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Behind the scenes at Liverpool Record Office

What is an archive and how does a record office differ from a library? It might seem obvious but if you want a good definition the National Archives website gives all the answers (www.nationalarchives.gov.uk). Archives are working documents produced by an institution or a person during their lifetime. They can come in many different forms and as they become redundant in their original setting not all of them are well cared for and can loose their covers, their spines and the first and last pages. So beware if you are looking for any "A's" in a large folio volume!

Liverpool Record Office began its existence as late as 1953. Lancashire Record Office was set up in 1940! The new building to house Liverpool archives was opened in May 2013 as part of the new central library and has state of the art facilities to store and care for unique documents with temperature controlled conditions and a Conservation Studio to repair and store unique items in acid free containers.

spellowWhen a large deposit arrives it is assessed, and sorted into archive boxes and catalogued online on a special archive system called CALM which caters for large and diffuse collections such as the deposits of the Earls of Derby. The Record Office has the collections of the 12th to the 17th Earls who were important figures locally and nationally. The 14th Earl was prime minister of this country three times and his son, the 15th Earl was foreign secretary and left a series of important political diaries. Even though this deposit extends well beyond Liverpool and Merseyside it is better to keep it altogether as one. This is also the case with a major architectural firm called Edmund Kirby whose practice covered the whole country and even extended into Ireland and Scotland or the Walker Cain archive which has details of public houses in Lancashire and elsewhere not just Liverpool.

A recent archive reflects the social conditions in Liverpool in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the Nugent Care deposit. This has fascinating insights into Roman Catholic industrial schools such as St George's in Everton or the Bishop O'Reilly Memorial School later Leyfield School. Although admission registers under 100 years old fall under data protection those older than 1916 can be viewed as open records.

Among the more unusual items which have arrived in the past are a death mask of Mrs Picton deathmaskwho was the wife of Sir James Allanson Picton, the renowned historian of Liverpool and a key player in the development of the library service here, giving his name to the Picton Reading Room. As this has a very local connection this will probably remain but usually deposits of artefacts would be passed over to a museum as a record office only deals with paper items. With modern technology and with the help of grants some collections can be digitised so they can be seen worldwide on any computer with access to the internet and this has revolutionised access to archives. Ancestry in particular has provided a portal to major collections at the Record Office, including most of its parish registers, crew lists and the most recent project to digitise the electoral registers for Liverpool from 1837 to 1970! This project has only just commenced and it will require some time to carry out the digitisation and the indexing before it will be available but it will be worth the wait. Another major collection of local interest is the Everton Football Club archive which is available online (www.evertoncollection.org.uk ). This means that fans and historians can see original images at high quality and that material such as the minute books which are an invaluable resource recording key decisions are now digitised and fully transcribed allowing full searching online. Also ephemeral, fragile rare programmes, images, medals and tickets can be protected from further use except in special circumstances.

BooksWhat of the future? Digitisation can seem to be the way forward but how reliable is it and will it change over the years? One only has to think of the floppy disc and the video both now redundant. The Record Office also has a vast collection of glass negatives and slides which need to be converted into a more modern format if they are to be used. With most records of schools, hospitals and local government now online how will these be archived and how will access be made available? In 2116 how will people have access to archives being produced online today? Although paper and its earlier predecessor parchment do take up room they can last for hundreds of years in the right conditions whereas digital copies can become unusable in less than a decade.

The Record Office website is www.liverpool.gov.uk/archives.

Summary of a talk given by Roger Hull to the Liverpool & SW Lancashire FHS on June 14th 2016