Working From Home: One Year Later – The Searchroom

By the staff of West Sussex Record Office

Did any of us expect the new decade to start off in such a manner? It has now been one year since the first announcement of lockdown was declared. Last year, staff put together a blog outlining what we had been working on from home. In hindsight, perhaps naively, we all thought things by autumn would have improved – which they did enough for us to re-open on a more restricted basis – however come March we are once again awaiting news for re-opening. Having said all that, we continue to work from home, doing a surprising amount without direct access to the original documents we base our service around! In Part One we look at what the Searchroom Team have been up to. Check back on the 30th of March for what the Collections Team have been doing!

Here are just some of the projects and enquiries that the Searchroom Team have been working on, one year after we first received news of our closure.

Photograph of grey wooden dining table and chairs in a kitchen. On the table is a work laptop, lamp, notebook, pens and a pair of pink headphones.
Oh to have a proper office chair once again… Photograph by Abigail Hartley

As for myself, social media has become the air I breathe! The challenge of providing some level of remote access to our most interesting records whilst not having access to the originals 90% of the time has been fun to navigate. Our West Sussex Unwrapped series of blogs in particular have involved a lot of work to put together and share, but they have always been on such interesting topics. We are currently part of the way through season two as of the time of writing this post. I am very occasionally able to get to the office, of which I spend much of my time taking photos for upcoming social media posts. We have a couple of new ideas in the pipeline which we will hopefully be able to share with you soon. Remote access, more than ever, has been so important, so we are looking at ways to reach as broad an audience as possible, regardless of geographical location. I’ve also been doing my best to answer as many enquiries as I can despite the distance from the office – hopefully to a somewhat handy extent! Back in August I helped establish the procedures for the public for re-opening and continued to monitor and alter the rules with time and new government guideline. With some luck, we’ll be returning to the office soon, alongside these regulations, so the work with the public can pick up once more. We miss you!

Abigail Hartley, Searchroom Archivist

I don’t think many of us would have believed in March 2020, that in March 2021 we would still be working from our makeshift personal Record Offices at home. But one of the positive things to come out of being confined to the dining room table with no resources other than what can be found digitally, has been the discovery of the wealth of sources there are from special collections in different repositories around the country, digitised sources including for example maps, early Ordnance Survey drawings and historical directories. These sources have been most helpful in answering enquiries on a variety of subjects from researchers and it’s so pleasing to be able to send something to researchers whilst deprived of our original sources. We have also continued with the long term project of linking storage locations digitally to our catalogues, something that will be of great help to us in the future.

Diane Ladlow, Searchroom Supervisor

Like other Searchroom staff, I spent a good deal of the early lockdown editing catalogue entries (on CALM). I then took on the massive task of entering up-to-date storage details for the Episcopal records collection and in so doing I have high-lighted areas requiring further work which can only be done when the Record Office is open.

Although we have not been able to answers all email enquiries fully, it has been possible to assist quite a lot with family history; it has been satisfying being able to concentrate for longer periods without interruption and to explore all sorts of online resources.

I spent a few intense weeks training and preparing for possible redeployment. Although I didn’t start the new role ‘proper’, I am ready to slot in again if need be due to Covid-19.

Photograph of an excel spreadsheet listing locations. Some rows are highlighted yellow. Resting on the keyboard is the original paper locations catalogue. It has multiple hand written corrections and annotations pencilled on.
Photograph by Susie Duffin

Perhaps, the most enjoyable work that I have undertaken has been to research some Sussex emigrants who set sail for a new life in America. In the 1830s, some English parishes tried to reduce the burden of rural poverty by assisting poor parishioners to emigrate. Aldingbourne was one such parish. I have looked into the lives of a few of these Aldingbourne emigrant families and their descendants. For some families, tragedies and hardship followed, while other families thrived and appear to have succeeded in achieving the ‘American Dream’. I found it striking just how many were recorded as involved in their various churches, preaching and teaching. Quite a few family members fought in the American Civil War, too.

I discovered extra families that had emigrated from Sussex, including the elderly parents of one of the large families I’d been researching – Thomas Southerton was 70 when he emigrated and his wife, Lydia, was 68! The Southerton families were large and grew astonishingly larger the more I researched. Quite amazingly, I found that an ancestor of mine was related to them by marriage! (It is a bit of an ‘in-joke’ here at the Record Office that it seems I am related to a huge proportion of West Sussex families!)

Susie Duffin, Searchroom Assistant

Two tables spaced apart are in the foreground. Behind them are black and yellow taped off bookcases, the searchroom supervisor's desk, then a line of joined up table with three seats socially distanced apart.
The current search room layout – socially distanced of course! Photography by Abigail Hartley

Once upon a time, along, long, time ago in a land far, far, away in the mists of time when strange groupings of people got together inside buildings in quite close proximity to each other, (less than 2m) to do something called work! Tuesday 17th March 2020 was when it all stopped with the office been closed to the public because of COVID 19 and all of us been detailed to what to do when we started working from home the next day 18th March 2020.  I was given and detailed to do some card indexes of Doctors and Teachers.  As this was just one tray it did not take too many weeks to do and to go through and add into CALM (I think, it’s a long time since I did this).  After this I was moved onto doing Parish records to transfer from Word documents into Excel spread sheets, this went on for some weeks to months as there is a lot of Parish records to go through, and not always that straight forward as Word to Excel does through some curved balls of problems.  When this was done I was given work on putting locations into CALM from the Excel spread sheets.  I started off with Goodwood Estate, moving onto Standen and Druitt, this was followed WSCC records and now working on the Photographic catalogue which with others will take some time. The office has been open at several times during the past year with very limited numbers of the public in the search room and with limited staff, and at all times keeping our distance even when we are having our lunch in the tea room.

