Sending the giant to sleep

On Tuesday 17 March 2020, The National Archives closed its doors to visitors for the foreseeable future due to the coronavirus pandemic. Three weeks on, we asked two of our directors how we were able to plan for a situation like this, and to tell us what’s going on to ensure that the archives are not only looked after, but remain accessible to people around the world while our reading rooms are closed.

Paul Davies is our Operations Director – he’s one of the few members of staff currently still working on site to ensure that it remains safe and secure. He tells us of his experiences of being in ‘the sleeping giant’, an empty building that would normally be full of visitors and staff:

As the government’s archive, and with a 1,000-year-old collection to care for, it’s crucial for us to take the subject of business continuity planning very seriously. Several years ago we created a Major Incident Management Team (MIMT), composed of representatives of different areas of our work, who are tasked with planning our response to various emergency situations. Over the years they’ve practiced a wide range of scenarios, ranging from closing the building due to a chemical spill on the South Circular, sit-down protests in the reading rooms and – of course – a flu pandemic. These regular exercises have helped build a team that is confident and practised enough to deal with any eventuality.

View of shelving system inside one of the National Archives' repositories.

Once we realised the potential scale of the outbreak, our MIMT began to meet regularly in January, with posters in toilets displayed for staff and visitors, to encourage them to follow the government guidelines about washing their hands regularly.

The team continued to meet regularly and review the situation, and before long, we were reluctantly forced to make the decision to close our building to visitors. By the end of that week, after a very busy few days of preparation, the vast majority of our 500+ staff had also left the building and were working from home.

Just a few of us remain on site to secure and look after the building and collections in preparation for everyone’s return. The essential services team of Security, Estates and IT Operations staff has reduced the operation of the building as much as they can. Most areas of the building are in darkness, with non-essential systems shut down and toilets closed. Social distancing isn’t a problem as we each have over 2,000 square metres! A small number of additional staff are also permitted to visit the site once a fortnight to carry out key tasks and maintain some of our business critical services.

Vital systems help keep our sleeping giant alive, including the environmental control of the repositories – care of the public records being the key reason we are all here. While most of our staff can work remotely, some of our IT systems need technical staff on site to keep an eye on things and resolve any issues. And ‘normal’ life goes on: the post is still delivered by Royal Mail each day, and although it’s often less than ten items, some of this is important and has to be scanned and emailed to colleagues for action.

Our grounds remain open, and are much appreciated by our neighbours who continue to use them (sensibly) and feed the resident wildfowl. The visitor car park has become something of a bike and skate park for local families.

The most striking difference for me is the silence – walking around the building hearing only my footsteps can be quite eerie – I am glad I don’t have to do so at night like our security officers have to!

But rest assured, the giant lives and looks forward to the day in the not too distant future when we can open our doors once again to staff and visitors alike.

Our Director of Public Engagement, Caroline Ottaway-Searle, shares her reflections on the situation and what it means for us as the nation’s archive:

Each record now safely kept here at Kew has its own unique ‘back story’ – who created it, when and why? How come it still survives, in some cases many hundreds of years later? What was its journey, who did it travel with and what route did it take to finally come to rest in a repository at The National Archives in Kew, our 1970s brutalist masterpiece?

This new world, so strange for most of us, where Kew and its collection is closed to the public, where we are keeping it safe but unseen, is just another part of the story of the archive. For the archive this peril is not unprecedented; many parts of our collection have endured through wars, plagues, revolutions, floods and fire, and through their survival we can learn about living through extreme times.

View of shelving system inside one of the National Archives' repositories.

In 2020 the giant may be asleep but it is continuing to excite and engage. Much of the collection can already be accessed digitally. There is also a mass of work that exists, inspired by what the archives holds, and that can be accessed in many forms. That may be academic research, a novel or a film, a newspaper article, a documentary, a blog or podcast, educational material designed for teachers that is now being used at home by families, or indeed a tweet or Instagram post.

In 20 years’ time the records about the coronavirus pandemic will be a part of history, stored in the archives for people to research what happened. But what will also be a part of the story of the pandemic, is what happened to the archives themselves in 2020, and the part that they were able to play in the lives of the citizens who had to stay at home.


  1. David William Matthew says:

    This is not the first time that the Kew building has been closed, it was closed back in the 1980s it was I think after staff and researchers started collapsing and was closed for about three months with the reason for the illness never established. In my view it is far-fetched to suggest that researchers would have a ‘sit-in’ (unless they are the environment protestors of ‘Extinct Rebellion’).

    As regards the records of the current Coronavirus goes it does depend on the preservation of the records and as they are likely to be digital records then they can go on line and there would be no need for the Kew building. It seems to me one lesson is whether TNA and other organisations actually need everybody to be on site in future.

  2. Richard says:

    David William Mathew raises an interesting question about the future of the archives and our (increasingly) digital future. On one hand an increased digital presence
    could be a rich revenue stream – hopefully NOT hived off commercially – and would preserve original documents.

