Friday 22 October 2021

Archive Horrors!

It’s nearly Halloween, and here at Cheshire Record Office we have lots of archives and local studies material about witches and ghosts. But spooks and ghouls are not the only things to beware of – there is plenty in the day job of looking after archives that can give us nightmares. Read on to see seven scary scenarios! 


The search room at Cheshire Record Office is strictly Pencil Only, to avoid accidental damage to our archives and local studies material. Even neat pen marks will bleed through paper over time - this can be seen on a heavily marked notebook from the 1630s, where red pen was used to make notes. Ink is difficult to remove - sometimes impossible - so pens must stay locked away! 

Sticky tape 

Sticky tape doesn’t age well – it can discolour and degrade paper. Our Conservators removed a huge amount of tape from these newly deposited documents before storing them. It will help prevent future damage so the documents can be preserved for longer. 

Dust and Dirt 

Some of our collections have been stored in less-than-ideal conditions before reaching us. You certainly need a pair of gloves sometimes – to protect your hands, as well as the documents! This Sheriffs' File from the 18th century is covered in sooty surface dirt and is in very poor condition. Removing the dust and dirt is an important first step in conservation: it not only makes the documents difficult to read but can also be abrasive and acidic, and cause damage to the paper. Worse still, it can be a source of food for insects and encourage mould growth. Yikes! The documents below were similar, but have had a visit to our conservation studio where they've been cleaned and repaired. 


All our documents are carefully packaged before being stored, and environmental conditions in our strong rooms are monitored regularly. But before arriving at Cheshire Record Office, these documents were damaged when a heavy downpour caused a drain to fail, resulting in a basement flood. Parchment and water do not mix. You can see below that extensive flood damage has caused the parchment - which is made from animal skin and mostly formed of gelatine - to turn glue-like when wet, and as it has dried the pages have stuck together. They were unfortunately beyond repair. 

Destruction of documents 

Many people have a fear of mice and rats, but our furry friends (or enemies!) are definitely frightening for archivists and conservators. Centuries-old paper must make a tasty snack or nest-lining, and rodents can have a devastating effect on archives if they get hold of them. 

The damage to this 1882 Rate Book was caused by water after a flood in a basement, the perfect environment for mould to grow. But if mould damage wasn’t bad enough, some little critters, thought to have been mice, have gorged on the paper and it is now sadly beyond repair. (NB – the damage occurred before the document arrived at Cheshire Archives!) If not treated promptly, mould spores can spread and wreak havoc on old documents. And other little pests like bookworms, silverfish and booklice can cause plenty of damage too.  It may look cute, but the '
bookworm' (actually the larvae of the Varied Carpet Beetle, known as the Woolly Bear) is responsible for the patterns on the pages here.

Missing documents

Storing archives carefully isn’t just to protect them from animals and environmental damage. Imagine what would happen if you took out a document but didn’t put it back properly? If we take an item out of storage (and remember our documents are stored on around 11 kilometres of shelving!) we use a strict tracking system to look after it. Triple carbon slips are filled in with the document reference number, its location, and when and by whom it has been moved. 

The pink layer must stay with the document, whether it is going to our search room to be viewed by a member of the public; used by a staff member for research or copying; or being treated in our conservation studio. The yellow layer remains in the storage box, and the white copy can be taken away by the person using it. When the item is returned, the pink and yellow slips must match, and are put back together and recorded. Accuracy is paramount, and only very occasionally do we get the shock of finding a yellow slip in a box instead of a document. 

Rest assured that at Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, we take extremely good care of the documents entrusted to us. Our strict tracking system means missing documents are very rare. 

Techniques from the past 

Our Archivists and Conservators do an excellent job of preserving and conserving the documents in our care. But archives trends and techniques have changed over time, and what is seen as best practice now can be quite different from what used to happen. Two sets of documents sadly spring to mind to illustrate this. 

The first is a pamphlet from the English Civil War, dated 1642, but it’s covered in 20th century ink stamps from the library where it used to be kept. It is obviously important to catalogue and label archives material but nowadays a soft pencil is used instead. 

This is an original letter from King Charles I to the Mayor of Chester, also written in 1642 (ref: DCC 47/41). The letters and other records in this collection have all been glued onto mounts – aargh! This happened in the 1950s and it certainly wouldn’t be stored in this way today. 

And whilst we’re sure whoever laminated these asylum records intended to preserve them, these days the documents would be stored differently. They’d be kept acid-free folders and, if additional protection was needed, they’d only ever be sleeved in non-plastic removable pockets. They’d never be sealed in. You can see from this image that laminated documents are difficult to photograph too! 

These are our seven scariest scenarios when working with archives. If you’d like to read about the witches, ghosts and Halloween customs of Cheshire – even a story of mummification – click here to read our 2019 blog: Happy Halloween!

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