Recording our history for future: what it's like to be a city archivist

Archives are the gifts of one generation to another, providing a fascinating insight into our past and helping us to trace our roots.

From letters, reports and registers to maps, photographs and newspapers, they can be used to build up a picture of what life was like in times gone by.

Wolverhampton City Archives has more than 135,000 historical records and a dedicated team works to preserve the collection, make it accessible to the public and secure significant modern records for the future.

History graduate Heidi Mcintosh has been a senior archivist based at the grade II listed former Molineux Hotel building, which retains many of its original features, since 2010.

One of her most important jobs is to decide what things to keep for the future and what things to leave behind.

It’s not always an easy decision because what’s chosen to be preserved for the years to come will directly affect how the people of the future understand and learn from their past.

But Heidi, who previously worked at Worcestershire County Council’s record office, says there are a few general guidelines to follow to make the process easier.

“People might bring us something they’ve found in the loft or we might get larger collections such as when businesses go under and to preserve their records, they are deposited with us. We only collect things relating to Wolverhampton and places within its current boundaries.

“With printed material, we only keep one copy. We don’t tend to keep family holiday snaps unless it’s an important family. But it’s not just about importance and significance as we have records from small businesses and local groups and societies.

“The decision then comes down to us and whether we think people can learn from it in the future and the ideal is to be representative of the community,” she explains.

The ever-growing collection includes maps, books, census returns, newspapers, records from local schools, churches, clubs, societies and businesses, electoral registers, and indexes to births, deaths and marriages.

There are also more than 30,000 photographs, plus films, sound recordings and memorabilia relating to the history of all parts of Wolverhampton including Bilston, Bushbury, Penn, Tettenhall and Wednesfield.

Heidi first got a taste for archives while working as a heritage assistant at Surrey Local History Centre where she would help members of the public with researching their family history. She then completed a master’s degree in archives and records management, recognised and accredited by the Archived and Records Association (ARA).

Only a handful of universities offer the course and students learn to manage, organise, describe, interpret and provide access to records created in the present and those inherited from the past, and also to maintain and preserve records for use in the future.

After spending seven years working in Worcester, holding a variety of posts before finishing as the information continuity manager, Heidi moved to Wolverhampton.

She quickly got stuck into getting know the city, its history and its people and since then she has come into contact with many fascinating records and documents.

“I’ve always loved the older documents because there’s a sense that you are in touch with centuries ago. There have been a few times where reading something has sent a shiver down my spine like an old white feather letter sent to someone perceived as a coward during the war.”

One of her favourite items is a love letter written using a technique often known as cross hatching. This is where the writer composes the letter normally, then turns the paper 90 degrees and continues writing across the page perpendicularly.

It was commonly done to save on expensive postage charges, as well as paper.

“It’s not something I’ve seen very often and it can look impossible to read at first but once you know how, you can follow it,” says Heidi.

The oldest items in the collection date back to 1311 and are small title deeds which were found among paperwork belonging to a city architects firm.

With more modern records, our ever-changing technology can also present challenges when working out what to preserve for the future. “I had a box of floppy discs deposited so before I could even see if there was anything worth saving, I needed to find a way of reading them as it’s been years since most people used floppy discs,.

The archives centre is open to the public on four days of the week and Heidi, along with the rest of the team, are on hand to assist people carrying out research such as helping to dicipher old-fashioned documents.

Fragile material is protected and stored in areas that maintain ideal conditions for preservation.

The archives centre also houses a conservation studio where Heidi works closely with a conservationist who will restore records that have been damaged over the years. This work is particularly important if only one copy exists or if a document is incredibly rare and it is not known if another copy might turn up again.

In 2016, the archives centre was awarded accredited status by the National Archives after achieving national standards relating to managing and preserving collections and the service offered to the public. “I’m proud of what we’ve achieved with little resources. There is some fantastic stuff in Wolverhampton and I enjoy working with the records and working in this building,” says Heidi.

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