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TWAS Review 1998-1999

  1. Introduction
  2. Searchroom and other public services
  3. Access to Archives
  4. Accessions
  5. Conservation
  6. Education
  7. Outreach
  8. Records Management
  9. Northern Region Film & Television Archive
  10. Conclusion

1. Introduction

1998/9 has been another busy year for Tyne & Wear Archives Service, with large numbers of users accompanied by innovations and developments on a number of fronts. The quantity of new material being received is also unabated.

2. Searchroom and other public services

The year saw a small decrease in the number of people visiting the searchroom in person at 7042, in comparison with 7226 the previous year. However, this should be seen in the context of the two-week closure while building work was carried out, which when compared with previous years would have given rise to a small increase in numbers.

Chart showing user numbers for the last
five years

Approximately 70% of users gave an address in Tyne & Wear, a percentage roughly in line with past years. 110 visitors, 1.5% of the total gave an address outside the UK, indicating the contribution of the Archives Service to tourism in the region. These visitors came mainly from English speaking former colonies - the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but there were also some from Germany and Hong Kong.

The building work enlarged the room to give improved accommodation both for users of original documents and of microfilms, and also to enable the reshelving of the searchroom library. The new area for microfilm users has attracted particularly favourable comment and the new shelving has enabled direct public access to collections such as the Lloyd's Registers of Shipping for the first time.

Use of both original documents and microfilms increased markedly during the year, the former by 21% at 12508 and the latter by 8% at 15424. The increase is possibly due both to people staying longer in increased comfort, and to improvements in the siting and format of finding aids which helps them to find more relevant material. It is hoped to carry out more research on this in the future.

For the first time this year statistics on the interests of users have been kept. 65% are undertaking family history, 25% general research or local history, 4% educational projects, 2% business research, 1.5% local government work and 1.5% "other".

In addition to personal visitors, staff answered 1062 postal or e-mail enquiries and 1777 telephone enquiries. Contrary to the previous impression fewer postal enquirers were carrying out genealogical research than personal visitors at 54% of the total. The second largest category of postal enquiries, at 14% was " other", mainly ship hobbyists including model makers and divers, many outside the UK. 13% of letters were for local history, 10% academic research, 7% business, 1.5% local government and 0.6% education. Analysis shows that while most educational and general researchers are likely to visit in person, hobbyists are much less likely to do so, and there is also a demand for research for business purposes at a distance.

Chart showing purposes of visits and
postal enquiries

The Service's e-mail address had been widely publicised for the first time this year, mainly due to a fear of a deluge of enquiries which could not be easily dealt with. In practice this has not happened although a fast follow-up to replies has been noted in many cases. More gratifyingly, e-mail enquirers are more likely to follow up with a message of thanks for information provided.

In addition to these enquiries, 174 hours of work under the paid research service has been carried out. This is very largely family history, although other types are occasionally received.

3. Access to Archives

The major innovation in access in the course of the year has been the purchase of the CALM 2000 Plus archives computer system. This will initially enable accessioning, cataloguing, indexing and searching in one system. Later it will also incorporate a conservation priority scheme, a search facility for the public (ultimately via the internet), and document ordering. All new material is being entered as it comes in, and priorities are currently being established for entering of older accession data and retrospective conversion of catalogues already held in electronic (word processed) form. The CALM 2000 Plus system has been developed by a major software company and is being widely adopted in the archive world.

In more traditional mode, cataloguing of two major collections - Hawthorn Leslie and John Bell & Sons, surveyors - was completed during the year. The work on these had largely been carried out before the installation of the CALM system but the data will be entered as soon as possible into this system rather than being traditionally typed.

Access to another major group of records, of cemeteries and crematoria throughout Tyne & Wear, has been radically improved during the year by a collaborative microfilming project with the Church of Latter Day Saints. Although some original registers had already been deposited with the Archives Service and had already been microfilmed, many others are retained by the cemeteries departments of the local authorities as working records. These have now been microfilmed and the films are available for use in the archives searchroom, by the departments themselves, and in local libraries. Through the LDS Family History Centres they will also be accessible throughout the world.

A bid has been made to the Heritage Lottery Fund for cataloguing and/or retrospective electronic conversion of selected shipbuilding records held by the Archives Service, the major component being the records of Swan Hunter. The bid is for £100,000 for staff costs over three years, and the outcome is currently awaited. If successful, this would have a major impact on the accessibility of these records.

