To the Moon and beyond to safeguard county's archives

History centre video 1

Imagine a trail of paper that stretches all the way to the Moon and beyond. That’s an extraordinary 238,855 miles from Earth.

Then think of a digital cloud crammed full of data from the Oxfordshire History Centre, home to the county’s archives.

As it continues the painstaking process of building its digital collection, the centre’s cloud already holds a staggering amount of material that would see it stretch for 300,000 miles if recorded as text on an A4 page.

Add to that more than five miles of manuscript, printed and photographic material from its physical archives and you start to understand the huge scale of records being carefully catalogued and preserved for future generations.

The Oxfordshire History Centre is run by Oxfordshire County Council and forms part of our rich cultural service, supporting our commitment to thriving communities. We provide services that enhance the quality of life in our communities and protect the local environment.

The centre is housed in St Luke’s Church, at the top end of Cowley Road. The nave provides the bulk of physical storage, with secure strongrooms built over three floors to hold collections dating all the way back to the 1100s.

But while the original documentary material and printed, hard-copy publications continue to come into the centre to be archived, focus is also turning to how it deals with its digital records.

Dealing with the electronic realm

Mark Lawrence, History Centre Manager (Local Studies), explained: “Increasingly, publications from local organisations such as charities and government bodies are now issued in an electronic format.

“It’s the sort of material we are trying to collect but, of course, trying to find it when it’s only been published in the electronic realm is quite difficult.

“Sometimes people don’t issue things as freestanding publications. Their collective thinking may only exist as a website. So how we archive this sort of content is something we’re constantly reviewing.”

As well as new material, there is the huge challenge of digitising older material from the archives to make it available to online visitors.

More than 130,000 digital images have already been added to the centre’s Picture Oxon website, but the task is never-ending.

“We’ve got over half-a-million photographs and drawings in the archives, so this is work that will carry on to the end of our careers and our successors’ careers,” explained Mark.

“Probably only about half of our images have been catalogued, let alone digitised, so there’s already a fantastic resource, but our work will keep going.”

Storage in the digital cloud

So where do you store such vast amounts of digital material? Storing pictures in the cloud from your smartphone is one thing, but what about the mass of video files, audio files, documents and images from across Oxfordshire?

The centre’s digital content is securely stored by a company called Preservica. The cloud already holds 23 terabytes of data.

To put that into context, one terabyte is the equivalent of 40 million doubled-sided A4 pages of text. Remember that trail of paper to the moon and beyond?

“Just like our physical archives, the digital material is selected and organised and we are the gatekeepers to it, helping the public to find and access the information they need for their research,” said Mark.

“You need something that’s just as secure as our physical strongrooms. If you’re tasked, as we are, with preserving that material for posterity, you can’t have anyone just dipping in and out at will.

“Whether you’re uploading material or moving digital material around once it’s in the cloud, or you’re deleting material or expanding a collection, or you’re changing who has access, all of those movements that you make with your data need to be audited.

“That’s the professional, responsible way of managing digital material ­– something we’ve always done with the physical equivalent.”

Reducing wear and tear

Mark Priddey, History Centre Manager (Archives), said digitising material meant a reduction in handling, saving wear and tear and in some cases outright loss.

“In terms of wills and parish registers – two of the most popular historical resources ­– we’ve worked with the family history websites Ancestry and Find My Past, so those documents are accessible in a searchable form and available to people around the world,” he said.

“For the digitising and online hosting of the parish registers, we were indebted to Oxfordshire Family History Society for their financial backing.

“It’s crucial to the effective working of the history centre that we continue to make our collections as widely accessible as possible, which means preserving items in our custody as best as we can and, as far as is practicable, moving them into a format that people can use in 20 or 30 years’ time.”

The history centre employs 17 staff to catalogue and archive material, with a dozen volunteers helping to significantly bolster resources.

Staff are also on hand to assist people coming in to research the archives, with everything from family history to house history, crime and disease among popular subjects.

The strongrooms have also held the Oxfordshire Health Archives since 2011, as well as old motor vehicle regulations, title deeds, maps and vast collections of church and parish records.

Mark Priddey said: “Most of our collections are 19th and 20th Century but we also do have a lot of collections from 1150 through to the 18th Century.

“Our remit is to collect any records that relate to and help us find out about the history of Oxfordshire and the people who’ve lived here. We take in archives from local councils, courts and other official bodies, records of local groups and organisations, businesses and families, as well as from individual depositors or donors.

“Storage is an ongoing issue for us. You can project in theory how much storage capacity you’re going to need over the next five to 10 years but it only takes one or two things for those calculations to be revised.

“For example, when Morrells Brewery Company closed in 1998, we took in all of their records at very short notice. When you take something in, the weeding and the cataloguing and trying to decide what is important for long-term preservation and future research demands is really quite challenging.”

No such thing as a silly question

The centre went through its last big internal conversion phase in 2011. When it closes for stocktaking at the beginning of next month, new signing and guiding will be installed to help brighten the public research space and cafe.

Mark Priddey said: “When we reopen we’d encourage people to come and visit us.

“We always have staff on duty to help, so we can cater for people who are completely new to historical research or people who have been doing it for years and years.

“There’s no such thing as a silly question and no limit as to how long you want to stay. We’re also open three Saturdays out of four to cater for people who work on weekdays.”

Working in a former place of worship

  • St Luke’s Church was provided by the generosity of Lord Nuffield on a site next to the Nuffield Press and cost £33,675 to build.
  • A foundation stone was laid in 1937 and the church was consecrated on October 18, 1938, by Bishop of Oxford, Dr Kenneth Kirk.
  • It could accommodate a congregation of 460 plus an additional 100 chairs.
  • The tower is 75ft high, with a bronze cross adding a further 14ft. It originally held a peel of four bells which are now at Christ Church, Hampstead.
  • St Luke’s was deconsecrated in the mid-1990s and converted to become the Oxfordshire Record Office in 2000.
  • The Record Office merged with Oxfordshire Studies (formerly based at Westgate) in 2011 to create the Oxfordshire History Centre.
  • Statues located in the public search room are of St Frideswide, St Luke, the Risen Christ, St James the Great, and St Francis.