50 Years of Dundee City Archives

1969 was a big year – man first walked on the moon, Woodstock took place, John Lennon and Yoko Ono got married, and there was a four way tie to win the Eurovision Song Contest (Lulu was one of the winners). But something else happened that year. Dundee Corporation hired an Archivist in April, this means it was the start of Dundee City Archives.

Now of course, technically the Corporation, and the Town Council before it, had kept records (otherwise there wouldn’t be much here today). So you could say it already had an archive. In fact when Dundee was awarded city status, the council minutes state that the new charter should be kept in the ‘Archives’. But these records were managed by the Town Clerk’s office. And when I say ‘managed’, I really mean stored. In the old Adam Town house there appears to have been a storage room for charters and deeds. Volumes were stacked on shelves and other items kept in large black metal chests.

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The Adam Town House

This situation seemed fine for a while. There was enough space to store things and there wasn’t too much so you could find everything quite easily. Then the responsibilities of the council skyrocketed in the 1920s and 1930s. They were now responsible for housing, poor relief, education, the police, health care and transport. With great power comes great responsibility and a lot of paper work. And that paper work needs to be managed if you are ever going to find it again.

The first mention of employing a qualified archivist comes at a meeting of the Lord Provost’s Committee on 26th April 1961. The Town Clerk raises the need for employing a “suitably qualified person to examine and catalogue the numerous valuable historical documents and other relics in the archives of the corporation”. The suggestion is accepted as a sensible one and the Town Clerk is told to write a report on the matter. Which he does. The matter is then raised again a year later on 27th April 1962 but is delayed, and delayed again. Then finally on 26th March 1964, it was agreed to authorise the employment of a temporary Archivist on a part time basis with the equivalent full time salary of £750 per annum. It seems that qualified and/or experienced archivists must have been hard to come by back then, as a suitable candidate was not found until 5 years later. At a meeting of the Establishment Committee on 20th March 1969 the Town Clerk reported that a well qualified applicant was now available, but she would be employed on a full time basis.

Dundee was by no means the first local authority to set up an archive. Many County Councils in England had established County Record Offices in the 1920s and 1930s. Scotland took a little longer to get off the ground. The first was Glasgow City Corporation, who appointed an archivist in 1964. So Dundee was one of the first coming in only 5 years later. (Perhaps the second we don’t know for sure.) But what was the archives like back in 1969? Well, rather handily for us, the first Archivist left a report. After she started in April 1969, she spent the next 5 months surveying what was in the collection, sorting things out and getting to grips with the archives.

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Inside one of the original stores in the Caird Hall today

After the completion of the Caird Hall in 1923, the council’s archive collection was moved to two specially designed deed rooms under the main hall. There was also another room for storing legal files in City Square, although this wasn’t completed until 10 years later. At this time the archives was only the records of the council and its predecessors. There were no deposited collections – no Harbour Trust records, no Caledon ship plans and no family photograph albums. What we learn from the 1969 report is that although the records are spread between two rooms, they could mostly fit into one. The records are in wooden cabinets and metal boxes, they’re dirty (the archivist has picked up 3 different rashes in her first 5 months on the job), there are a large amount of duplicates and they’re not sorted very well.

We also learn that the first Archivist’s office space was in the second room. This may not seem so bad, but this is a dark cool room, with no windows and not ideal for spending long amounts of time in. Having an archivist also meant that the records were more accessible to the public. During the first 5 months the Archivist notes that there have been four “serious research enquiries”. What “serious” means I don’t know, but to give some context over April to September 2018 we had 1073 visits to our searchroom. But then I guess this was new and less people knew about it, or as the archivist at the time put it no one wants to “sit on an uncomfortable chair at a rickety desk in poor light and get filthy in the process”. As a modern archivist, it is interesting that then the two main components of the job were 1. Organisation and 2. Supervision. Nowadays we would call this Collections and Access. But we also have a third prong to our activities – Outreach. Which is what I’m doing right now, telling people about the archives, helping people to use them and encouraging them to do so in different ways.

Our searchroom in 2017

Over the years there have been a few changes. A second archivist has been employed since 1974, probably as part of the preparations for the archives becoming the Tayside Regional Archives on the behalf of the Tayside Regional Council. An assistant was employed around the same time and a second came on board in 1980. There was a third in the 1990s but we went back down to four staff after the end of the Regional Council in 1996. Over the years we have had 4 City Archivists. In the early 1970s the Archivist was given an office, which measured 10 foot by 10 foot, but this wasn’t really big enough for two members of staff plus members of the public – especially when you consider the size of some of the maps and plans in the collection. In the 1980s the Archives finally moved into the office space opposite the stores, which is where we still are today although its been given a lick of paint since then. Although our searchroom is now in a separate larger room across the corridor.

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The records of the Dundee Harbour Trust were one of the first deposited collections at Dundee City Archives

The archives first started accepting deposits of records in 1977, when we agreed to take in the Dundee Harbour Trust (Ref: GD/DH), which remains one of our largest collections to this day. We’ve gone from 23 visitors in August 1978 to 182 in August 2018. Back in the 1970s enquiries came through the post, in May 1998 we received our first recorded email enquiries (although they may have been coming in before this) and by January 1999 the number of emails coming in overtook the number of letters. We now have a group of over 20 volunteers and for the last 30 years our work has been supported by the Friends of Dundee City Archives.

Many things have changed in the last 50 years, but our mission remains the same – to preserve the records of Dundee City Council and the wider community, and to help people gain access to those records.

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