The Imperial War Museum is located in the former heritage listed Bethlehem Royal Hospital and was founded in 1917. The IWM website states that it “is unique in its coverage of conflict, especially those involving Britain and the Commonwealth, from the First World War to the present day. [They] seek to provide for and to encourage the study and understanding of the history of modern war and ‘wartime experience'”.
I met with Sarah Patterson, Family History Librarian working in the Collections Access area. Sarah is also the author of Tracing your Prisoner of War Ancestors: the First World War. I had been pleased to hear her speak with her colleague at “Who Do You Think You Are? Live” a couple of weeks ago on Using the Imperial War Museum & UK National Inventory of War Memorials for Family History Research. We met in the dormant “Explore History” section of the museum and talked over the clearly audible noises of construction taking place on the other side of the wall. This area is usually available for visitors to wander in and access video and oral history collections on computers as well as browse magazines and books of interest arranged in general military subjects. There is also internet access to sites such as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission . As well as The National Archives, another good resource is Military Genealogy. Not many World War one era papers are available yet via the British Newspapers Archive as it concentrates on pre 1900 papers.
A serious enquiry, which is usually related to researching an individual, will be referred to resources available in the Reader’s Room. Dependant upon available staff and seats, an appointment might have to be made. This area provides computers and access to the catalogue, as well as experienced staff, where items may be requested from the (off public access) library. The room also provides easy access to regimental histories and general reference books.
Individual service records for World War One cannot be accessed at IWM. Only about 30 percent of these records have survived and those that have are available via The National Archives.
A number of signposting guides are available as hard copies to assist researchers. These include tracing Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force Ancestry, Army Ancestry, Merchant Navy Ancestry, Royal Navy Ancestry, Prisoners of War and Home Front Ancestry 1939-1945. Records at the IWM will help place wartime experiences into context; often researchers will be referred to records and organisations outside the IWM.
Sarah gave me a brief tour behind the scenes including the bulk of the library’s collection, explaining that they use an in-house classification system based on the UDC. The collection also includes works from other countries including Australia, New Zealand, USA and Germany. Topics include military unit histories, theory of warfare, military strategy, biography, autobiographies and rolls of honour.
Following on from Sarah’s talk at “Who Do You Think You Are? Live”, we also spoke briefly about the War Memorials Archives (formerly known as the UK National Inventory of War Memorials), which is the national archive register for war memorials located in the UK, Channel Islands and Isle of Man. Currently the archive holds information on over 62,000 of the estimated 100,000 UK war memorials. Learn more at War Memorials Archive.