    But a number would have to be scanned as the quality isn’t it always brilliant.

    But there’s something beyond ‘old school-ness’ and simple nostalgia in visiting Kew in person.

    Yes there’s the thrill of anticipation as you open the orange locker and see the stacked files inside, carry them to your seat and untie them.

    There’s the sense of touching documents touched by the greats of history – even of thousands have done so before you.

    But i journey to the archives – often on three separate trains each way – because I believe it’s more.

    It’s our birthright.

  3. Gillian says:

    I am with Richard on this one. Even the best scanned record can be more difficult to read than the original, and OCR still has a long way to go even with printed material. It is so much more challenging for hand-written things.

    Transcription is also no sure route to comprehension or accuracy – just look at the number of times we send corrections to the big family history sites. Some of the mistakes in transcription are just funny; others more serious as they bend the reality of the record.

    I think it will be a long time before any robust cost-benefit analysis shows that digitising every document in every archive will be better value than hard copy, accompanied by knowledgeable archivists.

  4. Tim says:

    I share Richard’s view that just being able to touch originals and being able to see documents in their native source form is a massive ‘pull.’
    I think there is little likelihood in our lifetimes however for every single document to be digitally delivered -commercial partners are likely to always be integral to this however as taxpayers aren’t going to fund it fully by any means.
    I’m a fan of digitisation, but I recognise it’s distinct disadvantages also.

    Let’s hope we can all get back to those hallowed halls very soon.
    My best wishes to the superb staff of the NA.

  5. Amanda Bevan says:

    Thank you so much for these two portraits of the archives slumbering at Kew, but also still generating new interest and new insights. And I loved the local residents taking the gardens, the wildlife and the ‘skate park’ to their hearts – maybe in future we should have a Sunday skate park.

    I’m one of the 500+ TNA staff working from home, and I’m busy generating new descriptions to pour into Discovery. My job is to open up access to legal records held at Kew, from c1385 to the 2000s – a long period to think about. Far from all being digitised, many are not really described at all, or are described in paper catalogues written as far back as the 1550s. And since we come from a culture which is historically both litigious and law-respecting (not abiding), we have vast quantities of legal records.
    So if in future you find entries in Discovery detailing 18th and 19th century gifts of land in your village, town, city or county, for the charitable purposes of extending education, healthcare and religion, think of me at home, checking obscure spellings of Welsh place names from the 1800s, marvelling at the transformation of the South Wales valleys, the beauty of their ancient churches and the force and dedication of their new working classes in building so many chapels, grand or humble, and in reaching after education and worlds of the mind beyond their own workplaces. You may have to wait a while, as I have the English counties to work through too, but it will be worth it!
    And that’s just one of the projects I’m moving forward…

  6. Ruth says:

    Fascinating reading! I’m also an archivist – in South Africa – doing mainly freelance contract work. Sadly I cannot work from home as my current collection (the one I was working on until 25th March) only exists on paper and the holding entity is closed under our ‘stay-at-home’ regulations. Am longing to get back though… even if it’s a bit creepy at times!

  7. Barbara George says:

    Holding and reading original documents is a humbling experience; although some documents are reports, others are letters that give a glimpse of a different life.
    There is nothing more thrilling than an unexpected find: the incorrect reference ordered or delivered, a box of documents covered in dust (ground powder for blotting the ink) that probably hasn’t been opened since it was packed, a sealed document or just one that gives a link to another thread of research.
    And the staff are truly amazing in their knowledge and dealings with the public.
    I treasure each of my visits to the Archives, wish I could visit more often.

  8. Elizabeth Csanig says:

    Thank you Amanda! That is a vast amount of work covering many, many centuries. I love history and genealogy is my passion and I would love nothing more than to visit the National Archives and to walk through the many places my ancestors have trod, mostly in Scotland and some in England. Unfortunately, I live in Canada and may never be able to get over there, so to read about and see these fine old buildings and some showing only remains still touches me! Again thank you!

  9. Glenys says:

    I too remember the look on my husband’s face when he found a document in a file marked Miscellaneous. It was a certificate of his 5 x great-grandfather passing his Gunners Examination in the British Navy in 1793. To think he was holding the same document was much better than finding it digitally.

  10. Bernadette Cherowbrier says:

    Amanda, your job sounds amazing

  11. Frank McCall says:

    The reason for the closure was the discovery the humidity control plant of air/con system had been switched off. It was confirmed by management following a tip-off from one of the engineers.

    At the time Dr P M Barnes was the Deputy Keeper and I was the Accommodation Officer. I do not recall anyone collapsing although people were experiencing “dry eyes”. Someone should check the files in the E2/4 series.

  12. Richard says:

    Hello again Good People at National Archives. I have just had a very pleasant surprise when going to check whether TNA has a certain document in its digital collection….

    These can now be downloaded free of charge.

    Thank you. I won’t be so vain as to think this is down to me and my suggestion but thank you all the same.

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