Working From Home: One Year Later – Collections

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!

Here is what staff have been working on, one year after we first received news of our closure. See Part One for what the Searchroom Team have been up to – now it’s Collections turn!

On 17 March last year when the Record Office closed its doors and everyone left to work from home none of us knew how long the pandemic would last. As we packed our bags and said goodbye it felt a bit like the last day of term but without the holidays to look forward to and with none of the certainty of what might lie ahead. We were finally able to reopen to the public in August with all of the COVID-19 restrictions in place to keep everyone safe. We then closed in November, reopened in December and have been closed again since January.  Twelve months on we are older and perhaps wiser and can look back at the events of the last year while planning for our return.

One of the key questions in all of this is how do you run an Archive Service without access to the archives? Thanks to all of the hard work and ingenuity of the staff the answer is that you can do quite a lot as you will see from their stories below. The Searchroom Team of Matthew, Abbie, Immie, Di, Susie, Ian, Alice and Katie have all been answering enquiries from home (as detailed in the prior blog) and working hard to make sure that everything ran smoothly while we were open. Running a restricted service, booking seats in advance and quarantining documents is not without its challenges but they made it work and did so with a smile as they welcomed our users back into the search room.

In between their search room duties, the team have also been adding a wide range of content to the catalogues that will help people to find and use even more of our documents. Clare and Sarah have been doing a fantastic job in keeping the digitisation service running and Nick has been working with our wonderful volunteers, many of whom have continued to work on remote tasks. Nichola has been developing resources for schools whilst Katherine has been working on our catalogue of school archives. Jo has been doing great work on our Transatlantic Ties Project, using digital resources and books provided by Martin.

View looking down the search room. Photograph by Abigail Hartley

We have continued to work with our partners including our colleagues at Screen Archive South East on West Sussex Unwrapped, which continues to inspire and delight people with an ongoing series of archive films and documents on a wide variety of topics. Screen Archive South East and The Novium Museum have joined us in developing the COVID-19 Community Archive, which will help to document the pandemic and its impact on the county of West Sussex for future generations.  

The success of West Sussex Unwrapped has led us to explore other avenues for remote access and engagement and we have been working on Zoom talks and other online activities to share with everyone both now and in the future. In the meantime Abbie and Alice have continued to run our social media platforms including our blog so that we can keep in touch with our users and continue to share our news and stories from the archives.

Behind the scenes the Records Management Team of Matt, Andy and Derrick, have been running the service throughout the pandemic to make sure that County Council staff throughout West Sussex could continue to access their files. Jenny, Matthew, Martin, Nichola, Nick, Abbie and Clare have all been in on a rota basis over the last twelve months to check on the archives and keep the building open for essential services including those provided by our colleagues in the Coroner’s and Registration Teams, who have all been working so hard under such difficult circumstances.  

Last but no means least I would like to pay tribute to our receptionists, who have come in every day to help us run the service, and to James, Steve and Darren, whose unstinting and rigorous cleaning routines have enabled us all to come in and work in a safe environment.

I could not be prouder of the wonderful team at the Record Office, who have all helped to keep the show on the road over the last year and have supported each other so well along the way.

Wendy Walker, County Archivist

I have spent time going through the Schools catalogue. I’ve been trying to make sure that every establishment (they’re not all schools) has some history, such as the date it opened, and that the information is up to date. This has been quite challenging when schools have changed their names, or merged, or split. In some cases, where an internet search has been unsuccessful, I’ve resorted to phoning the school. This turns out to be only useful for the past ten years or so, though – as long as the memory of anyone in the school office. I was rather discouraged from phoning when I was met with the response, “But you’re from the Record Office!” that is, I should already have all the facts at my fingertips. Sometimes the catalogue entries for the school log books contain helpful information about the date of a name change. However, it is very easy to be diverted by other entries. My favourite was in March 1901, when no less than three schools in Worthing were either closed or had low attendance after the SS Indiana was wrecked offshore, and ‘the beach was covered with oranges and lemons’.