Ian Pennicott, Searchroom Assistant

The Royal Sussex Regiment archives continue to attract interest from far and wide and during lockdown many people have tried to find out more about their relatives and descendants who served in the Regiment. There is ever-growing expertise amongst the Searchroom team and, despite being away from the office for most of the year, we’ve been able to deal with many complex requests for information. And although there are still vast quantities of uncatalogued material, my work on the collection over the last few years has already been paying off. I was particularly pleased to be able to help Jaime Vardy who got in touch about her late granddad, Drum-Major Ron Cullen, who served with 1st Battalion during the 1950s and early 1960s and was awarded a British Empire Medal in 1962. A search of our online catalogue revealed that we had at least one photograph of him, but I was able to find more photographs amongst the uncatalogued material, including pictures of him with his wife Eileen May in Malta – one showing the couple dancing at a barbecue in August 1964 and another showing them at a “Ladies Night” dinner in December 1965. Jaime told me that, sadly, her Nan had recently passed away but that it was lovely to see pictures from happier times.

Matthew Jones, Assistant County Archivist

What work do we do at home when we can’t look at original documents? I certainly don’t think people would be happy if I took home documents that are 100’s of years old! A positive about working from home during lockdown has been that we have been able to focus on digitisation projects. If I was in the office I would never have had time to get these projects started let alone completed!

The main project I have been working on has been the digitisation of our document storage catalogues. Up until last year we used paper storage to find where documents were stored. Lockdown has given me the opportunity to create digital copies of these.

The process has been long and in depth. I picked four collections to work on and the starting point was their paper storage, which had been created in 1995 and with only pencil updates since. This meant some information was a tad out of date and I wanted to make sure the new storage was as comprehensive and complete as possible. The collections I am working on have hundreds of documents and I certainly didn’t have the time to check each location individually. As I was creating new lists, I would highlight any entries on the old storage that looked strange as well as other things to check such as the conditions of documents, access conditions etc. Once I had made an updated storage list it was then time to go through my ‘things to check list’ and further complete the new catalogues. By the way I am still working through my ‘things to check list’ for the collections!

A screenshot of a comparison of the paper and excel storage. The caption in the image reads: An extract of one of the lists I have been working on. It may look like a simple copy and paste but don't let that fool you, it definitely wasn't that simple.
Screenshot by Katie Bishop

So I had created new storage lists for each of the four collections. The next stage was to add the locations and any other notes I had made to our online catalogue. The catalogue is what the public see when they search for documents via our website. This step involves giving each entry an unique location number and linking it to the online catalogue entry. This is the step I am currently doing and so far I am 400 documents in to the 1000 map collection and that is the smallest of the four collections…yep it’s definitely a long term project!

Our aim by the end of it is that each document has a unique location which will make it quicker for staff to locate them. Having them digital also means that staff can access this information from home (very handy this year) and it can be easily updated if information changes.

So how do I sum up a year in lockdown?


Katie Bishop, Searchroom Assistant

Well it’s been a year and I’m still at my purpose-built desk, with a slightly different view of birds and squirrels, transcribing the WDC/PL20 card indexes donated by the WSCC Planning department. Thankfully I’m on the last drawer, and it would be nice to finish before we get back into the office and reopen to the public – whenever that may be. Look out for announcements on our websites and social media. The hope that these cards will prove useful is slowly coming to fruition and nearly every time I get a planning or house enquiry where the house was built in the 1940s-80s time frame I will always see if we have any WSCC plans. I still can’t look at them in person, but I can at least let people know they exist.

A photograph example of one of the index cards for planning applications made to the County Council. This one specifically refers to the Adur region.
Photograph by Imogen Russell

In amongst my card index project I’ve converted some of the Parish storage catalogues from word to excel so they can be added to our CALM database. I’ve also added to CALM a list of plans for Arundel Borough Council (BO/AR/16). This was interesting as there were buildings being built in preparation for WW2 such as  decontamination centres, but there were also included, plans from other areas outside West Sussex, presumably as examples to the town’s planners, who may not have had the experience of build housing estates in such a beautiful historic town.

The project I’m working on at the moment, with some of my colleagues is to locate emigrants, who emigrated to America in the early 1830s as part of Jo’s Transatlantic Ties project. Although a little difficult at first, I have managed to trace a few emigrants, from my local village of Aldingbourne. Such as George Smart who married in New Jersey, during November 1834, Anne Sotherton a girl from his village, with whom he emigrated with in 1831. Hopefully our research will provide useful case studies to add to the Transatlantic Ties Project. You can read more about this project at our series of blogs on the topic, starting here, and read more in next week’s blog entry by Jo herself.

Imogen Russell, Searchroom Supervisor

Check back next week on the 30th to see what the Collections Team have been working on this past year – there are more stories to be told! News for re-opening will hopefully come soon, when we know more news will be posted on our website and social media pages. In the meantime, we hope every one of you is safe. We shall see you soon!

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