West Yorkshire: Doing good deeds at the ‘history hospital’

Shirley Jones, head of conservation at the West Yorkshire Archives Services, views old account books in need of repair.
Shirley Jones, head of conservation at the West Yorkshire Archives Services, views old account books in need of repair.
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It requires a strong constitution to work at the ‘History Hospital’.

The ‘hospital’ in question is the conservation department at the West Yorkshire Archives Service where centuries-old documents are repaired and preserved for posterity.

Now the department is throwing open its doors so the public can have a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse into the science of document preservation.

The work of the department, based at the Registry of Deeds in Wakefield, may conjure up images of sunlight-bleached tomes and dusty documents but the reality is bleaker than that.

For the head of conservation, Shirley Jones, the biggest problems are damp, mould and the appetites of thousands of insects and paper-loving parasites.

When bundles of historical documents arrive in the studio they are often rotting, damp, covered in mould growth and infested with all manner of creepy crawlies.

Silverfish, rodents, biscuit beetles, spider beetles and booklice are the everyday enemies of the archive conservator.

“We do see quite grotty things if they are damp,” she said. “We wear protective gloves, masks and overalls when we clean things.”

It is not unusual for old books, parchment or ledgers to be in a poor state.

Before they can be stored in one of 30 ‘strong rooms’ – humidity-controlled storage rooms – they have to be repaired and placed in specially-made protective covers.

Documents infested with insects or spiders have to be sent away to Doncaster to be placed in a museum’s large blast freezer. They are left inside the freezer for around two weeks at a temperature of around -30C.

Modern techniques can ensure that even the grubbiest documents can be given a new lease of life, says Mrs Jones.

Dealing with insects may be unpleasant but conservators do get the occasional thrill of finding interesting old documents.

Mrs Jones and her small team have around 100,000 boxes of documents to choose from in their rolling programme of conservation and so are never short of work.

Cleaning up an old prison register was one job she remembers clearly.

“It was produced before the days of photography and included detail on distinguishing marks of prisoners. It was quite strange to read that one inmate had six fingers.”

* Places on two tours of the conservation department, on Friday October 12, are limited. Email: wakefield@wyjs.org.uk or call 01924 305980.

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