Category Archives: Behind the Scenes

Looking at the the work that goes on in Birmingham Archives & Heritage and the people that do it.

Explore Your Archives 2017: Behind the Scenes in Conservation

This year’s Explore Your Archives week runs from Saturday 18th November to Sunday 26th November. The mini-campaign is to highlight the vital and highly-specialised preservation and conservation work of archive conservators.

Behind the scenes at Archives & Collections

Unlike the past two years when we have opened up our archive collections through pop-up exhibitions, this year we are offering the chance to look behind the scenes…

Ever wanted to know what the Conservator gets up to in the archives? Ever wondered what is in the gold part of the Library of Birmingham building? You can find out by coming along to this workshop about how we look after Birmingham’s most treasured documents, with a behind the scenes tour of the stores and Conservation Studio.

Spaces are limited to 12 people – so book early by e-mail at to avoid disappointment!


There are two workshops:

Saturday 18th November 1pm – 3pm

Friday 24th November, 2pm – 4pm.



Wolfson Centre for Archival Research, Level 4, Library of Birmingham, Centenary Square B1 2ND


For details of how to get to the library, please see the Library of Birmingham website for details.

For more about the Explore Your Archive campaign, please visit




Connecting Stories, Our British Asian Heritage – Behind the scenes

Have you ever wondered why exhibition spaces are sometimes a little bit dark? Why objects are displayed in the way that they are? How an exhibition is even put together in the first place? Conservator Lucy Angus will explain the stages of preparing and installing our current exhibition ‘Connecting Stories.


Six months ago I met the British Library Curator Penny Brook who had the difficult task of choosing over 100 objects from collections held at the British Library and Library of Birmingham which would help tell the story of our British Asian heritage. Once Penny had come up with her wish list of objects for inclusion for the exhibition, I was then presented with the objects which included a rare 19th century board game reflecting Britain’s trading interests in Asia, 1940s police reports on meetings of the Indian Workers Association and India League in Birmingham, photographs showing protests and counter-protests in 1960s and 1970s Britain amongst others.

Before and after conservation treatment
[MS 3147/5/ 616]

Upon looking at the objects I had to determine whether the objects were fit for display and what conditions would need to be in place to make sure that the objects were cared for and did not potentially suffer from being displayed. Some factors I considered were the condition of the objects, whether the objects were to be displayed in a case or framed and the potential exposure to light over the course of the exhibition.

Most objects I was shown were thankfully in a good condition and required no conservation treatment. Only a few objects required minor repair with a colour drawing of an Engine House for His Highness the Nabob Vizier of Oude (MS 3147/5/616) requiring the most conservation treatment which included surface cleaning, repair and filling in losses with a sympathetic paper to the original. Continue reading

Heritage Research Area Familiarisation Session

Would you like to learn how the Heritage Research Area on level 4 could benefit your genealogical research?

Meet experienced staff at this free event which will act as a general beginners’ guide to resources such as maps, electoral and parish registers as well as digital resources on Ancestry Institution and software for reading local newspapers.

Spaces are limited to 12 people per session. Please email or speak with a representative of staff on level 4 to place a reservation.

Wednesday 28 June 2017

11 am – 1 pm

Please note this session is not aimed at answering specific genealogical enquiries.

Our Heritage Research Familiarisation Session is now fully booked. If you haven’t managed to book on the session this time, we are planning to offer another one on a Saturday in September, date yet to be confirmed. Please check out the blog, the Lob website and twitter as well as posters located in the library nearer the time for confirmation of the date. 


Birmingham Archives & Collections. What we got up to…

We thought we’d update you on want we got up to during our closed week at the end of April!

One of our two accessioning days in the Wolfson Centre for Archival Research

For the first time since moving to the Library of Birmingham in 2013, we have had the opportunity to concentrate our efforts on a piece of labour intensive, repetitive, yet incredibly beneficial work… namely, stock checking (surveying) the archives collections in our strong rooms!

The team spent 90 hours surveying the collections, and managed to cover 1528 shelves – that’s about 3 and half minutes per shelf! They updated some 590 location records, which in the long-term means we will be more efficient at retrieving material for you!

Library of Birmingham Archives & Collections staff surveying locations in strong rooms

So what are the benefits of undertaking this work?

Well naturally, more efficient retrieval for when you order material to look at in the reading room, but also  better use of space by storing items in more efficient configurations and uniting collections that have historically been stored separately (we did some shifting around). The work undertaken has also informed our thoughts about how we record locations on our collections management system to make them more accurate and our retrieval times swifter.

Over the course of the week, and in addition to the team surveying collections in the strong rooms, we worked on staff development through shadowing activity and group training sessions, such as a webinar run by The National Archives! The scene pictured below features half of the Archives & Collections team attending a webinar about Digital Preservation – a significant issue facing all archives services in this modern digital age.

Archives & Collections staff “attending” a webinar about digital preservation run by TNA

During the week we were able to spend two days on accessions, which also involved training in the form of shadowing for one of our Senior Archives & Collection Assistants, who spent some time getting to grips with and documenting a collection of deeds that had just come in!

