Now I have never been to the main National Archives in DC, but I have been to the New England branch in Waltham, so I'm not really comparing apples to apples, but this National Archives was so user-friendly. The current TNA (The National Archives) is a formation of various different branches of the government who deal with information, all in one organization now.
Upon entering, there is a welcome desk, which provides maps and guidance to visiting. The woman I spoke with was quite friendly, and when I mentioned I was a post-graduate from the US who was interested in archives, she invited me to come back and visit during the archivist talks which were held almost weekly and also gave me a link to the webcasts. My first stop was to the lockers to put away my things, as you were only allowed pencils (without erasers), notebooks, and cameras inside the reading room.
Walking into the reading room, you are confronted with a "Start Here" desk, where visitors are pointed in the right direction, depending on their research. There are two further enquiry desks in other areas for more specific help, each of which deal with certain topics, for example one desk would be used for help with military, maritime, transport and family history enquiries. I like how the topics are split up, because you know that when you do ask for help, the person helping you is more specialized and can provide the best assistance. Sometimes it is truly better to have a deeper knowledge of a small area than knowing many things but little about them. At the "Start Here" desk, I asked about the types of people visiting and was told that many are there for family history, especially interest in a family member's war records, but also students come who are working on a thesis. Walking around, the room was quite full on a lovely Saturday and the people nearest me were all family historians, mainly using the computer databases.
There is a separate microfilm room, where once you request a roll it will be brought, and a separate help desk for that room. In addition on another floor is the map room/large document room, which I did not visit. On the ground floor is what is called the "Keeper's Gallery," where treasures of the archives are put on display. They had a very nice display showing how you can trace your family history using documents found in TNA, and gave real examples of what other people had found about their families. Included in the display was a computer terminal linking you to TNA website.
There is a really wonderful online presence, and in fact there were a huge number of computer terminals, all of which linked directly to TNA website. Playing around on the website, I discovered that TNA also works to help instruct other archives and repositories in proper procedures, setting the standard for the nation. You could spend days exploring all the links on the website! I especially love the easy-to-use and easy to understand links on "what is an archive" and the numerous online research guides to help you find what you are looking for on a wide variety of topics, many of which end up guiding you to other repositories, not just TNA.
After the visit, I went over to Kew Gardens. It was about a 15 minute walk from TNA to Kew Gardens, which was a really nice visit and maybe someday I can visit in May when their lilacs are in bloom, because that would be heavenly! There are a few Victorian glass houses to visit, which probably was not the best idea on a very hot day, but it was so pretty and green inside:
There was also a treetop walkway, which sounded very exciting but once you are up there it kinda sways back and forth a bit:
Also on site is Kew Palace, favorite home of George III:
A few more garden pictures:
And now I am all packed up and ready for Edinburgh! Our class spends three nights at Dalkeith Estate and then it is the mini break, which I am spending on an island in the north of Scotland for four nights; I'm really looking forward to a little relaxation after three weeks of being on the go.