When you hear the word “archives”, do you think of the places that keep historical records, or the records themselves? It is a confusingly interchangeable term! For the purposes of this post, I am going to stick with the first meaning – there will be plenty about the contents of archives later in this series.
I work in an archive that is one of the network of county record offices set up in the UK from the early 20th century onwards. Building an archive – as in, literally constructing the building – isn’t an easy task as there are particular needs that have to be met. First, archives need to be kept safe and secure, ideally in a temperature and humidity controlled environment, and there should not be any holes or open windows through which mice, silverfish or any other archive eating pests can creep or fly in. Secondly, archives are heavy. The archive in which I work is unusual in that our main purpose built storage is on the second floor, supported by lots of concrete, but in most places it is on ground level or below. Archivists are often troglodytes, rarely seeing daylight (which in any case is not good for documents).
The earliest archives in the UK were places like the Tower of London, where government records were stored, and cathedrals which kept church records.
Photo credit: Bob Collowan/Commons/CC-BY-SA-4.0 from Wikimedia
In 1838 the Public Record Office was set up to ensure that government documents were kept in better conditions, and this impressive building in Chancery Lane, London, was built in the 1850s. It is now the library of King’s College, London.
Photo credit: Flaming Ferrari (public domain)
A problem facing most archives is that they need elastic walls. More and more documents arrive, but once selected for permanent preservation they rarely leave. The Public Record Office outgrew its premises and a second site was opened at Kew in South West London in 1977. During the 1990s the Kew site was enlarged and all the public records were transferred there; at the same time the name was changed from the Public Record Office to The National Archives. This new building houses over 11 million documents on 100 miles of shelving. Even so The National Archives has overflowed its space, and also uses separate off site storage in a disused salt mine in Cheshire. Scotland and Northern Ireland both have separate National Archives of their own.
Photo credit: Nick Cooper under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.5 Generic License
Other archives in the UK range in size from a single room to large regional archives. They may be found anywhere from a purpose built modern building in the grounds of a stately home (the Rothschild family archive at Waddesdon Manor) to the top of a spiral staircase in a medieval abbey (the Westminster Abbey library and muniment room). Wherever they are, and whether or not they are able to store their contents in the best of archival conditions, they hold the keys to our past.