Adding deeds to the collections on one of our ‘Accessioning Days’

We plan to carry out similar activities later on this year and in years to come, and as such have scheduled in further closed weeks. To minimise disruption to the service, we have used our visitor statistics kept since the opening of the Library of Birmingham in September 2013 to choose the quietest weeks. The closed weeks then for 2017/18 will be as follows:

w/b 4th September, reopening on Tuesday 12th September

w/b 25th December, reopening on Tuesday 2nd January 2018

During these weeks the Wolfson Centre for Archival Research will close but, the Heritage Research Area counter on the same floor will remain open.  You will still be able to talk to knowledgeable staff about the collections we hold, identify material you wish to consult and make appointments to consult that material.

All the team at Archives & Collections are proud that we are able to continue to collect and make accessible cultural and heritage collections that are representative and reflective of our city and its population. Thank you for your continued support, enabling us to utilise such opportunities to make these collections more open and available to everyone who wishes to use them.

Corinna Rayner
Archives & Collections Manager
Library of Birmingham

Archives in the balance

Weighing scales, somewhat less sophisticated than the ones used in the Wolfson Centre. [MS 2628/4/4/2]

 Astute users of the Wolfson Centre may have noticed that we weigh items in the Wolfson Centre before serving them and when we receive them back at the desk.  I have been asked many times if that’s because we think people are inveterate thieves.  Of course we do – there will always be that one person who will nick anything.  But that’s not the only reason, there is also the fact that digital scales are cool.  What often surprises researchers though is that we don’t just weigh items to check that nothing has been taken out, but also to check that nothing has been put back in!  Why is this?  Well, I shall tell you, dear reader:

Theory lesson

Foremost early 20th century archival theorist, Sir Hilary Jenkinson wrote that the role of the archivist is the ‘physical and moral defence’ of archives.  So what have scales got to do with this?  Well firstly, we’re dealing with the physical defence by making sure that none of the material goes missing.  But perhaps more crucially, we’re charged with the moral defence of the material.  Now, we all know the archives are evidence of a transaction (you knew that, right?) but what makes them so important and useful to historians is their ‘impartiality’ and ‘authenticity’, i.e. the fact that we know the records haven’t been messed with and are the same today as they were when the transaction occurred.

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Meet the team at Archives & Collections

The Iron Room has been going for just over 4 years now and, following a conversation with one of our Archivists late last year, we realised that we have probably never properly introduced ourselves! There have been many changes to the department over the last 12 months so we thought we would wait until the dust settles and then write about the faces you are likely to see in the department…..

RC GB for blog

Rachel and Geoff at the desk in the Heritage Research Area

Our staff work both sides of the ‘counter’ in the Heritage Research Area (HRA) and the Wolfson Centre – we all worked at Central Library although many of us are now in different roles.

KH PD SA for blog

Peter, Kathryn and Saley behind the counter in the Wolfson Centre

Our Archives & Collections Manager is Corinna Rayner, ably supported by the rest of the team – Paul, our Archives & Collections Coordinator (who will be a familiar face to many I’m sure!), Archivists Peter and Nicola, and Project Archivist Eleanor. Rachel, Kathryn and Saley (our newest member of the team) are our Senior Assistants and last but not least, Geoff and  Stephen, our Archives & Collections Assistants.

Eleanor, our Project Archivist

Eleanor, our Project Archivist

Corinna and Nicola processing accessions in the Wolfson Centre

Nicola and Corinna processing accessions in the Wolfson Centre

We will do our best to assist with any queries so if you do visit, please don’t be afraid to ask for help!

From boxes to trees

Tree WKH5206

Victoria Park, Handsworth, December 1895 (from the Warwickshire Photographic Survey, ref WK/H5/206)

Have you ever wondered when you look at our on-line catalogues or use our paper catalogues in the searchroom how archivists decide to arrange a collection? What do we do when we are faced with shelves and shelves of records which may have been randomly boxed together or may have been re-organised several times by the time they reach us?

Well, without going into too much detail about archival theory, there are a couple of key principles which underpin the work of archivists and which differentiates archival cataloguing from that of library cataloguing. Records derive their meaning from the context in which they were created so when arranging a collection of records, archivists aim to preserve this context. To do so, they follow the principles of provenance and original order. The principle of provenance dictates that records created or collected by an organisation, family or individual should be maintained together and not mixed with records created or collected by another organisation, family or individual. The principle of original order dictates that records should be arranged in the order in which they were created and used.

In practice, this means that for each new organisation, family or individual who deposits records in the archive, a new collection is created. However, identifying the original order can be rather more difficult because this has often been lost over time as records pass from one generation to the next, frequently being organised and re-organised before they are deposited in an archive. This is why one of the first things a cataloguing archivist does is to spend time researching the organisation, family or individual and analysing the records to try to work out how the records would have been created and kept so that this can be reflected in the arrangement of the collection.  The aim is to build up a logical arrangement which maintains the context of the records and helps researchers to easily explore the collection via the catalogue.

Continue reading