DCH Library Team visit to the Dorset History Centre

Jack Welch, Library Assistant Apprentice, describes a recent visit to the Dorset History Centre.

Whether it is searching for your family history or seeking to understand a bygone era of Dorchester and its historic legacy, Dorset History Centre is the one stop service to find this information and more. Formed out of the now defunct Dorset Record Office and the County Local Studies Library, the centre hosts a vast collection of personal, journalistic and significant – as well as minor – materials that are largely accessible to the public. As part of my apprenticeship, some of my assignments are specified on archives and preservation of information, including digital records.

One of the strong rooms in the Dorset History Centre with rows of shelving containing boxes.

Along with members of the library team, we set off to the Centre for an organised visit, hosted by their Community Engagement Officer, Maria Gayton. With a guided tour around the building, we got a taste of the impressive Bankes Collection, a large-scale partnership which has been underway since 2015 (and still going from the volunteers who we saw cataloguing documents onto the system!) Like libraries, archivists have a role in assisting users to identify interest areas from members of the public who request to see documents, helping to direct resources and information which may not have been previously identified by the user.

Since the advent of COVID, and the growth of smartphones, demand and usage of documents has changed substantially compared to how they operated in the past. With the press of a camera shutter, people no longer need to spend long periods consulting documents in the facility, but rather take the information away on their phones and return the archived material. Another challenge is with any archived material that is uploaded onto social media channels, such as Facebook, the ownership of such records is difficult to hold and is not something that can strictly belong to the archive. However, digitisation itself is simply not feasible for all physical archives, which will be an unending task itself, and there is not just the capacity to take on this kind of work.

We were also taken into the strongrooms, which are the repository of many valuable archives that need to be protected from wear and tear across different forces. Upstairs in the centre holds the film and sound archives. Damp, pests and fire are just some of the risks which can cause lasting damage to documents that are almost certainly very fragile from being around for a lengthy period.

A person holding a pest glue trap with dead spiders and insects.

Air conditioning allows control of maintaining the materials and withholding any instance that can inflict humidity, which in turn promotes mould generation (which is never a welcome sight!) It’s an expensive aspect of running an archive with the energy costs, but one that is very much necessary. There are also solar panels installed on the roof to harvest those resources in a more cost-effective manner.

We were also shown the effects of the havoc that moisture and poor temperature control can lead to with one poor artefact that is now otherwise ruined.

A person holding an artefact, damaged by damp.

One of the most fascinating processes is upstairs in preservation and the work which protects archived material and safe for hands to come into contact. Washi (otherwise known as Japanese Paper) is often used for conservation purposes, and it is with painstaking effort that archivists at the Centre have been making sure that recent railway related documents are preserved for the years to come.

The Centre has a publicly accessible catalogue online, which comprises of a rich and extensive range of archived material from research guides to oral histories and electoral registers. It is very much worth a look and browsing through the many centuries of history to be found Browse collections – Epexio (dorsetcouncil.gov.uk).

The visit to the History Centre was especially informative in light of the fact the service is distinct from our own here at the library. While we might be providing the latest in articles and reading materials, the past and historic documents are more likely to be of greater interest to visitors over there, where you can find plenty about the history of this hospital.

An archive railway map and washi - Japanese paper - overlaying the material.