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The National Archives from home: love letters, live chat and online records

The National Archives

Victoria Iglikowski-Broad, The National Archives’ principal records specialist, explores some of the ways that people can engage with the Archives’ wealth of resources at a distance.

One of the most powerful aspects of an archive is its physicality. At The National Archives you can usually order up most items within about 45 minutes; you can touch them, turn the pages and immerse yourself in a record that is often far older than you are.

How can we continue to engage audiences in an unprecedented time, when this isn’t possible? How can we try to replicate the excitement of a largely paper-based archive online? It’s been a challenge, but one we’ve tried to embrace.

Ultimately, there are plenty of ways you can keep learning, engage with our collections and pique your curiosity! From podcasts to live chat, here are just a few of our online resources allowing you to immerse yourselves virtually in the archives.

The podcast – On the Record

Our ‘On The Record’ podcast is now in its third series – with previous seasons exploring spies and protest. Our latest series is all about love, using personal letters and other written expressions over 500 years to reflect on love, lust and heartbreak. We had to close our ‘With Love’ exhibition early, however, you can now discover the stories of the people who featured through our podcast instead.

In episode one, we look at stories of disappointed and forbidden love through personal letters you might not expect to find in a government archive, such as the 1930s gay love letters of Cyril and Morris, and the poignant requests in Anne Listers’ will. The series is now available on the Archives Media Player and on all major podcast listening apps. 

Education resources – Time Travel TV

Suddenly found yourself home-schooling? Our award-winning education team has taken its expertise online. 

Time Travel TV is an educational show that parents and children can learn from together, exploring a selection of mystery documents from The National Archives’ vast collection. Broadcast twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, each episode follows a different theme – from Tudor monarchs to famous disasters at sea – and comes with plenty of follow-up activities to continue exploring and learning. 

The blog – Boredom Busters

Our blog has a great selection of information about our records, and my colleagues are writing more now than ever. Learn about everything from the inspiration behind the film Made in Dagenham to how to date family photographs. A great place to start is the Boredom Busters series, a hub of entertaining blogs and podcasts.

Handwritten letter to Prime Minister Harold Wilson signed the ‘Women Workers at Lords of Dagenham’. The National Archives, reference: PREM 13/2412.

Research – free access!

If you’ve found yourself with a bit of spare time on your hands, maybe now is the time to delve into some of our digitalised collections. We hold 1,000 years of history – and better yet, we’ve just made our online digital records available on our website free of charge for as long as our Kew site is closed to visitors. That’s almost 9 million items*! 

Register for the Using Discovery webinar to learn how to make the most of online catalogue.

Paddington station telephone exchange early 1900s. The National Archives, reference: RAIL 253/80.

Advice service – Live Chat

And if you need some help with your research at home? Our advisers can be reached via the Live Chat service, from Tuesday to Saturday, 9am-5pm. We may now be responding from our kitchens or studies, but we’re still here and ready to help! 

Archive from home videos

Inspired by the wonderful Museum From Home initiative that has gone down a storm on Twitter, we started up a series of archive videos from our homes, using the hashtag #ArchiveFromHome. Various specialists have just one minute to talk about items in our collection, from a 1930s gay club to medieval marginalia.

What’s Online programme

As we can’t deliver our events onsite at the moment, we’ve moved them online. Keep entertained with the What’s Online programme, which covers a variety of topics such as researching Caribbean or medieval migration, or quarantine protocol during Tudor epidemics. The pre-recorded talks are followed by a live Q&A with our record specialists. If you do happen to miss any of these, the Archives Media Player is a hub of talks, videos and podcasts.  

Finally – keep in touch!

We’re always trying to showcase new and exciting angles from our collections – often on TwitterFacebook and Instagram. Give us a follow or sign up to our newsletter to get all the latest news.

This is a tricky time for the heritage sector – like many others, we are having to adapt at a rapid pace to entirely new ways of working. But in some ways it is also showing the best of us. It is giving a unique space for innovation and creative practice; demonstrating our resilience and relevance to society.

*This may relate to a whole or partial record entry, as you can see here.

Victoria Iglikowski-Broad is The National Archives’ principal records specialist, and works on co-collaborative practice and ‘challenging histories’. She can be found on Twitter @vicky_ig.

Cover image: Flower design ‘With Love’ envelope, 1894. The National Archives, reference: COPY 1/114.

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