Before I started working in The Centre for Cultural Collections my idea of an archive service was an idyllic one. It went something like this: row upon row of neatly-shelved boxes containing perfect examples of medieval manuscripts; an archivist whose gentle white-gloved hands would carefully turn the leaves of some ancient, yet pristine, historical tome; consultations with historians from the far-flung corners of academia; perhaps silent hours of research interrupted only occasionally by answering calls from the BBC with yet another booking for a filming of Who do you think you are? The list of clichés could be endless so I’ll stop right here!
The following forms part of the reality:
Bundles, boxes and bags of donations and deposits waiting for the un-gloved hand to sort them into date order ready for accessioning.
And on closer inspection – what those bundles, bags and boxes contain might be covered in mould, may provide homes for creepy-crawlies or worse, may be infected with the dreaded red-rot! Now, I have no objection to wrestling with a long-dead attic-spider but what I have found is a deep mistrust for – and I’m borrowing a term from Wikipedia here – ‘the characteristic powdering of a leather’s surface’ displayed on a recent delivery of ‘volumes’ from Lancashire Record Office. Like talcum powder, red-rot gets everywhere – in your hair, eyes and cardigan sleeves and even following you home on the soles of your shoes.
I’m not complaining though, I just love old stuff! Growing up in the 60s and 70s, most kids my age would grumble and groan at the prospect of a visit to their great aunts – they might even be tempted to take a jigsaw or an etch-a-sketch to ward off boredom. Not me! A trip to my great aunt Bessie’s was just as exciting as a visit to the toffee-shop. I wouldn’t have known what nostalgia meant in those days but it must have been what I felt when Auntie Bessie brought out her gigantic boxes of old photographs. I never got tired of those faded sepia faces gazing back at me or hearing tales, a little more exaggerated each time, about their lives as bleachers, spinners, weavers and winders.
Opening up the past is a distracting business especially when you’re easily seduced by Victorian moustachioed gentlemen and words on parchment formed when Shakespeare was a lad. It’s a case of having to stop yourself from following that trail of musty scent and stick to the task in hand. At present this is deciding whether that document, photograph or film-reel belongs with this box on the floor or that box which you’ve just shelved up there near the ceiling. Here’s hoping that, once conservation and accessioning has taken place, I’ll be able to pull on those white gloves and take anyone who might be interested on a tour of Bury’s past!