Behind the stacks

Alison Forsey, a volunteer in the City of Westminster Archives Conservation Studio, writes:

It is easy to classify an archive as being an intimidating and secretive place. I myself once thought this too; however, once I had an opportunity to explore the archives and meet the people involved, my opinion changed. In my time volunteering for the Westminster Archive Centre I have learned perhaps the biggest secret there is about archives – just how much team work is required for a well-functioning and successful archive.

Alison making paper repairs at Westminster City Archives

Alison making paper repairs

A range of people and their respective skills is what creates an informed and helpful atmosphere. Watching items brought from the stacks into the conservation room for repair and cleaning, and then seeing them returned for a future scholar to explore is thrilling. Everyone at the archives has taught me much about the local history of Westminster, because the team know the collection so well and are so great at sharing their knowledge.

Whilst working on preservation management projects such as cleaning, repairing and rehousing the glass plate slide collection, I have had the chance to see for myself the evolution of the borough from photographs in the collection. The project was an adventure: trying to match obscure photographs to what was already in the collection, while occasionally finding something completely new and unique requiring research to place the photo in context; it provided a rare chance to see the evolution of various areas in Westminster.

Alison and Jelena repairing theatre programmes at Westminster City Archives

Alison and Jelena repairing theatre programmes

The cataloguing activity in which I participated on this project means the collection is now available to the public for research. Some of the photographs showed places are still standing and representing the community, and other places have been lost to us over time.

I have also been part of the preservation project to clean and rehouse records from St. Margaret’s Parish. Whilst surface cleaning with smoke sponge and brush, I have been fortunate to learn anew from the team, reading letters written to the Parish warden and learning of conspiracies and architectural plans (both those imagined and those completed!).

Alison cleaning St Margaret's Parish Records with chemical sponge

Alison cleaning St Margaret’s Parish Records with chemical sponge

Being able to assist the conservator with repair and cleaning of a wide range of items has taught me how important something as simple as a surface clean is to a document. Surface cleaning and repairing the theatre programme collection, for example, not only improve the appearance of each document, but also significantly help with removing of substances that could potentially harm these ephemeral documents.

Archive documents being cleaned and paper clips replaced to prevent future damage

Archive documents being cleaned and paper clips replaced to prevent future damage

To watch the archive work together for a common goal of preservation, maintaining important knowledge and engaging in the community has been delightful and educational to witness. Every person at the Westminster Archive Centre strives individually for the greater good of the archive, from the moment an enquiry is made on a topic, to the final step of returning material back to storage.

I have been lucky to assist with speaking to guests and tour groups to help them understand the role of preservation and conservation within the greater framework of the archive. Without this team working together, the archive would in fact, appear as a silent and intimidating building forever holding its secrets away from the world.  Seeing how the team works together using their unique talents and skills has been perhaps the best experience of all, to see just how much of an open and helpful space the archives are for locals and learners alike. During my time as a volunteer I have felt that I have been a part of living history, and I have the Westminster Archives Centre to thank for that.


Find out more about volunteering at the Archives Centre


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