Understanding the Archives
The National Archives looks after the UK government's documents. It holds records dating back nearly 1,000 years from the time of William the Conqueror's Domesday Book to the present day. All sorts of documents are stored here, including letters, reports, newspapers, photographs, maps, posters and even a mummified rat.
The documents stored at The National Archives were created for the use of central government departments, and are not arranged by subject but by administrative function.
There are approximately 11 million documents looked after by the archives, on about 100 miles of shelving. This shelving grows by at least a mile each year, as more and more documents are handed over to the archives by government. In recent years, The National Archives has started to keep some of its documents in deep salt mines in Cheshire, in an attempt to save space at Kew.
Finding what you need
People visiting the archives to look at our documents don't have to search the 100 miles of shelving to find what they are looking for. Instead they can use the online Catalogue to search for documents that interest them, and to order documents straight to their desks in the public reading room.
As documents are catalogued with the working titles that government departments gave them, searching the Catalogue requires some creative thinking. Try thinking flexibly about the subject in question, considering whether the event or country concerned has changed its name over time, and using keywords (names, places relevant to the government at the time).
It is possible to find something on most topics from the past 1,000 years of British and even international history. Some very famous documents created by some of the most important and significant people in the past are kept here, including Shakespeare's will, Guy Fawkes' signed confession and the Jack the Ripper letters.
You can find out more about how the archives are arranged and how to use them in our animated guides.