Behind the scenes at the record office

When I saw that West Sussex Record Office was holding an Open Day with the possibility of behind the scenes tours I knew I needed to plan a Chichester trip!

I’ve been to WSRO a number of times in the past to undertake various pieces of research and on a quick reckoning I believe I have been to 8 other county record offices across the country, plus places like The National Archives and the Society of Genealogists.  I was therefore particularly intrigued to see what goes on behind the scenes.

I was really lucky that when I arrived they still had a few spaces left for the 11.30 tour – just time to pop my coat and bag in a locker.  At that point I bumped into Mick Henry of the Sussex Family History Group.  He was clutching his proof copy of the latest journal and I was so intrigued to hear about the background of one of the articles that I actually managed to miss the departure of the group tour!  However, I was swiftly taken through to join the group in the strongroom, where Jennifer, the Collections Manager, was talking about the conditions in which the documents are kept.  From there we moved on to a room at the back of the building where new acquisitions are kept in ‘quarantine’ and cleaned up if necessary.  Some new articles may arrive with mould or bugs so it’s obviously important not to introduce anything like that into the rest of the collections.

Moving through the building we were then introduced to the work of Screen Archive South East www.brighton.ac.uk/screenarchive .  Their work includes collecting, repairing and digitising old cine film which they are then able to make accessible to the public and they are interested in material from not just Sussex but from Surrey and Kent too.  We watched a little promotional film from 1970 on the joys of visiting Margate!

Upstairs we had the delight of watching one of the conservators in action as she showed us how she uses very light Japanese tissue paper (made of cotton, not wood pulp) to preserve fragile documents.  What patience and attention to detail you need for that work!  She was working on pages from a parish register and it is a lovely light and spacious working area.  After passing various offices and another room housing books we made our way back down to the reception desk and the hour-long tour was finished.  It was totally worth doing and it has given me so much more insight into the work that goes on at the record office.

After the tour I took time to look at the displays in the searchroom.  Various maps were available to view and also the oldest document held by the archives – a Grant of Land made by Oslac, leader of the South Saxons, in 780AD.  Members of the West Sussex Archives Society as well as the Sussex Family History Group were also on hand to answer questions and to help with research queries.

It’s so important that we use and support our archive services. Sometimes visiting a record office can seem daunting and the staff a little intimidating, but I’m sure that meeting so many friendly staff will have helped to break down that barrier for any visitors who had not stepped inside the building previously. The staff will have put a lot of hard work into organising the day but, judging by their tweets afterwards, the staff at WSRO were pleased with the number of visitors they welcomed at the open day.

In the Strongroom at West Sussex Record Office. I’m right at the back of the group on the right. (Photo is the property of WSRO, from their Twitter feed on 23 November 2019)

2 thoughts on “Behind the scenes at the record office

  1. Well written. It took me back a few years, well more than a few years actually. I went on a behind the scenes tour there probably back in the 90s. A good tip I picked up then is to use old cotton sheets and pillow cases to store old clothing etc items in. I remember raiding my Mum’s cupboards and drawers to find old cotton in which to store the family christening gown and my grandmother’s wedding dress.

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