Monday, 24 October 2016

Torchlight Tour of Teesside Archives. Me, and old papers, in the dark, together

Before we begin the answer's no

No, I didn't steal any of the old books/files or tear out any pages! I may have a reputation for collecting and re-purposing old paper but - trust me - on this occasion I was a paragon of restraint! (And I reserve my scissor action for books I've paid for or been given thankyouverymuch.)

And now we can begin properly ... 

Earlier this month James and I threw on our 'big' coats and headed out for a night in the dark as part of the 'Nightfall: Sky Full of Stars' event in the town centre as part of the annual Discover Middlesbrough festival. (You can catch up with my post about 2015's festival here). This year's event featured all kinds of outdoor light installations, which I'll share in a post of their own, but it also included various atmospheric torchlight tours of notable buildings and, nosey-vintage-paper-obsessive that I am I booked on to the tour of Teesside Archives

It wasn't entirely dark when we arrived but by the time we'd been greeted, had an introduction, and embarked on the tour the sky had darkened and the atmosphere had begun to build. We were shown upstairs - with the lights on because: health and safety - but soon then the torches we were given began to come in useful as we were led into the rabbit-warren of corridors and rooms in a building that began life as a postal exchange.

Forgive the blurry photos, my camera does usually cope well in the dark but even so, I came away with a lot of photos like this:
While were were brandishing our torches and generally mooching up and down the racks and racks of boxes and files we learned about:

  • what kinds of documents are stored in the archives: eg. local business archives such as British Steel, council proceedings, housing plans, plans for Sydney Harbour Bridge which was designed and built in Middlesbrough
  • and also what's involved in the preservation of the contents: eg. regulating temperature and moisture, checking for pests, having a sprinkler system in case of fire ... and having cardboard boxes that can withstand a few hours of being sprayed with water. Who knew? 

And, when you see some of the amazing old volumes it's home to, you can understand the drive to protect it all.
However, while the whole experience brought out my serious, book-loving, historically-interested side ... it was equally satisfying on the level of making me feel I was inside a mystery drama ...  
How many times have you seen a scene like this in a film or on TV? The protagonist sneaks into the building at night, their torchlight sweeping up and down the shelves seeking the 'files' that will solve everything and then ... what was that?  Someone creeping behind you ... a security guard, a stray cat, an enemy? Don't breathe. Don't make a sound. Don't drop your torch ...
Carried away? Who? Me?

Then from the dark (and our over-active imaginations) we were ushered into the light of the conservation room:
That entire wall of light boxes on the right hand side allows the conservator to repair and restore large maps and plans, while smaller light boxes come in useful for viewing and repairing old slides:
And, smaller still, was this light which is as thin as a couple of sheets of paper - and in fact looks like a rectangle of card until it's switched on. 
It slides easily between book pages and, once illuminated, it shows up any problems with the paper which can then be restored as well as revealing watermarks and ink qualities which can be used to determine the age of the paper.

Continuing the theme of 'light and dark' the curator demonstrated how light had effected a book from the 1800s:
And we heard something about this indenture from the 1580s ... but I can't remember what. Possibly the impressive fact that it was close to 440 years old made me forget everything else!
And she pointed out the glues and the 'fibrous Japanese papers' she uses to restore and reinforce damaged pages ...
... and it took great restraint for me not to shout "Washi! Is it washi paper? It is isn't it? Tell me more about paper!!"

And again ... no ... I didn't squirrel any of it away for myself. So stop thinking of me like that ... I mean it's not like I was the only person there who was taking photos of the piles of paper on her desk ... oh ... hang on ... yeah ... I was. I was the only person taking photos of paper. Oh well ... moving on ... and up ... and up:
When we reached the top floor we were allowed out into the darkness, on to a fire-escape on the roof in order to fully appreciate just how close the road runs to the building:
So close in fact that, in an act of cultural and historical vandalism, they actually knocked down the remainder of the buildings in the row and the archive was the last building to be saved before they drove the A66 right through the old town. Even the building that holds so much of the area's history has its own story to tell.

In fact, it's latest story is that it's almost full. The archivists told us that in several years they'll likely run out of space to hold everything they have coming in and then what? Their hope is that they'll be given - for the first time ever - a purpose built archive, but in this era of local government cut backs, who knows?

Now, why does the idea of a building almost full-to-bursting, shelves groaning under the weight of so many old books and documents sound so very familiar to me? Can't imagine ...


I hope you enjoyed this peek behind the scenes, if you want to share stories of your own experiences of archives, or restoration, or collecting old books then let's continue the papery conversation in the comments here or over at Instagrammy Facebook page or on Twitter.

And I'll whip up another post about the 'Nightfall:Sky Full of Stars' event soon.

Julie :-)


  1. That looks like the perfect evening out for you - what an interesting place to visit.

  2. I'd love to go to an event like this, however I live in a small city [5 to 6 thousand] and they just don't have things like this here to go to so I so appreciate you writing about the places you go and share all your pics with us. As I've said [probably more than once!] - you have such a way with words and when you share, between your pictures and writing, I nearly feel as if I've been there myself. What a talent you have!


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