“The next time you settle down in the evening to enjoy the latest work by your favourite historian, treasure it, because it may be their last for a while. This is for the simple reason that historians are effectively being denied access to one of the most essential tools of their trade — the National Archives.
For many, this non-ministerial government department may just be an ugly slab of 1970s concrete that sits on the Thames in Kew, but it is actually nothing less than the nation’s memory — for it is here that millions of documents produced by the British state during the past thousand years are held. From the Domesday Book to the measliest memorandum sent by the lowliest civil servant in the most wretched ministry, nearly everything could be looked at by anybody, so long as they could prove their name and address.
But now, thanks to absurd new access restrictions, it has become all but impossible for historians to carry out any decent amount of research there. These restrictions do not just hamper professional historians and PhD students, but also anybody using the archive to look up, say, what great-great-uncle Eric got up to on the Western Front, or even the documents associated with his divorce.
The current restrictions are oppressive. Kew is only open for four hours and 50 minutes per day, four days per week. On these days, visitors are only permitted to access nine documents, and they are only allowed to visit once a week. A small number of two-day appointments are available, during which visitors may access 20 to 40 documents from the same record series. Access to computers, microfilms, research advice and copying are no longer provided.
In addition, it appears that booking a slot to visit the archives is about as haphazard and difficult as booking Oasis tickets back in the 1990s. I have been told of many instances in which slots are taken within one second of the booking page being opened, which is no doubt a product of a reported tenfold oversubscription.
This means there is a de facto lottery in place to access the National Archives, and even if you are lucky, you are only permitted to consult a handful of documents.”