4. Accessions

There have been 161 accessions during the year.

Among the most significant of these have been some from local authorities and from church organisations, although all are welcome additions to the archive holdings.

A large quantity of plans and other material was transferred by South Tyneside MBC following a clearout. These included plans of a number of significant municipal buildings and of Cleadon Hospital.

The closure of Lyndhurst Community School and Blaydon Comprehensive School in Gateshead resulted in the transfer of records of a number of schools, not only these two themselves, but their predecessors. The records from Blaydon were particularly varied and extensive, including a large series of photographs, but unfortunately it has not been possible to catalogue them yet.

A change of policy in the United Reformed Church led to the deposit of another large quantity of significant records. Although some records of URC churches had previously been deposited with the Archives Service, national policy had hitherto been for many records to be held centrally. A change in this policy saw the transfer of a large quantity of marriage registers from London, and the deposit of records of the URC Northern Province, which is based in Newcastle.

The transfer of the records of the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church, Gosforth saw the completion of the survey of records of Catholic churches undertaken in collaboration with the diocese of Newcastle and Hexham and the other north east record offices. All parishes established before 1920 were contacted and the vast majority chose to deposit their records with the Archives Service. They have proved extremely popular with users.

Development plans at Sunderland Museum led to discussions on the rationalisation of holdings and the transfer of ship plans and specifications which had been held there, and also of the Blue Peter collection of shipping material put together by a former Sunderland Echo journalist. This collection contains some material of both significance and great interest, including a large quantity of photographs of Sunderland ships.

Although many accessions are notified well in advance and transfer is planned, significant items still sometimes turn up completely unexpectedly. Among such this year was the record of criminals at the Newcastle Gaol notified to the Home Office in 1873. This volume had been given to the depositor's father who worked on demolition of the gaol and subsequently left the area. It contains detailed descriptions of the criminals, their crimes and their photographs. Such records are not uncommon nationally, but it is so far the only one to have turned up for the local area. The stories and photographs form a poignant record, including that of a "gang" of small girls imprisoned for stealing iron.

Also unexpected this year was the emergence of a group of letters addressed to Thomas Bewick, the engraver, put up for auction at Sothebys in London. Although the Archives Service already held a large quantity of records of Thomas Bewick and his business, these letters had been in private hands and were previously unknown even to Bewick scholars. The Archives Service only rarely buys material, but these were regarded as of great significance and a successful bid was made for them. As the price was far beyond what the Service could have afforded, gratitude must be expressed to the Friends of the National Libraries, the Museums & Galleries Commission's Purchase Grant Fund and the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries who all made significant financial contributions towards the purchase.

5. Conservation

The programme of protective phase boxing of volumes, begun in the previous year, has continued, and been extended to include the early volumes of Lloyds Register of Shipping which have been made available in the searchroom.

Other major programmes of work have included the copying of photographs from various collections for the forthcoming book of Newcastle in Old Photographs, and extensive work on the Bell plan collection, in particular a plan of Shaftoe lands in Benwell, c1750, which was in very poor condition but is an especially fine plan.

The Conservation Unit has also acquired a computer connected to the internet, complete with a scanner and high quality colour printer. There is a great deal of conservation information on the internet which they have been able to access. The scanner and printer have primarily been used for exhibition work and enable the production of high quality colour images in-house for the first time.

6. Education

The Education Officer has worked on a number of projects in addition to his regular day to day work with schools and colleges. One major one has been the compilation of a book Newcastle in Old Photographs, in collaboration with a commercial publisher. This has involved identification of suitable photographs, trying to avoid the over familiar, and researching and writing captions.

He has also been collaborating on an educational pack Working Children of the North East, to be published with Newcastle City Council, and has continued to supply information on Tudor Newcastle upon Tyne to the internet project to link Newcastles in Australia, South Africa, Canada and the United States.

In June he gave a very well received presentation on shipbuilding archives to a shipping database conference at Newcastle University, attended by shipbuilding experts from all over the world. This had originally been planned as a visit to the Archives Service but due to the unexpectedly large numbers signing up for the conference this was not possible.

In more traditional areas he worked directly with 77 groups from schools, colleges and adult organisations, involving 1272 individuals in the course of the year.

