Behind the scenes at an archive | The Nosey Genealogist's: Help Me With My Family Tree
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Behind the scenes at an archive

by Nick Thorne, The Nosey Genealogist on February 21st, 2016

 

Jersey Archive

Jersey Archive

I woke up on Saturday morning and heard on my local radio that there was a behind the scenes tour of the Jersey Archive that day.

Well that was me sorted with something to do, especially as it was grey and drizzly outside!

I’ve not had the chance to see the strongroom and workings of this archive before, although I have once been on a tour round the Devon Heritage Centre (Devon County Record Office) in Exeter some years ago and thoroughly enjoyed learning more about what goes on there.

 

Jersey Archive was established as part of Jersey Heritage in 1993. The Archive is the Island’s national repository holding archival material from public institutions as well as private businesses and individuals. It is part of the Jersey Heritage Trust, who run the Jersey Museum and various other heritage sites for the island.
Jersey Archive Catalogue

Jersey Archive online catalogue

My tour began at 11:30 in the light and airy front reception area with Linda Romeril, Head of Archives and Collections, leading us around.

Jersey Archive was rather late to be established in comparison to The National Archives in England (which as The Public Record Office was set up in 1838) or the various County Record Offices in England & Wales that started in the 1900s. This has, been turned to its advantage by it being able to catalogue its collections from the very start using a computer database.

It has a purpose built premises designed to preserve the 600 years of records in a temperature controlled strongroom that is in a block which, while attached by a linking corridor, does not form part of the main building. This minimizes any fire risk that the reading room and staff offices may present to the stored historical documents.

Jersey Archive Family History records

As was of no surprise to me, the number one reason for people to visit the archive was to do family history research, followed by house history, researching the German Occupation of the island in WWII and then academic research etc.

Reading room Jersey Archive

Reading room Jersey Archive

As well as collecting and preserving records the Archive is committed to making archives available to all members of the local and worldwide community. To this end researchers are able to access the online catalogue and pay-to-view and download certain documents via their website.

Records that are stored at Jersey Archive are catalogued by the staff and made available via the Jersey Heritage Open Public Access Catalogue (OPAC). The OPAC allows you to search through the archives by entering a name, place or subject that is relevant to your research.

 

The tour took us into the strong room, another of which is being planned to take care of the ever increasing records that the Jersey Archive can expect in the future. These will include the facility to take care of the many new digital records being created by the island’s government, something that other depositories around the country are no doubt considering how to handle.

Behind the sealed door of the strong room, on the first of several levels that we entered, the temperature controlled atmosphere was kept at a standard 13-23 degrees Celsius, with the humidity controlled at 60%. In case of fire the Jersey Archive has a system where the air inside the strongroom would quickly be replaced by Inergen inert gas. This is obviously preferable to ruining all the preserved documents by drenching them in water from a conventional sprinkler system!

It was fascinating to see the documents and books neatly contained in cardboard boxes, referenced and placed on shelves which allow the circulation of air. Indeed the boxes have four air-holes cut out and the coloured end of the shelves themselves have hundreds of small holes punched into them like some sort of colander.

 

Inside the strong room at the Jersey Archive

Linda Romeril, Head of Archives and Collections showing us files in the strongroom

The anonymous reference on each box contributes to the security of the documents placed in the archive’s care as some of the holdings will be of commercial value, while other records are closed to the public’s view for a certain number of years.

Those of us taking the tour were taken to another floor to be shown racks of larger items safely stored. Here lived such documents as the rolled up maps of the old railway routes on the island. Useful in that they contain the names of the owners of land along the route at the time of planning and had been used by the courts even in a land case in recent times. Linda Romeril explained how the maps were so long, when unrolled, that the court had had to pay a visit to the strongroom itself to view them. It would not have been practical to have had the document taken to the court room. This example also goes to show the legal use that our old documents can be put and is another reason that they must be preserved for the future.

One of the highlights of the trip was to see a couple of examples of Royal Charters in the possession of the Jersey Archive.

The first one was a highly colourful charter of James I from the early 1600s setting up various educational establishments in Jersey.

James I Royal Charter

Royal Charter of James I from the early 1600s

A Royal Charter with attached seal

Royal Seal of Charles II

The second, while not so beautiful, had the advantage of still having the Royal Seal of Charles II attached and in fantastic condition!

Not all the old documents arrive at the archive having been kept well. In part of the building there is a room where the mould and spores are carefully removed from damaged documents before they go into storage. This is not just records from hundreds of years ago as even a relatively recent (from the 1990s) set of court papers from a notorious double murder is having to spend a year on the shelves, with a dehumidifier running, and being subject to cleaning as it had previously been badly stored elsewhere.

Archive document cleaning

Archive document cleaning room

Some books and documents will arrive at the archive having been infested by insects. The solution here is up to two months inside the chest freezer to kill the pests before the books can be defrosted and conserved.

Freezer in the cleaning room of the archive

Archive document cleaning room with chest freezer

Much of what I saw, at the Jersey Archive, was similar to that which I had seen in Devon. It is, however, really gratifying to see that in this small Channel Island we have such a professional approach being applied to the preservation of public records that stretch back for 600 years of our history.

 

 

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