History Centre

The importance of digital preservation

on Friday, 20 August 2021. Posted in Archives, History Centre

As an archive service, preservation is at the heart of what we do; together with collecting records and making them accessible, it forms the holy trinity of archival functions. Record keepers and archivists have been preserving records for centuries and if we were to examine boxes at random in our strongrooms, we would no doubt come across records on centuries old paper, parchment or vellum. Many of these records are still in perfect condition and will continue to be so in perpetuity as they are housed in climate-controlled conditions.

However, it is now widely accepted that paper records are created less and less these days, with many offices proudly proclaiming to be ‘paper free’. Yet the information and data must still be recorded, must still be collected, and most importantly must still be preserved. Herein lies the problem, the media on which digital records are stored are not nearly as stable as traditional record formats. For example, a hardback financial ledger stored in the correct conditions could last for centuries, whereas a thumb drive containing the same information may not last for a decade before it becomes corrupted. Not only this, with advances in technology comes the issue of obsolescence. For example, CDs were the ‘go to’ audio format as 15 years ago, though now how many of us even own a CD player? That’s before we even consider cassettes, audio reels, Betamax and cinefilm. All of these require specialist equipment to work with the content. Audio-visual material in these formats often gets donated to archives and we have plenty here at Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre and it is our responsibility to make them as accessible as possible. While this is sometimes impossible, we will always strive our best and explore all possible options. However, collecting the specialist equipment would not be the best course of action. When possible, it is best to have them digitised, as it is considerably easier to use a digital file, though this still does not solve the problem. We must now consider the concept of ‘bit rot’; that is, when the quality of a digital file diminishes over time and through overuse.

With so much to consider (the above barely scratches the surface), it is of little surprise that the discipline of digital preservation was born. It was clear that digital preservation practitioners would be required to monitor changes in technology and the affects this would have on the long-term preservation of digital material. The nature of their work, ensuring records survive in perpetuity, is inextricably linked to the work of archivists and it is of little surprise that many archivists now train in digital preservation.

While the majority of the records we receive here at WSHC arrive in paper format, we as archivists now need to be aware of this new discipline, as digital accessions are becoming more frequent. Indeed, some organisations now employ digital archivists, whose remit is solely focused on digital records and digital preservation.

Library collections have a life of their own

on Monday, 19 April 2021. Posted in History Centre, Wiltshire People, Wiltshire Places

Local Studies Library – the elderly volumes that might surprise you!

I can’t believe it’s been 5 years this month since I was lucky enough to become the County Local Studies Librarian here at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre. In this time, I’ve had the exciting opportunity to learn a lot more about Wiltshire’s fantastic Wiltshire Studies collection, both at the History Centre and in the county’s many local libraries. You could spend a lifetime delving into the items we hold; there is never enough time in the day to enjoy looking at the collection and the many and varied topics, people and places that span hundreds of years.

The items in our collection have found their way to us through many different means. Some have been purchased, others gifted or donated by kind individuals, many local residents who share our belief that Wiltshire’s treasures should stay in the county for everyone to access and enjoy. Others have been in the ‘library’ system much longer, from reading rooms at places such as the Mechanics Institute in Swindon, historically part of the Wiltshire local authority before Swindon became unitary in 1997.

Local Studies libraries are classed as a ‘special collection’, and within Wiltshire’s are items dating from the 17th century to today. You would be surprised to learn how robust the most elderly items in our collection are; the acid in modern paper makes modern books more troublesome to keep safe. Even so, we like to keep an eye on our oldest items to ensure they are well looked after. I am currently conducting a condition survey to check on their wellbeing and the process has been very informative, opening my eyes to the rich variety of items we hold.

Our journey begins with some of our oldest items; Civil War and Commonwealth pamphlets from 1647-1658 (ref. AAA.946). These include the impeachment of members of the House of Commons by Sir Thomas Fairfax in 1647, an account of the speech of King Charles I on the scaffold in 1649 and a copy of the Commonwealth Mercury dated 25 November 1658, describing the removal of the body of the late Oliver Cromwell from Whitehall.

Title page with a decorative border for King Charles His Speech Made Upon the Scaffold 1648
AAA.946 King Charles Speech

Pest Monitoring to Protect Our Archive Collection

on Tuesday, 30 March 2021. Posted in Archives, Conservation, History Centre

Surprise! - Historic pest found in archive volume by an unsuspecting archivist

We’ve recently reviewed the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programme that we have in place at the history centre so that we can effectively protect the archives from the possibility of any damaging insect pests.

