takes this to another level. It’s on the ground floor, and when you walk in it’s like stepping back into the school woodwork room - a large space filled with daylight, with rows of large work tables, with aromas of oil and glue. Some of the tools – enormous cast iron presses, and vicious-looking guillotines – look almost as old as the documents.

It’s easy to visualise committed conservators painstaking repairing precious manuscripts, or rebinding ancient books using artisanal linen and animal-based glue.

But the head of conservation, Juergen Vervoorst, talks as much about the importance of overall “environment” and the “performance of the building”. Which makes sense. Most of the collection is unlikely to be touched from one end of the year to another. Once you head off the environmental threats - heat, light, moisture, critters - the biggest threat is going to be handling.

At least that’s the case with the older materials, whose characteristics are reasonably well known.

“The British government always paid attention to high quality paper. We don’t really have a massive problem,” says Vervoorst.

However, the newer materials - all those laminates, printer papers, etc, that crept into offices from the '80s onwards - have “completely different ageing characteristics... their life expectancy is probably much shorter.” Similarly, as photographic materials became more prevalent, “there [are] more problems to be expected.”

Asked what particular items send a shiver up his spine, Vervoorst reels off the “treasures” housed at Kew. Domesday, not one but two copies of Magna Carta, Shakespeare’s portfolios, Jane Austen’s diary, Henry VIII’s divorce papers from Anne Boleyn.

But for sheer spine-tingling magic, he lights on Kew’s copy of The Treaty of Versailles, which officially tied up WW1, and set the stage for WWII.

Not because of what it was, but for what it could have been: “History could have been so different with a different treaty in 1919.”

It’s easy to imagine Vervoorst, indeed any historian, pondering the signatures of the victors and vanquished on the peace treaty between Germany and the Allied Powers, contemplating how they go there and imagining different futures, different outcomes if they’d signed a different treaty.

Can you imagine a future historian, waxing so poetically as he holds a tape cassette in his hand? You’ll have to wait a few hundred years to find out. ®

Boxes of tapes at the National Archive

This is what history will look like in future

Address

The National Archives in Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU

Getting There

Take the overground train or tube to Kew Gardens. The R68 bus terminates outside. By car, set your satnav for TW9 4AD. Parking space is limited and allocated on a first come, first served basis.

Opening Times

The National Archive is open from 09:00 to 17:00 on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. On Tuesdays and Thursdays it's open until 19:00. It is closed Sunday and Monday.

Website

http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/visit/where.htm

Around and about:

Kew is a residential area, but the clue is in the station name - Kew Gardens. This leafy paradise is just minutes from the archive. Recommended locals include The Botanist and The Greyhound.

Remote control for virtualized desktops

More from The Register

next story
Bond villains lament as Wicked Lasers withdraw death ray
Want to arm that shark? Better get in there quick
Antarctic ice THICKER than first feared – penguin-bot boffins
Robo-sub scans freezing waters, rocks warming models
Your PHONE is slowly KILLING YOU
Doctors find new Digitillnesses - 'text neck' and 'telepressure'
SEX BEAST SEALS may be egging each other on to ATTACK PENGUINS
Boffin: 'I think the behaviour is increasing in frequency'
Reuse the Force, Luke: SpaceX's Elon Musk reveals X-WING designs
And a floating carrier for recyclable rockets
The next big thing in medical science: POO TRANSPLANTS
Your brother's gonna die, kid, unless we can give him your, well ...
NASA launches new climate model at SC14
75 days of supercomputing later ...
Renewable energy 'simply WON'T WORK': Top Google engineers
Windmills, solar, tidal - all a 'false hope', say Stanford PhDs
Britain's HUMAN DNA-strewing Moon mission rakes in £200k
3 days, and Kickstarter moves lander 37% nearer takeoff
prev story

Whitepapers

Why and how to choose the right cloud vendor
The benefits of cloud-based storage in your processes. Eliminate onsite, disk-based backup and archiving in favor of cloud-based data protection.
Forging a new future with identity relationship management
Learn about ForgeRock's next generation IRM platform and how it is designed to empower CEOS's and enterprises to engage with consumers.
Driving business with continuous operational intelligence
Introducing an innovative approach offered by ExtraHop for producing continuous operational intelligence.
10 threats to successful enterprise endpoint backup
10 threats to a successful backup including issues with BYOD, slow backups and ineffective security.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?