by Ian Conday, Archives Assistant

An archive is unique; it is a one-off. Hopefully this will be true for the move of the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office into The Box, Plymouth, in two years’ time.

The geographic shift of premises, as an organisation, will be recorded by a singular change of post code but the movements of the collections will be intricate, exacting and many – the location of each and every document will need to be recorded in fine detail.

In a way, it will be much like moving home, only our house contains a vast number of historically significant documents relating to the City of Plymouth and West Devon, within its four walls. We have 20,000 boxes, over 4000 collections and hundreds of thousands of individual documents: deeds, maps, records for churches, hospitals, schools, coroners, a multitude of charters, manuscripts and plans. The entire move will need to be accomplished with real precision.

Preparatory work for The Box, Plymouth underway at the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office

Placing these collections into brown boxes, taping them up and merely labelling some ‘kitchen’ for example, isn’t an option! We need to know more than which box to open to find the condiments. We need to know exactly where the salt cellar is. In fact; we need to know where each grain of salt is.

Alongside our normal service to the public, we are currently undertaking the preparatory work for the move. Every box in the building needs to be efficiently utilised, rationalised, the right size for the documents in it – and fit its future shelving allocation. Each box also has to be assigned a unique number and be photographed for a comprehensive documentation process.

Preparatory work for The Box, Plymouth taking place at the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office

As you may imagine, although the physical move to The Box is a huge logistical task in itself, the feat of transferring all the digital data is just as big. It underpins the entire move and safeguards the future access to any of the valuable collections we hold. To that end, we are also preparing for the entry of hundreds of thousands of digital locations, each relating to a specific item, into our database. Each document has its own unique reference number and its own individual corresponding location e.g. its box, upon a shelf, within a bay, within a run, within a room, upon a floor, inside The Box.

Our small team is working every day on this process to ensure there will be minimal disruption to our service when we move.

So, whilst we still have one foot firmly in the present so we can function as usual and welcome researchers, until a few months before The Box opens we must also have one foot in the future! It’s a big job but we are all working hard to balance the complexities and logistics of our decant with our duty of care to the array of unique records we are responsible for which document the past of the city and its surrounds.

The Plymouth and West Devon Record Office