Between 3-6 February we are holding a series of library-related talks to mark National Libraries Day, which is on Saturday 7 February. Alongside the rich archival holdings of The National Archives there is a wonderful research library that is accessible to all. It contains thousands of printed and online sources that compliment and support research into the archives.
Sometimes people are surprised to learn that there is a library at The National Archives and may ask what its purpose is. The National Archives’ Library is a specialist library that is distinctive because it is a library collection (containing published sources) within an archive. It is also a research level library that is freely available to the public. Unlike similar libraries, the majority of the collection is on open access and can be browsed.
There has been a library here since the organisation was founded as the Public Record Office in the middle of the 19th century. For most of its history it was a research library for the staff but since 1997 it has been available for any user of The National Archives to use. It incorporates two early collections that pre-date the Public Record Office; that of the Record Commission, which provided its original nucleus, and that of the State Paper Office, which was absorbed into the new Public Record Office building in Chancery Lane in 1854.
Often the best place to start research is with published sources, to find out what has already been published on a topic, and also to gather bibliographic and archival references. For this reason, when considering a book for acquisition for the library we look to see whether The National Archives’ document references have been included. The library collection at The National Archives includes printed materials published from the 16th century onwards. It consists of primary published sources, such as annual directories, several of which date back to the 18th century. These are useful for looking up individuals, particularly from professions or occupations. For example the earliest Army List that we hold is dated 1740. All our 18th century Army Lists are available online via Discovery.
Many books contain transcriptions or summaries of documents, both here and in other archives, for example the publications of local record societies. There are also facsimile copies of some documents including Domesday Book, which has been published in various formats since the 18th century. All of these can be used as surrogates for the original documents and help to protect them from overuse.
The library also provides secondary published sources, including journals and online resources, that provide contextual or background information on the wide range of subjects covered by the archival record. All this information is readily available alongside the raw archival material and books can be taken into the document reading rooms to use at the same time as reading the archives.
I am interested in the provenance of the books in our library collection. When cataloguing material we look for any information on the book that may provide clues to former owners, including bookplates, signatures and inscriptions, and library stamps. We have recently started identifying the books that were previously part of the State Paper Office by their library stamp and noting this in the library catalogue.
New books are regularly acquired either by purchase or donation. You can see a monthly display of new material in the Library including current issues of academic journals; the list of new acquisitions is also available on the online library catalogue.
Subjects covered include histories of government departments, work on the military forces, politics and government, social and economic history, the intelligence agencies, public history, trade and commerce, transport, the history and working of the English law courts, and British policy overseas.
A selection of online resources is available via the eLibrary including full text of parliamentary papers, newspapers online, and digitised collections of records such as the Adam Matthew archives collection and State Papers Online. A number of journals are also available online. The eLibrary is available onsite only and can be found on the public computers in the reading rooms.
Any visitor to The National Archives can browse the open access shelves in the Library. A reader’s ticket is required for access to the rare books collection and a small amount of material is stored offsite, but can be retrieved within three working days upon request. The Library catalogue is available online through The National Archives’ website.
The holdings of the Library can also be searched via the universal library catalogue Copac. We have also just become the 100th library to have its periodical holdings added to the universal catalogue SUNCAT.
This week there are several talks about specific aspects of the library collection – e-resources, published sources for First World War family history and a selection of early printed books published before 1800. For more information see the Events page on the website. If you have not had the opportunity to use the library before why not come along and have a browse.