Celebrating the archive pioneers

By Matt Elton, 24 February 2010 - 10:05am

Alan Crosby celebrates the work of Edwardian and Victorian librarians in preserving valuable documents in borough record offices around the country

Wednesday 24 February 2010
Alan Crosby
, editor of The Local Historian
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I was working at the Bolton History Centre today, looking at some documents, a few Ordnance Survey maps, and a selection of printed material. I’ve often worked there in the past and always found it very worthwhile – not only does it have very friendly and helpful staff, but it has some superb archives.

There are many ‘borough record offices’ up and down the country. They perhaps receive less attention than the county record offices, but they are an invaluable part of our overall archive system, and it’s interesting to see how they arose. Back in the early 1850s, in towns up and down the country, the local councils (many of them newly-established in places which had just received a borough charter) set up free library services.

They were free in that local people weren’t charged to use the library, in contrast to the fee-paying private libraries or those which were limited to members of exclusive clubs and societies. It was one of the great social advances of Victorian England. Although there’s a lot of competition for the title of ‘first town to have a free library’, the honours probably go to Warrington, which set one up in the late 1840s (together with Britain’s first local authority museum).

To have a decent public library was soon seen as one of the hallmarks of a progressive local authority, and by the early 1860s most larger towns and cities had either established a library, or were planning to do so. But buying books was only part of their remit. In many places the borough librarian began to collect individual documents and collections of archives which related to the town.

In Bolton, for example, the earliest archives were acquired in 1853, almost as soon as the public library began to operate. Local antiquarians were often influential in shaping policy, and librarians were anxious to build up their holdings not only of printed works but also of (as they often referred to them) ‘curious’ manuscripts—old deeds, collections of correspondence, hand-drawn maps, volumes of charters, miscellaneous bundles of parchment and files of papers.

And thank goodness they did! There’s no doubt that the activities of these Victorian and Edwardian librarians (not archivists, for the archive profession did not yet exist) saved for posterity many priceless treasures. They might not have followed strict archive practice, they might not have had ideal storage conditions, they might not have had an expert knowledge of what they acquired… but without them much that is precious would have been lost. So let’s hear it for smaller borough record offices as well, and for the pioneers 150 years ago who started their collections!

 

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