Monday, 22 August 2011

News - Dusting off city’s rich heritage (Sheffield Archives)

IT was an operation planned with near military precision.

Roads were closed. Staff worked through the night. Specialist lorries were hired.

This was the transportation of Sheffield’s most precious historical documents; and every detail was arrange meticulously.

Some 25,000 boxes of artefacts – some dating from the 12th century – were being moved into temporary storage ahead of the current year-long, £500,000 upgrading of Sheffield Archives.

But as with all best laid plans...

“We’d arranged for everything we could think of,” recalls Teresa Januszonok, senior conservator.

“Except we didn’t think of rain.

“It took three months to move all the documents and on one of the first days it started pelting it down. The boxes are specially designed to be waterproof for seven hours but when you’ve got items dating back to 1180, you don’t take chances.

“So I found myself building this tarpaulin walkway between the door and the lorry. I tied a sheet round a tree and a lamppost. It must have looked ridiculous. I’ve been an archivist more than 30 years and I’ve done some unusual things but I never thought constructing a canopy would be among them.”

The hassle, it seems, has been worth it.

The new-look archive will reopen to the public next month – but the 12 months of work will have ensured Sheffield’s documents are safely maintained for...well, hopefully another 900 years.

New controls on temperature, humidity, air circulation and light have all been installed to ensure optimum conditions for preservation.

A revamped reception area, meanwhile, means new documents donated to the archives will undergo a thorough conservation routine before being catalogued and filed.

And that, says manager Pete Evans, is important because the papers there are not just dusty documents (indeed, that new conservation routine includes a specialist cleaning table which sucks the dust off them), but the living story of what South Yorkshire is and who we are.

Items stored there presently include everything from the 1296 Sheffield Market Charter to 21st century interviews with war refugees living in the city; from insurance claims for the 1864 flood to the company records of dozens of steel firms like Firth Brown; from school reports to council minutes.

And, yet, they all have one thing in common.

“They are absolutely vital if we are to maintain an understanding of our history,” she Pete. “Some of the papers have been around 800 years and, by upgrading the building, we are trying to ensure they stay in tip-top condition for generations to come.

“The upgrading means we continue to meet national guidelines and should remain as one of the best archives in the country.”

Moreover, it has also led to one or two surprise discoveries.

“While we were transporting the archives from the building we came across some items which we simply didn’t know we had,” says Pete.

“I think our favourite has been the Charles Dickens rider.

“He gave a reading of A Christmas Carol here in 1855 which is fairly well known but we stumbled on a letter from one of his associates to the event organiser, John Fowler.”

In it, the correspondent says the legendary author expects to be put up at the city’s Royal Hotel and that ‘Mr Dickens will want a large bedroom and sitting room, all with fires’.

“It’s a bit different to the riders of, say, pop stars today,” laughs Pete. “But it’s a fascinating parallel – I suppose he was a ‘star’ of his day.”

Now a second military style operation is under way to bring the documents back from temporary storage.

It’s another three-month job but it’s well under way already ahead of the September 5 reopening date.

“It’s summer now so we’re hoping we won’t have the same problems with the rain,” says Teresa.

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