Katherine Slay, Archives Assistant

Photograph of a desk set up, with a monitor, laptop, mouse, notebooks and other office supplies.
Photograph by Martin Hayes

Finding solutions to keep our American project, Transatlantic Ties, on track has dominated my work over the last 12 months. Using a digital camera to make access copies of documents, so far we’ve been able to upload over 5,800 images of records to a shared server for research. 2020 saw some significant anniversaries: former County Archivist Alan Readman and I researched and wrote newspaper articles and blogs commemorating VE Day 75th in May and the West Sussex airfields and the Battle of Britain 80th in September. A current, ongoing task is checking the tremendous work done by the Local Studies Photo Volunteers team who have catalogued around 30,000 photographs, engravings and works of art, covering all parts of West Sussex.

I have also been liaising with Library Service colleagues on various issues but particularly on the Worthing Library Community Hub project. The brilliant, newly refurbished library will re-open this summer looking radically different inside. More digitised sources will be available, not only at Worthing but at all 36 libraries, including: over 10,000 photographs on all West Sussex towns and villages, over 1,700 prints and engravings from the 1640s to late 1800s and over 26,000 newspaper cuttings on the history of Worthing.

I still don’t miss the 40 mile round trip car journey to Chichester though working at home can be lonely! Despite our regular MS Teams virtual meetings, I do miss the face-to-face contact with all my colleagues.

Martin Hayes, County Local Studies Librarian

It’s hard to get my head around the fact that since the onset of Covid-19 and WSRO’s first closure, there has been only one occasion – one! when I’ve hopped on the train to Chichester to go into the office. Working as a Project Archivist can be a slightly isolating job at the best of times, as it’s focused on just one area (our Transatlantic Ties American project) and can feel a little disconnected from the day to day life of the Record Office. Throw in a global pandemic and the sense of being a lone cave dweller far removed from civilization occasionally creeps in. A saving grace has been the great support team at WSRO, who I meet with on a monthly basis to keep the project on track. Shout out especially to Martin, our County Local Studies Librarian (and my manager), whose sterling work digitising literally 1,000s of pages of American documents has enabled me to carry out essential research for the project whilst based at home.

Advertisement for the Fall River Line and the steamboat Providence, the line went between New York and Boston.
WSRO Add Mss 30058

Inevitably, in the year since the world turned upside down, we’ve had to rethink and re-evaluate how we’ll achieve our project goals. There have been some difficult decisions to make – we’ve reluctantly had to abandon plans for a large-scale volunteer recruitment programme, to take one example. I’m still to meet our esteemed Project Board members in person. On the other hand, there have been some undoubtedly positive benefits which have developed through our enforced change in circumstances. As I explained in an earlier post [link], we were extremely grateful to be granted a one-year extension to Transatlantic Ties by our funders, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. This extra time has been so beneficial in giving me the space to explore the American material we have more fully and to increase my understanding of the history and context surrounding these records. I also think it’s enabled us to reflect more deeply on our project aims and consider how we present and encourage engagement with troubling documents and subjects – our focus on the topic of slavery being a prime example.   It’s also been a huge bonus to have other WSRO staff getting involved and contributing their experience, skills and impressive knowledge of our collections to research into Sussex emigrants to the United States. I should mention, too, how indebted we are to our heroic reprographics duo, Clare and Sarah, who will be taking over the task of producing the high-spec digital images of documents which will be shared on our website.  So, all in all, changes and challenges aplenty, but I’m excited for the future of the project, and reminded again that despite my current hermit-like existence, I work with the most supportive, interested and generous team of colleagues. Maybe I’ll even see some of them again one day soon! Link to previous post can be found here!

Jo McConville, Heritage Project Manager: Transatlantic Ties

Example of the work that went into reworking the hierarchy of the Poor Law collection. Screenshot by Nichola Court.

The past year has involved lots of work behind the scenes, helping to make our collections more accessible in various ways. I worked on our Poor Law catalogue, amending the structure to create one cohesive collection, entered keywords to link documents to the relevant organisation, added items to the catalogue and updated or improved a number of catalogue entries (now standing at over 1,300), and checked storage locations. I also checked and updated the storage catalogue for the entire County Council archive collection (over 13,000 catalogue entries!), identifying a number of misplaced items and amending our catalogue and storage lists accordingly. This has enabled my colleagues to add storage locations to our database, meaning that we will no longer have to consult our old paper lists (although they will be retained for reference purposes). Much of this work was made possible as I am part of the office’s small team of keyholders, so have been coming in on a semi-regular basis in order to ensure the building is safe and secure, open for essential services, including the Registration service, and that engineers have been able to access the building and carry out maintenance and repair work.

