Local authorities archivist

 15 May 2012

Ruth MacLeod is the Heritage Officer for the London Borough of Wandsworth. Based at Battersea Library, she looks after the Borough’s archives and local history library. The Heritage Service holds records dating back to 1489.

"Don’t assume the stereotypes are true - it’s not all hushed tones and dusty basements!"

Local authorities are charged with preserving and making available material of historical interest about the local area. The material forms the local archive, under the care of a team of archivists. 

"Original historical items are irreplaceable, so we have to be very careful how they are used and handled. Part of the job is making sure that nothing is lost, damaged or stolen.

Helping others access archive material

"All types of people use the service for all sorts of reasons:

  • some people have lived locally all their lives and are curious about the area
  • architects may want to look at old plans
  • people of all ages are interested in their own family history
  • school pupils who are doing projects and students undertaking research.

"We ask people to give us some notice when they want to access material. It is not always possible to produce material on demand. Many of our items are kept in storage rooms.

"Although we don’t research on behalf of customers, we can help with short enquiries – perhaps those taking up to 15 or 20 minutes of our time. We tell people what resources are available and can help them decide what they need to see. The service is open to the public five days a week with some evening and weekend opening hours.

"Our collection includes business records, family records, diaries, photos, building plans, title deeds, minutes of council meetings, church warden accounts and vestry minutes, drainage plan applications, and electoral registers.

"Get as much experience as possible before deciding this is the right career for you."

"I helped to set up an online catalogue where items are given unique references and described to international standards. Newspapers dating back to 1865 are stored on microfilm.

"Enquiries come through email and by phone as well as people calling into the library in person. If people tell us in advance we they are looking for, we can help them decide what will be most useful to them.

"Events include monthly drop-ins (often themed) and visits for groups. School visits are often planned and run jointly with children’s librarians. We work out which resources are relevant – encouraging them to think about life in Victorian times, for example. We allow them to handle the material under supervision.

Protecting the archive material

"As the items are irreplaceable and many are very old, we have to make sure that everything is stored in the right conditions. Packaging is very important. We use acid-free folders and boxes, polyester packs and unbleached cotton tape. The storage conditions in the strong rooms are constantly monitored to be sure that the temperature and humidity are as suitable as possible.

"We encourage careful, correct handling, including using book rests to protect the spines of old books. We do not allow eating or drinking in the search room and only pencils, no pens, may be used.

"Our job is to preserve historical items. Conservation, though, is the job of professional conservators.

Building a career in archives

"I have a history degree but did not think about a career in archives until I started a temporary job at the National Archives of Scotland. That sparked my interest and after spending some time at a local authority archive, I took the Masters course at Aberystwyth University.

"Original historical items are irreplaceable, so we have to be very careful how they are used and handled."

"My first job was a fixed term contract in Cumbria. During my time there, I finished my dissertation for my Masters. I then spent 2 years as the assistant archivist at the University of London, before moving into Wandsworth’s Heritage Service.

"My advice to anyone thinking of becoming an archivist is to get as much experience as possible, paid or voluntary, before deciding this is the right career for you.

"Archive work may be different from what you imagine – don’t assume the stereotypes are true – it’s not all hushed tones and dusty basements!"

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