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A day in the life of a History Centre Assistant

Ever wondered what it's like working in the Public Access rooms at the Dorset History Centre? From drains to ancient manuscripts, a Dorset History Centre Assistant shares their account of a typical day.

Enquiries from near and far

It's a busy start to the day with lots of telephone messages to follow up from when we are closed. We get enquiries from all over the world via telephone, email and letter on a huge range of topics from family history to local history.

This morning is no exception. I start the day by dealing with a number of telephone enquiries. One caller from Leeds is planning a visit to the History Centre to trace their Dorset ancestors, who came from the Bridport area. Another caller wants to know how to go about tracing the history of their recently purchased property. I make some suggestions of records they may like to look at to give them some clues. I also take a call from a person in Poole who wants to know if we have any relevant building control records for their property as they are having issues with their drains!

Our job is to make suggestions of where customers might find the information they are looking for and point them to possible sources. Working at the History Centre is certainly never dull and requires a lot of thinking on our feet, as we never know what we'll be asked next!

Helping visitors at the History Centre

As well as dealing with numerous phone calls, I also help members of the public when they first arrive. Today we have some visitors from America, who are visiting Dorset for the first time, and are keen to trace their family history. They come armed with copies of family trees and have obviously done their homework. I direct them to the Family History Room, where my colleague helps them access sources online and on microfilm.

A number of our 'regulars' come in, many of whom are doing academic research and already know which documents they wish to view. I issue a couple of camera permits and renew some CARN cards (a reader's ticket that everyone needs if they wish to look at original documents). 

I deal with a couple of email enquiries- one about work house records and the other about military records. I then help a lady access our library catalogue and she is delighted to locate a book about Sydling St Nicholas that she's been searching for.

Retrieving documents from the repositories

In the afternoon I work on document production and my role is to retrieve the original documents from the repositories for members of the public. My first order is a collection of old photographs which I retrieve from our Film and Sound Archive - a room set at the right temperature and humidity to best preserve photographic material. Next up is a large 19th Century admissions book from Herrison Hospital (formerly Dorset Lunatic Asylum), where someone is researching an ancestor that was a patient there in the 1870s.

It is busy in the centre today and I locate the documents quickly and record them on the database before they can be produced to customers in the Search Room. The database allows us to keep track of where things are and who has looked at what. I come downstairs from the upper repository and see another line of orders waiting to be retrieved - this job certainly keeps us fit! I glance at the faces of the keen researchers in the Search Room as they eagerly await the arrival of their documents.

History is fragile, and sometimes heavy

Often the documents are very fragile and we need to ensure that they are handled in a way that won't damage them. One document that is ordered contains a seal which I am very careful of when getting it in and out of the box.

A shipping register is ordered and this is very large and heavy and therefore I have to recruit help to get the register on the trolley! An everyday hazard of the job. Another person orders some early 20th century minute books from Sturminster Newton Rural District Council. They are particularly awkward to manoeuvre...

My favourite document that is ordered today is a particularly beautiful drawing of the original plans of Holy Trinity Church in Dorchester. There are so many thousands of documents here that every day can be a bit like unlocking a treasure chest.

As well as getting the documents out, and recording them, I have to make sure that they are put back in the correct place. If a document goes back in the wrong box then it can be virtually impossible to find, so it's really important to record everything accurately and be alert.

I finish the day tired and looking forward to having a rest at home before helping many more people explore our archives on the next busy day.

Moira, History Centre Assistant

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