ANYONE thinking the West Yorkshire Archive was a dry and dusty place, full of forgotten records of people long dead and companies long collapsed, would be wrong in so many ways.
This is partly because the archive has just re-opened in its new, state-of-the-art, climate-controlled facility at the West Yorkshire Joint Services building on Nepshaw Lane.
It is also because it houses a team of keen archivists and historians whose job it is to help people connect with the past, whether that is by helping them assemble their family trees or by providing twitter feeds that remind people about life in wartime Leeds.
They recently held an open day to welcome visitors to their new home.
Those who dropped by got behind-the-scenes tours of the storage facilities, with their two-storey high computer-controlled shelving units, and examineed rarely-seen gems including 12th century church charters beautifully illuminated with gold and priceless paints, architectural plans for Leeds Town Hall, immaculately penned recipe collections and even cloth samples from a local mill.
The display was meant to show the huge variety of items held at the archive, which can range from dusty collections of wills and parish records to signed cricket bats and dress patterns.
Head archivist Teresa Nixon said: “Archivists often become specialists but in local archives we have to be able to deal with anything and are expected to know everything.”
At one end of the scale this means they have to be able to get by in medieval Latin and on the other end they also have to cope with an ever growing amount of digital information.
Teresa said: “I think people think we just look after paper documents and parchment and we do take in those kinds of materials but we also download an increasing amount on the computer.
“It has been a big change for us because none of us is an IT expert but with technology evolving all the time there was a real potential for there to be a big black hole in this period of history if we were not careful.”
An increasing amount of the archive can now be accessed online.
People can browse the catalogue on their website www.archives.wyjs.org.uk and through it link to a number of other sites including Ancestry, which now includes all of West Yorkshire’s parish registers, and Tracks in Time where people can compare tithe maps of the 1840s with modern maps.
Nowthen.org allows people to explore West Yorkshire through the experiences of the people who live here and enables visitors to add their own stories, share memories and view photographs.
Sometimes, however, the internet does not have all the answers and Teresa said they were keen to encourage people to visit them in their new public search room where they can get advice and guidance from the team or perhaps even bring along documents they feel should become part of the archive.
“It is all right looking at parish records online but for something more complicated you sometimes need help understanding what you are looking at and staff can advise people where to look as well.
“We also have things coming in all the time. People can bring things in and we’ll look at it and see if it is something that should be kept.
“We don’t take in family histories because we already hold the source documents and if we did then we should soon have no space left, but it is amazing how much stuff people throw away that should be kept.”
Once they have decided to keep something then they are committing themselves to keeping it for ever.
Their move to Morley from Sheepscar was two years in the planning and involved moving 15,000 boxes which, if lined up end to end, would stretch 21 miles.