Hello erudite readers! It’s been a while since my last post but I just wanted to update you on a recent visit to the Essex Record Office.
At the start of this year we were fortunate enough to receive a talk from the ERO’s senior conservator, Diane Taylor, on the conservation and handling of rare books and manuscripts. As a history graduate who has used a range of special collections, I thought the talk was incredibly interesting and opened up an area of work which I hadn’t fully considered before. As a result of our group’s collective intrigue, Diane suggested that we come and visit the Essex Record Office, where she could provide a deeper insight into the work which goes on there and show us around the facilities.
Fast forward to a rainy Monday morning at the beginning of April, and our group were eagerly bundling into three cars to begin our journey towards the record office. Despite a minor traffic delay, we made it to the ERO on time and were welcomed by Diane before being introduced to her colleague Hannah, who is the Engagement and Events Manager. Hannah was given the task of showing us around, and began our tour by outlining how the facility provides public access to the records. Similar to other archives, a visitor is first required to have a reader’s ticket before accessing any of the items. This allows staff to monitor who has had access to what records, and also means that they have the contact details for everyone who does enter. (More information on visiting is available via the ERO website).
Upon entering the search room we were showed two interesting displays. One was centred on the suffrage movement, telling the stories of Essex women who took a range of actions against the government in the early twentieth century. While the other was based around an image of Stow Maries Aerodrome, taken c. 1918, which was used to commemorate 100 years since the establishment of the Royal Air Force. Both displays were very informative and interesting, and both stood as a testament to the records which are held within the ERO.
Continuing our tour, Hannah showed us various pieces of equipment used to improve record access, including microfiche and microfilm readers. We also discussed the search room rules, and spoke about the interactions which archivists have with researchers. With this in mind, we were provided with the opportunity to view a collection of county maps that are regularly used, which re-exemplified the breadth of records which the ERO endeavours to keep.
As we moved out of the public search room and into a different area, a slight drop in temperature confirmed that we had entered one of the conditioned store rooms. Here Hannah spoke about the precautionary measures which ensure record preservation, before displaying some of the oldest documents. My personal favourite was a highly decorative bible, which is believed to have been owned by Charles I. The fine colourful embroidery which adorns the cover provided an opportunity to interpret the past differently, as we marvelled at the level of craftsmanship which undoubtedly went into the book’s production.
Following a short break where we were offered tea, coffee and a choice of chocolatey biscuits, Diane led us to the record conservation laboratory. The room was filled with all sorts of equipment which relates to record conservation. After an extremely thorough and insightful overview of the work which Diane completes, we were offered the chance to partake in some paper restoration ourselves. (Fear not retrophiliacs – the paper which we attempted to restore had come straight from the recycling bin!) After watching Diane perfectly demonstrate how to repair a paper tear, we were encouraged to follow suit. To say that the end results were mixed is an understatement. My first two attempts ended in disaster, as the first repair cloth tore and the second got stuck to a marking sheet. On my third attempt, however, I was met with relative success as I managed to partially repair the tear.
After the exercise Diane showed us a range of other techniques which she might use on different records, and we were provided with an opportunity to ask further questions about her career as a conservator. On our way out of the building Diane also showed us the digitisation studio, where we briefly discussed the ever-increasing role of digitisation and the importance which it will continue to have upon the archival world.
Overall our visit to the Essex Record Office was incredibly interesting and thoroughly enjoyable. On behalf of myself and my colleagues, I would like to thank Diane and Hannah for an extremely rewarding visit which illuminated a fascinating area of employment.