Behind the scenes of Knowsley ARK

Last month, we explored the history of Knowsley Council’s Archive, housed in The ARK, and located in the Kirkby Centre.

This month, we take a closer look at the Archive itself and discover a little of what goes on behind the scenes of a small but busy local authority archive service. 

When you stop to think about it, as individuals we all keep archives of some description: for example, we store printed or digital photographs so that we can be reminded of the important people, places and events in our lives. 

On a more formal level, businesses, organisations, clubs and societies keep records of every aspect of their operations, from membership information to financial records and legal documents. Archived materials can be used to understand what decisions were made by whom, and what impact those decisions had on people and the environment. 

The records in an archive can paint a picture of the life of our communities at a given point in time, giving us some real insight into how people lived. 

When it comes to developing the collections in Knowsley’s archive, we are guided by our mission statement. In order to create a meaningful range of collections that researchers can access, interpret and understand, we aim 

• to collect, preserve and organise archive materials relating to the people and places of Knowsley, creating a collective memory for the borough that is accessible for research and consultation, either physically or online through digital content and finding aids;

• to encourage learning through engagement, offering support to individuals and groups as they explore the collections, enabling our communities to develop a sense of pride and place;

• to promote Knowsley’s rich heritage, sharing an understanding of the history of the communities that make up the borough of Knowsley.

The materials held in the collections are largely unique to the area and describe the social, economic and political history of the people and places of Knowsley. However, we don’t work alone. We collaborate with other institutions through The Archive Group: Liverpool City Region (TAG), which is an active regional network of archives representing services from across the archives sector, from local authority record offices to small voluntary services.

In this way, we can share good practice, work together on projects that give access to a wide range of collections and make sure that materials are deposited and preserved in the most appropriate location. 

Knowsley Archives Service is officially licensed as a Place of Deposit – a repository for public records under the Public Records Act 1958.  This status was granted by the Lord Chancellor in 1991, renewed in 2002 and retained in 2011 following rigorous inspection by The National Archives. The POD designation means that we can house, preserve and manage public records locally that would otherwise be held at The National Archives in Kew, Surrey.

The records held in Knowsley include petty sessions court registers, hospital records and Charity Commission documentation relating to the Knowsley area. We also gained accredited status in 2017. This is a quality assurance mark which shows that we operate to national standards for archival procedures and engagement in all aspects of our work.

The collections in The ARK, are housed in secure, humidity and temperature-controlled conditions to maintain the stability of the environment and protect the materials from damage caused by damp and other threats, such as pest infestation.

We hold materials in many formats, including parchment (our oldest document, a Grant of Land, dates back to around the 14th century), paper, magnetic tape (including audio cassettes, reel-to-reel tapes and video tapes), wax, vinyl, textiles and increasingly, digital files.

The safe keeping of all of the collections does present a few challenges on a day-to-day basis. Keeping optimal environmental conditions to ensure that the collections are protected from mould growth, pest infestation and deterioration is vital.

We use powerful air conditioning and dehumidification units to maintain the stability of the temperature and relative humidity of the store and checks for pests such as silverfish, carpet beetles and moths are undertaken, with insect traps laid to catch any casual interlopers. 

We make the best use of our storage space, packaging items to protect them so they can be safely shelved. Once a year, usually in January, we close the door to the search room and carry out a full stock take. This gives us a good opportunity to identify items which need attention from a certified conservator and to schedule that work to be done. 

In some respects, you could say that digital collections are cared for through a similar process: we check for viruses and degradation of file integrity, ensure we have enough storage capacity and that our systems are compatible with the file formats we are working with. 

Accurately recording the items within each collection is an ongoing and fascinating task. Our catalogues, box lists, indexes and databases give us a roadmap to the collections and enable us and our visitors to locate items within the vast array of documents, ledgers, registers, books and volumes, photographs and maps within the collections.

The online catalogue went live in 2019, and you can now find the hardcopy, paper catalogue on our website as a downloadable pdf file. 

Exhibitions and displays are important means of bringing the collections to life, helping us to make sense of the past, create context and understanding of past events and to question social attitudes that prevailed, prompting discussion about the present.

Exhibitions also provide a focal point for celebrating the achievements of those who have striven to overcome challenges and prejudice. Our most recent exhibition, in partnership with the Heritage Development Company Liverpool and Liverpool Central Library, was ‘Black Punch’.

The exhibition chronicled the untold story of boxers of African descent who fought out of Liverpool and Knowsley over the past 180 years, highlighting some of the prejudices which they faced within the sport and society.

Other past exhibitions explored the Special Olympics, Kirkby’s Malayan Teachers’ Training College and Huyton’s WWII Internment and Prisoner of War Camps.

All of our activities are ably supported by our wonderful team of volunteers, who get involved with everything from behind-the-scenes archival ‘housekeeping’ tasks to front of house duties, helping us to run activities and events and adding their knowledge and experience to proceedings. 

Inevitably, the pandemic continues to affect how we are currently able to provide access to the service. We offer a research service and, as we strive to keep our staff and visitors as safe as possible, we are continuing to offer appointment-only research sessions in 2-hour blocks, which now need to be booked at least 24 hours in advance.

You should also still pre-order the items you want to view. We ask that you use our hand sanitiser (which won’t cause damage to archive materials) and wear a face covering or mask throughout your visit. Numbers in the search room are still limited to a maximum of 2 people and we continue to provide contactless document delivery – although we look forward to a time when we can again offer group and school visits, Family History Help Desk sessions and community activities.  

Find out more about our heritage by visiting our website email or call 0151 443 4291/4365. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook and find Knowsley Archives on Flickr, WordPress and Soundcloud

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