IPM is a multi-faceted approach to pest management and our program is used alongside a number of other preventative measures such as good cleaning and housekeeping routines, thoroughly checking new accessions for any hitchhiking pests before they are put into the strong rooms and maintaining a stable environment within the strong rooms so that pests do not feel at home. This way we can continue to protect our archives into the future.

Insects can cause a real problem for historic collections, which can be tasty treats for them to feast on, causing irreversible damage and loss of information.

It is really important to protect the archives against possible pest infestations. A small number can quickly increase to become a big problem if left unchecked and cause substantial damage to a collection.

During the pandemic some collections such as The National Trust have reported increased pest activity due to the reduction in footfall and reduced monitoring and cleaning of spaces, leaving areas undisturbed for pests to thrive. With such large numbers of documents held in repositories such as WSHC it is impossible to frequently check all items individually, so programmes to monitor and reduce numbers are put in place.

We have set up ‘blunder traps’ in the History Centre, strategically located around the strong rooms and other areas of the building, and by frequently monitoring them we are able to get a picture of any pests present and which areas they are visiting.

The traps we use do not control pest infestations they simply allow us to monitor levels of pests. If we find a pattern of large numbers of any particular archive pest, we can then look into dealing with any problems and target them specifically.

Meet the new Finds Liaison Officer for Wiltshire

on Tuesday, 16 February 2021. Posted in Archaeology, History Centre, Museums, Wiltshire People

Sophie Hawke, Finds Liaison Officer for Wiltshire:

Hello, I am the new Finds Liaison Officer for Wiltshire, job sharing with Wil Partridge at The Salisbury Museum. I started in my new role at the beginning of January but have only managed three days in the office so far, due to Covid lockdown restrictions.

Like Wil, I have been working from home. This is a bonus in some ways as it’s warmer at home than in the office (we are situated directly above the medieval porch at work so any heat rises up to the ceiling and stays there) and my travel time to work is currently ten seconds as opposed to an hour. On the down side, I have to tidy up before any Zoom calls and hope that no-one rings the doorbell whilst I’m unmuted on Zoom as my dogs will bark incessantly at the bell.

I have always been fascinated by archaeology. I joined the Young Archaeologists’ Club in Dorchester, Dorset aged 10 (a long time ago), then went on my first dig aged 11, at Dewlish Roman villa. I was hooked!

Fast forward a few years, I studied at University of Bristol for a Certificate in Archaeology with Mick Aston as my tutor, started a family, did an Open University degree, then immediately returned to Bristol Uni, with Mick as one of my lecturers, for a part time MA in Landscape Archaeology.

During all this, I started work at a secondary school and stayed for 15 years, as part of my role there was (and still is in a voluntary capacity) as Archaeology Liaison Officer for the Roman villa under the School playing field. In 2018, I was awarded a Headley Trust internship with the Portable Antiquities Scheme at The Salisbury Museum, and Historic England. Following this I worked for Historic England as a Finds Supervisor and just before Christmas 2020, I was offered this Wiltshire FLO job. I love working with finds, meeting people and doing research so this is my dream job! My favourite find to date is a hoard of Roman pewter found near Westbury. When the finder sent photos of it, Wil and I couldn’t believe our eyes as it contained a lead tank (see photo below), quite a rare find, which may be a portable font.

Virtual WEX

on Wednesday, 03 February 2021. Posted in Archaeology, Archives, Conservation, History Centre, Museums, Schools

It’s that time of year when the first emails land in my inbox requesting placements on the History Centre’s popular work experience (WEX) programme.

This year it is a little different – those early requests are arriving, but students are now looking for Virtual WEX!

In my blog from March 2020 – Celebrating Archives – I was eagerly anticipating a year of anniversaries, the highlights of which were to be Salisbury’s 800th birthday and the 200th anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth. Events were planned, projects finalised, and we had an excuse, though none is ever really needed, to dig out some of our archival treasures that show just how connected Wiltshire is to key moments of national commemoration. And letters from Florence Nightingale would have featured in the work experience programme.

Letter from Florence Nightingale written while she was at Scutari Barracks Hospital (2057/F4/64)

 And then… the World Health Organisation declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. All certainty about future events rapidly disappeared as History Centre staff joined colleagues from across Wiltshire Council in responding to the crisis. While statutory services at the History Centre had to be maintained our usual talks and courses were cancelled; we had to close during lockdowns; our regular jaunts around the county to speak to community groups and history societies ended; and as education officer there were no school visits to plan or deliver, and no work placements to organise.