7. Outreach

The Archives Service, as always, has this year been associated with a number of outside organisations and events, and has instigated several projects to make its work more widely known or accessible.

An internet site has been developed, as part of the regional information service network, thenortheast.com/archives, and while it is not possible to find out the actual number of "hits" for the site, evidence is that it is used a great deal. The site incorporates general information about the Archives Service, a list of accessions for 1998, last year's Annual Review, the series of User Guides and a downloadable order form for the paid research service. E-mail enquiries may also be sent. The Archives Service is grateful to Brian Pears for the design and maintenance of the site.

A book Diary of a Doctor containing extracts from the diaries of Thomas Geordani Wright which are held by the Archives Service was published in conjunction with Newcastle City libraries. Wright was apprenticed to a surgeon in Eldon Square, and his diaries reveal a great deal about the work of a doctor and about social life in Newcastle in the early nineteenth century. The extracts are complimented by illustrations selected by Anna Flowers, head of the Libraries publication programme, and form a very attractive book which is selling well. The launch of the publication was accompanied by an exhibition on Wright and his milieu and by an event at Waterstones bookshop attended by representatives of the Nanaimo Historical Society from Canada, where the original volumes of the diary had ended up before repatriation.

Other exhibitions were organised for the NHS 50th Anniversary, the 80th Anniversary of the end of the First World War and on the Coal Industry, King Coal. All of these are topics for which a wide variety of material exists in the archives and the latter was accompanied by the compilation of a new User Guide.

The Archives Service also took part in Sunderland Local History Week, organised by the Sunderland Heritage Forum. An exhibition on Sunderland was mounted at the Sunderland Library and Arts Centre, copies of an illustrated map of Whitburn were incorporated in a display by the Whitburn Historical Society at Whitburn Library, and the Archives Service had a stand at the Local History Fair at the Sunderland Museum.

Members of staff have been involved with various professional organisations. The Chief Archivist is a member of the Executive Committee of the Association of Chief Archivists in Local Government (ACALG). She was also appointed regional "groundbreaker" by the National Council on Archives to set up a Regional Archives Council and to liaise with other organisations in the implementation of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport's proposals for culture in the regions.

Mark Stevens, archivist, gave a paper at the Society of Archivists annual conference on Local Authority Archives: Places and Perceptions. It was very well received and has subsequently been published in the Society's Journal. The Conference was attended by Kath Rolph, Principal Archivist and Tristian Jones, conservator, and also by Katharine Taylor, archivist, funded by a Society of Archivists bursary, and of course in part by Mark Stevens.

Katharine Taylor was elected Secretary of the Society of Archivists Northern Region, which covers the whole of the north of England from South Yorkshire to the Scottish border, and Tristian Jones was elected to the Executive Committee of the Society of Archivists Preservation and Conservation Group.

8. Records Management

The records management service has continued to operate successfully, exceeding income targets for the year by a small amount. The new computer system developed by Gateshead MBC has, however, provided some problems and the Archives Service, in conjunction with the Gateshead Computer Section is therefore considering migrating the data once again to a suitable proprietary system. In spite of the removal last year of the Development Corporations' records, following their winding up, there are also continuing space problems within the records centre.

9. Northern Region Film & Television Archive

Following the appointment of the Project Director last year, the Film & Television Archive has gone from strength to strength. An assistant was appointed in October and she has undertaken a great deal of work on existing collections. A film and video viewing room was created as part of the alterations to the searchroom in June.

Publicity on BBC and Tyne Tees Television has resulted in new material being brought in, and many new contacts made throughout the region.

A successful evening showcasing the archive was hosted by the Royal Television Society at the BBC in Newcastle, and the archive was formally launched at University of Teesside in Middlesbrough in November. Both events were well attended.

On the administrative side, the Shadow Board has continued to meet and to develop plans for the future of the archive. These include ensuring that funding can be continued beyond the initial three years and achieving some kind of independent status for the archive.

10. Conclusion

1998/9 therefore has seen the Archives Service continue to make advances in many areas. The move into automated systems, indicated as a priority area last year, has been achieved and the coming year will see the consolidation of the system and conversion of existing data. The other priority area identified last year was the continuing problem of accommodation at Blandford House, and unfortunately it has not proved possible to make a great deal of progress on this front. This will remain a priority for the coming year, alongside the regional film archive and IT development for the records management service.