Access to the Parliamentary Archives
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Access to the Parliamentary Archives

November 25, 2019

Here in Victoria Tower we hold over four million
historical records from the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
These records really lie at the heart of our parliamentary democracy. They’ve embodied our liberties, our
rights and responsibilities for the past 500 years and include some of the most
important constitutional records in the world. We preserve all of Parliament’s records
in a wide variety of formats from the earliest to the most modern, so that’s everything
from 15th century parchment rolls to snapshots of our website.
We ensure that Parliament’s records can be preserved whatever their format both for current
and future generations. Members of the public who want to see
records in the Parliamentary Archives search our online catalogue, they then email us
a list of references of the documents and make an appointment to come in on a
particular day. We then fill out order slips for each document and we go into
the tower every morning to retrieve the material
and bring it down to our search room. Our core staff look at all the order slips
for the day and then figure out which floors they need to go to in the tower so
they can go and plan their journey through the tower and get each batch of
material accordingly. They’ll try and fetch out large items
first and then add smaller items along the way and try and avoid going to more
floors than necessary. There are always challenges. When they
designed this building they didn’t design it with archives trolleys in mind.
There are 12 floors which hold archive material, about six miles of shelving,
holding more than three million records, going back more than 500 years. The Victoria Tower was purpose-built
designed as a record repository but it wasn’t designed to have 12 floors and it
didn’t have any lifts in it at first and so the lifts had to be shoe horned in afterwards and they are very small. We turn around about five and a half thousand enquiries a year, which equates to something like about 16 a day. We people in the right
direction so we can tell them if we’ve got something or not or maybe we can
supply them with a copy of a document if they’re interested in a specific item. Most of the enquiries we get are by email,
also people do ring us up and ask us questions as well. The people who can’t come in to visit,
we have a range of different online resources. We do obviously have our online catalogue, which really helps people a lot because they can
identify material and then send us an enquiry, maybe asking for a copy of
something. We have a public search room here, which is open from ten o’clock until four every weekday. There’s something like now about a
thousand visits a year of people coming though. When people come and call us up and ask
to book an appointment what we try and do is to find out exactly what they’re
interested in because obviously we have to get material out of the repository and
that takes us a bit of time. Some people are academics who are
looking at some of our political and parliamentary collections, other people
are really interested in things like roads and railways because we have
thousands of plans for that kind of thing here and our staff are on standby to get
them expert help and guidance. We have about a thousand visitors a
year who come on group visits to the Parliamentary Archives. The idea is that they
experience behind the scenes so they don’t just see the search room where people
do their research but they get to go inside the Victoria Tower. We get groups of students, history students, or archive students, people with special interests, we get groups of family historians, people coming who are interested in the history or the heritage of the building. I find people are very, very
excited about visiting the archives. I’ve never yet had a person who wasn’t
excited by walking into the original Act Room and finding himself surrounded by
60,000 parchment rolls. We really want to make Parliament’s
records more accessible and to more people. We want to make it as easy as
possible for you to find the information that you want and then to use it in a
way that is most convenient and useful to you, whether that’s here in our public
search room or online from anywhere in the world. The story of Parliament is told through
its records and we act as custodians of those records on behalf of the British
people and our role is to ensure that that story can continue to be told and
understood both now and in the future.

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