To help promote some of our more ‘unusual’ collections, I am continuing to submit entries to the Archives Hub, a centralised resource which provides access to catalogue descriptions from over 330 UK institutions. I have also contributed a number of pieces to our blog, including one for International Women’s Day 2021 and continue to provide data and information to various sources in order to promote our county’s suffrage campaigners.

Years – perhaps decades – in the making, I have also worked closely with our former Education Officer, Kim Leslie, on his extensive family history collection, the Corfield Papers. A fascinating and wide ranging collection, Kim published his richly-illustrated and very detailed hard copy catalogue in 2020; I have been involved with his project for a number of years, supervising a volunteer with the packaging and labelling, entering the collection into our database and updating entries as new information or records have emerged, and it is wonderful to see it finished and accessible to researchers – once we reopen. You can read all about it by clicking on this link, 

An example of the work we do for the remote school offer, in this case for Bury. Screenshot and powepoint by Nichola Court

Last but not least, I have spent the last few years developing an educational programme for the Record Office; unfortunately Covid put the brakes on physical visits but I have been working with Bury School to develop a remote offer; again, Covid – this time in the form of school closures in January – applied further brakes to this and I had to think again, yet again! As someone who has home-schooled two of their three children (and occupied the third!) at various points during this last year, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of remote resources – and the excitement of discovering them! Consequently, I am also working on developing a remote offer for all educators, to be used at home or in the classroom; this is very much a work in progress, so watch this space.

I don’t think that any of us thought in March last year that we would be reflecting back on a year of working from home. It’s been a very different experience but also a very productive one, enabling all of us to work on projects that we wouldn’t otherwise have had the time to do in the office.

Part of my work has involved co-ordinating the transfer of locations indexes from Word and paper format into our cataloguing system, CALM, which some of my other colleagues will have written about. So far 1834 new locations have been added to CALM and attached to records which is an amazing achievement. Thank you to Abbie, Alice, Di, Ian, Immie, Katie, and Susie for a huge amount of hard work and a brilliant job.

Three A4 sized posters wired between two wooden fence bars. A union jack flag is also tied to the top bar. The three posters have the NHS logo, plus rainbows as the centre point. Phrases like Stay Safe, Stay Home and Stay Fit are written around in colourful felt tip pens.
WSRO Covid19/3/4/13 – Birdham Primary School, three posters by the schoolchildren

I’ve also been responsible for managing our Covid-19 collecting efforts. Since we posted our plea for Covid-19 diaries and other material nearly a year ago we’ve received a steady stream of deposits – 54 so far. 15 of these deposits have been diaries whilst others include photographs, poems, emails about Covid-19, statistics, local publications, and newsletters from the County Council to residents and Council departments.

Over the last year I’ve also written a successful bid to the Business Archives Council to catalogue the Sir Freddie Laker archive which documents the rise and fall of Laker Airways and Skytrain and provides an important insight into 20th century aviation. You can read more about this project on the business archives council website. We haven’t started the project yet but will be posting about it on social media so please stay tuned!

Currently I’m helping with our remote offer. Since we haven’t been able to hold in-person events since the first lockdown we’re investigating ways of doing this online. So far I’ve talked about our Covid-19 archive on Zoom, recorded an introductory video about WSRO on Teams, and contributed to online seminars for Chichester University students. It’s all very different, but very exciting, and I’m looking forward to seeing this develop.

Jennifer Mason, Senior Collections Management Archivist

And there you have it! One year in lockdown and a lot of tasks to undertake. We hope to have news for you soon regarding re-opening. In all likelihood, we will be returning to the system we utilised during our time open last Autumn, with some alterations here and there. As soon as we know more, we’ll post news on our website and social media sites. Needless to say, we thank every single one of you for your patience during this time. We shall see you soon!

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