In the railway town of Wolverton, archivists have been working with volunteers to open the boxes and painstakingly research and detail their contents at the Talk About Wolverton blog.
Melanie Jeavons from Living Archive Wolverton explained:
We werenʼt started as an archive so all the primary source material was just stored somewhere and left. Itʼs only recently that people have seen the value in digitising the material.
“We have academics doing research for their degrees, people wanting to know if we have pictures of their Grandad who worked here, people interested in the industrial revolution and, because of the railway works, we have a lot of stuff that links the to national curriculum.
The Talk About Wolverton site started at the end of 2010 with a posting about the townʼs place in railway history which has set the tone for what was to follow.
“The railway works were opened in 1838 and a colony of railway workers sprung up. Wolverton was chosen as a stopping point between London and Birmingham because it was about halfway between the two. It was a place for refueling and repairing the trains, and a place where passengers could get out for refreshments and to visit a toilet. It was thought that a distance of about 50 miles was as far as a person could travel without needing a ʻtoilet stopʼ.”
Thereʼs now three staff working on the project who recruit, train and oversee the work of about 30 volunteers.
Typically this means training in computer skills such as scanning images or digitising audio recordings – skills that many volunteers donʼt already possess.
“ The work tends to attract retired people who donʼt necessarily have the IT skills that we could do with.
“From the volunteers point of view, itʼs a way to see their work online and they share with family members. Often people can be working away on some project and perhaps you canʼt see the wider results.”
The open access approach to sharing stories in a living archive via postings on the site can have unexpected results.
A recent volunteer taking his first steps at writing memories for the site astonished staff by producing a photograph taken by the pilot of the Christmas Island bomb tests that had been in his family.
“You can never tell whatʼs going to come in, who will walk through the door,” says Melanie.
The groupʼs challenge is to digitise as much of the boxed material as possible as well as attracting people to post their own stories to the site and so widen the local knowledge.
Melanie aims to attract some younger participants – the age group that might be more inclined to take part via Facebook and blogs.
And of course thereʼs funding issues to deal with to pay for the volunteer training in those essential skills.
But aside from those practicalities, the staff and volunteers are determined to unearth those important stories, the living history which binds the community.
“Theyʼre interested in local history and they have a lot of knowledge themselves often having lived in the area all their lives.
“Itʼs about being able to share that heritage and history for future generations.”
* Talk About Wolverton can be found at http://talkaboutwolverton.wordpress.com.