Explore Your Archive – A New Professional’s Perspective

People who visit archives regularly or work with them on a daily basis realise what a wonderful resource they are – we are the converted. However, the general perception of archives or archivists can vary quite widely. Lots of people do not know exactly what archives are or what an archivist does. And this is understandable.  When I was younger I thought that archive centres were mysterious places where you needed to know exactly what you were looking for to be allowed to access the information. My perception changed while studying for my degree in History, and since I’ve started working in an archive environment which is friendly and welcoming. I think the general perception is becoming slightly clearer over recent years, thanks to television programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are, where archivists get an opportunity to show off their records. But there may not been the general realisation that archive centres can provide wider resources and activities related to education and community groups. People often come to record offices as a result of a certain need for information. Explore Your Archive aimed to bring down the barriers that may have been stopping people from visiting an archive, and to increase accessibility and visibility of the sector.

Explore Your Archive was on the week commencing 16th November, but for me, the journey of Explore Your Archive started quite a bit earlier…

I am a Libraries and Archives Trainee at Stockport Local Heritage Library, which has a large archive collection. The archive is particularly strong in material related to the different functions of Stockport Council. We share a building with a lending library, and offer computer services for the public alongside resources for family and local history. As we have a large computer area in our heritage library, and are conveniently located near the town’s shops and facilities, many people come in solely to access the computers. This meant that Explore Your Archive was an excellent opportunity to showcase the archives held here, it was great to let people know the extent of what we can offer.  I started working here last April and found out about Explore Your Archive quite early on.  I thought it sounded really interesting, and was eager to learn more about what Explore Your Archive was about.

Back in July, three colleagues and I attended the Explore Your Archive workshop held in Manchester. This was hosted by staff from the National Archives, and the Archives and Records Association, who gave an overview of the project. All delegates were encouraged to attend the session with an idea of what we would be doing. My manager had decided that our theme would be education, as we have a particularly strong collection of school records. I was glad that we had already discussed our plans in some detail, as the workshop was intended to be very participatory, and included lots of group work activities. The day was well attended by archive staff in the local area, and it was great to get a chance to meet people working with archives, discuss ideas and see what other institutions were planning on doing.

Feeling inspired by the workshop, we were quick to get to work and decide how exactly we were going to cover our theme.  As there were going to be a few members of staff working on our project, we split the theme of education into a number of topics and each worked on our own areas. We were very ambitious and ended up covering a vast time period of over 600 years! In some ways we may have bitten off a bit more than we could chew, but we all were really interested in the research so it was a pleasure to be working on the exhibition. I focused on the Stockport Ragged School, the history of apprenticeships, and education reforms from the 1960’s to present day. I particularly became fascinated with the ragged school, as we hold a wonderful photograph album of children from the 1860’s who attended. Being able to hold photographs of the children really brought the ragged school to life for me. We had lots of material, so were able to cover several display boards alongside our ‘story box’ area – which we presented at a desk to give a feeling of being at school.

Explore Your Archive exhibition area
Explore Your Archive exhibition area at Stockport Local Heritage Library

In the week leading up to the Explore Your Archive date, we rushed to get everything finished. The final result was definitely worth the effort. We had decided to create reproductions of some of the more interesting items, so people could get an experience of holding archival material, yet we didn’t have to worry about supervising the exhibition area at all times. Our reproductions included a school photograph album, a report, a school magazine and letters that a young boy had written to his parents while he was at boarding school. Interactive elements included a history test from the 1930’s, which we photocopied so people could have a go at answering the questions. We also put up some comment cards, asking the public to answer a variety of questions such as ‘what do you remember about school dinners?’

We arranged for the council to post on Twitter to advertise our exhibition, a page was created on the website and we put up posters. The location of our main display required a reshuffle of furniture in the heritage library, which I think helped draw attention from our regular customers. Across the week, we noticed a steady number of people having a look at our display. It is hard to tell whether anyone had come to the library specifically for the display, and to measure the level of success we had at attracting people who would not usually visit a repository. We are usually a busy library and every day brings both familiar and unfamiliar faces. But overall, I am pleased with the level of interest that people have shown towards our display, and I hope our customers who may not have realised the extent of our resources are now more informed about what we can offer.

During the Explore Your Archive week, I visited the website regularly and enjoyed reading the posts from archivists. It’s great to hear about how other archive centres function. Explore Your Archive offered me the opportunity to build on my research experience and improved my presentation skills. It also gave experience of preparing an exhibition for a specific deadline.  It was a great project to work on during my traineeship, and I would enjoy getting involved with something similar in the future.

Lauren Binnie, HLF Libraries and Archives Trainee, Stockport Local Heritage Library

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