The Library at The National Archives

Michael Little introduces us to the Library at The National Archives.

The Library at The National Archives has existed since the 1830s, albeit in various guises, and been open to the public since 1997. It contains around 65,000 volumes and its principal purpose is to act as a research library to support the main document collection which has been open to the public, also since the 1830s. The library collection holds titles on a wide range of subjects and acquires new titles with users of the archive collection, including staff, in mind. I have worked in the library since 2001 in different roles but always doing cataloguing. The library has been through several changes in this time but its core collection and aims have remained basically the same.

Amongst its collection, the library holds a large collection of local history society runs, divided up into English counties. Whilst holding these runs is not unique, it is very helpful to have complete runs of these on open access. Many of these societies still produce new volumes and we receive them on a regular basis. They contain both volumes of essays and monographs and cover subjects like cartularies, wills, priory charters, Feet of Fines, Assize Rolls, depositions and eyres. In addition, the local history section contains a large number of monographs on a wide range of topics such as histories of villages, towns and counties, local finance, education, law, rural life and architecture and more All English counties are represented, some with more than one local history society collection. These are an invaluable resource for users of the archive collection and anyone conducting local history research. They can be an excellent starting point for archival research and in some cases are a useful research end in themselves.

Title page of Alfred Wyon's 'Great Seals of England'

Title page of Alfred Wyon’s ‘Great Seals of England’

Another noteworthy aspect of the library collection is its collection of books on seals. Seals form an important part of The National Archive’s holdings with over a quarter of a million of them in the document collection. Seals are an interesting and useful historical source; they are used to authenticate and quite literally to seal documents. They can tell us a lot about the time they originate from and are often very interesting in themselves and shed light on the art, customs and power structures of the time. Frequently they are unique. The library holds a large collection of books on seals, one of the best collections on this subject outside the British Library and the Society of Antiquaries. The majority of these are in the main library collection whilst some of these are housed in the library’s rare book collection (which comprises titles published before 1800). Rare books are not on open access but they can be consulted with a reader’s ticket.

One of the most interesting examples of a study on seals is Alfred Wyon’s (1837-1884) The Great Seals of England, published in 1887. Wyon came from a large family of medal makers and engravers who were specialists in the field. We hold two copies, one of them annotated.

Example of seals

Example of seals

Another example of seals

Another example of seals

It contains fine illustrations and plates, along with descriptive text outlining the history of seals in England. It is a rare and very useful title.

You can find several titles relating to seals in the local history society runs that we hold. One of these is Facsimiles of Early Charters from Northamptonshire Collections, (1930) part of the Northamptonshire record society, edited by F M Stenton. This volume acts a useful guide to seals of Northamptonshire as they appear on the county charters. It has some excellent illustrations and plates alongside the text. This is another excellent example of a title on this subject.

There are many titles similar to this in the library and like this title contain excellent illustrations and plates alongside, often extensive, text. The interest in seals is somewhat of a niche market and those books that have been and that are still produced, tend to be of high quality and published or produced in small numbers.

Examples of more general titles are Guide to Seals in the Public Record Office and A guide to British Medieval Seals alongside many others.

We also hold several catalogues of seals relating to archive holdings of other organisations such as those held in Durham Cathedral and to some collections overseas, especially France. In addition there is also a good collection of books on Scottish seals. These are indispensable guides to seals collections. What we hold on this subject to an extent reflects the interests of members of staff in seals over the years.

As a footnote to our holdings on seals, our Collection Care Department now has a research fellow working exclusively on this subject.

Explore Copac records for works on seals held at The National Archives Library

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