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Eight miles of archives in Dorchester are freely available to the public
A HUGE amount of archives charting Dorset’s fascinating past lies waiting to be explored in Dorchester.
The Dorset History Centre in Bridport Road boasts a goldmine of local historical documents and information and is keen to welcome people through its doors.
The facility boasts more than eight miles of climate controlled shelving filled with documents and maps each with their own story to tell.
In the family history room the public can use microfilm readers to look back through old newspapers, including the Dorset Echo, and have free access to family history website Ancestry.co.uk The history centre also holds parish records of births, deaths and marriages making it a great destination for anyone researching their family tree.
The local studies reference library boasts all sorts of historical books relating to the area and old directories as well as boasting the Dorset authors collection.
The collection consists of around 5,000 items, including works by Thomas Hardy, William Barnes, the Powys brothers, Syl-via Townsend Warner, Sir Fred-erick Treves and John Fowles.
Community engagement officer Maria Gayton said many people did not seem to be aware that access to all these documents was free.
She said: “Everything is free people just don’t realise. You can just walk in off the street any time we are open and it costs nothing.”
People using the centre can fill in a form requesting a particular document they have found in the centre’s catalogue, which is available online, and staff will go into the vast stores to dig it out for them to browse at their leisure.
The archive stores, where the documents have to be kept in a carefully controlled climate, hold thousands of documents of historical interest including court records, customs and excise documents, parish records, tithe maps and manorial documents – all of which the centre is legally required to store.
Maria said the range of documents stored means it is used by a wide variety of people.
She said: “It’s not only family history, house history and leisure stuff, we also have lots of official and technical access with people coming to check things like boundaries and public rights of way or solicitors coming in to check deeds, there is a whole variety.”
Another developing area is archiving of the arts, with the centre’s Elizabeth Frink and Poole Pottery collections proving popular.
The History Centre has strong links with the community and as well as working with local schools it has just signed up to the Dementia Action Alliance.
The centre also boasts a lecture room that is used by a variety of community groups.
Staff at the centre are kept busy with around 300 to 400 boxes of new material coming in each year.
Collections manager Mark Forrest said keeping on top of it all and archiving everything that comes in was always a challenge with limited resources.
He said: “We get so much in it’s a struggle to keep up with it.”
Another challenge the team at the History Centre are faced with is reacting to advances in technology with more information stored in a digital format.
Principal archivist Jacqui Halewood said: “When it was all paper and parchment we were able to deal with that and now we have other types of records coming in and what format they are in depends on how we deal with them.”
There is also highly skilled work going on upstairs at the centre to preserve old documents.
On my visit conservator Rebecca Donnan was busy working on a series of jury lists from the 1700s that had previously been involved in an office and are affected by mould and the effects of being in an office with a coal fire. Rebecca’s work involves cleaning the documents, removing the mould and strengthening them to make them more accessible to the public.
She said: “These are important because they are pre-census lists of names of individual men in Dorset.”
Jacqui said that while many of these sorts of documents can be and are archived on some kind of digital platform, there is something special about having the original document and it was important to keep them in good condition.
She said: “It’s a part of social history.”
• TV star Tony visits for ancestry night
THE DORSET History Centre will welcome a special visitor on Wednesday, October 30 in the form of actor, author and historian Sir Tony Robinson.
He will be at the centre for a special family history event hosted by Ancestory.co.uk County archivist Sam Johnston will also be speaking on the night before Sir Tony discusses local history and how Ancestry.co.uk can help people trace their family tree.
The event, which runs from 6pm to 9pm, will also be a chance to showcase the services offered at the Dorset History Centre and its work in preserving, sharing and celebrating the rich cultural heritage of Bournemouth, Dorset and Poole.
Family history expert Russell James, from Ancestry.co.uk, said: “Dorset’s rich cultural heritage makes it the perfect setting for this event.
“Not only will people have the opportunity to meet Sir Tony but they’ll get to find out more about how best to uncover their own family history in the local area.”
For more information and to register to attend visit blogs.ancestry.com/uk/ Guest spaces are limited and successful applicants will be selected on a ballot basis and notified by email.
• How to access the records
THE Dorset Record Office was founded in 1955 and was originally based at County Hall in Dorchester.
Due to its expanding collection the centre was moved to its current building, a purpose-built facility in Bridport Road.
Since 1997 it has operated a joint service for Bournemouth Borough Council, the Borough of Poole and Dorset County Council.
The County Local Studies Library was moved to the same building in 2005 and the Records Office became the Dorset History Centre.
It preserves around 9,500 collections with the oldest item a land grant from King Edgar relating to the Cheselbourne area that dates back to 965.
The work of the centre is backed by the Dorset Archives Trust, a registered charity dedicated to preserving the county’s archives.
The Dorset History Centre is open from 9am to 5pm from Tuesdays to Fridays and on the first and third Saturday of every month from 9am to 4.30pm.
Document request/retrieval hours are from 9am to 12.45pm and 2pm to 4.30pm on Tuesdays to Fridays and from 9am to 4pm on the Saturdays it is open. For more information call 01305 250550 or visit www.dorsetforyou.com/dorsethistorycentre.
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