It was clear we needed to transfer what we could online, and I found myself working with colleagues from Libraries and Leisure to create resources that gave Wiltshire residents virtual opportunities to enjoy heritage, arts, literature and physical activities. The result was the Active Communities page on the Wiltshire Council website – a great resource which will hopefully have a legacy post-pandemic.

I also found myself co-ordinating the History Centre’s online presence. Colleagues, missing out on the daily rhythm of dealing with enquiries and customers, turned their energies to our website and social media platforms. They kept regular users updated and entertained, and engaged with new followers. And the hard work has paid off as we see more users, followers, likes and engagements with our various social media accounts.

Necessity drove us online in 2020 providing many challenges, but now there are opportunities in 2021, opportunities the History Centre wants to exploit. Virtual Work Experience is one of those. There will always be a need for real world, physical engagement with archives and books, photographs, painting and sculpture, artefacts and objects, not to mention being in the audience for a live theatre or musical performance. But while we wait for the time when we can return to in-person talks, courses and classroom sessions we need to make the most of the technology available.

Choose your classroom...

I am working on developing a virtual work experience programme for GCSE and A-level students. Our work placements are always popular and each year we are fully booked, but we are limited in how many students we can take – normally two GCSE students in any given week and a couple of Year 12 A-level students. Geography and public transport also play a part and, while I provide a county-wide heritage education service, WEX students tend to come from Chippenham and the surrounding area.

The plan is to use an online classroom platform to deliver Virtual WEX. This has the potential to significantly increase the number of students the History Centre can reach, extending coverage to the whole of Wiltshire and Swindon, and beyond. I will always champion in-person placements and visits to the History Centre to really get hands-on with historical documents – there is a thrill to seeing and touching a document signed by Charles I or Oliver Cromwell or, having learned about Henry VIII in school, holding the marriage contract between Henry and Jane Seymour. But as an advocate for cultural education, online sessions are a valuable tool in reaching and inspiring young minds. And while students will not be able to handle the documents in a virtual session they will still be able to see them and work with them.

Death warrant signed by Oliver Cromwell. (332/265)

A key aspect of our work placement programme is the breadth of experience students enjoy, not only working with archives and local studies collections, but also learning about the work of the conservators and archaeologists based at the History Centre. It is also satisfying to see the students grow in confidence over the course of their week with us and to hear back from schools about the positive impact the placement has had on the youngsters.

We hope that those who see what we do via an online taster day will be in-person users of our services in the months and years to come. This opening up of access also supports the History Centre’s commitment to inclusion and diversity, not only as part of Wiltshire Council but also within the Archives sector.

WEX 2021 won’t be the same as previous years but we hope a virtual experience will give young people an opportunity to see what enjoyable and rewarding careers can be had in the heritage sector.

Teachers and students wanting to find out more about our plans for Virtual WEX should contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

Ruth Butler, Heritage Education Officer

Archaeology under lockdown

on Friday, 18 December 2020. Posted in Archaeology, History Centre

Almost reaching the end of 2020 has given me a good opportunity to reflect on what has been a most unusual and difficult year but one in which archaeology in Wiltshire and Swindon continues to excite and surprise.

Over the course of this past year around 45 fieldwork projects relating to planning applications were undertaken across Wiltshire and Swindon. There were also 9 research or academic excavations. The volume of work the Archaeology Service has had to deal with has not diminished during the Covid pandemic and if anything has been more intense than before, with some of the large projects we are involved with such as the A303 Stonehenge project and other road schemes in Wiltshire and Swindon. Commercial field archaeology has carried on throughout the year as construction projects have continued. Our team have been allowed to continue going out on site to monitor the field work, subject to strict health and safety policies and Covid-safe practices

Sadly, what we haven’t been able to do so much of this year is the outreach work that we all enjoy so much, the archaeology walks and talks, but hopefully in a few short months we will be able to resume these activities. Please watch this space for details of events from the Spring onwards

Fieldwork in Wiltshire 2020. Map by Tom Sunley

One of the exciting projects we have been dealing with stems from a planning application for a solar farm development between Beanacre and Lacock. It was in this area that Wessex Archaeology excavated Roman remains in 2014 that turned out to relate to a previously unknown large Roman settlement located on an east-west Roman road. The geophysical survey from this latest project and the trial trenching has helped to reveal the extent of a Roman town on its south and east side. This now means we have 6 rather than 5 Roman small towns in Wiltshire and Swindon. Unlike Durocornovium (Wanborough), and Sorviodunum (Old Sarum) and Verlucio (Sandy Lane), this one doesn’t seem to have a Roman name. Who knows how many others may be out there waiting to be discovered?

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