History isn’t just about musty old documents: it is also about the memories and experiences of ordinary people. MATT CLARK meets the people behind a unique exercise in social history taking place right now in York.

IT’S all well and good to store official documents in the city’s archives, but they don’t tell us much about what day-to-day life was like in York. Who were the characters? What was familiar, but now long forgotten? How did the city smell?

The mundanities of everyday life are every bit as important to social historians as letters or charters, which is why York Library archivists Sarah Tester and Francesca Taylor are on a mission to ensure the memories of today’s residents are recorded for posterity.

As part of a unique project called York: Gateway to History, which is creating a 21st century archive, the women are touring the city with an interactive workshop, asking one simple question: What should York remember?

You might be surprised what people recall – and why. They are given a pen to jot down their memories and now those jottings are being stored in the archives at York Explore Library.

Amazingly, nothing like this has been done before.

“As far as we know the project is unique,” says Sarah. “It is done elsewhere, but not on a big scale like this.”

The idea is to collate a snapshot in time of 21st century York together with people’s recollections since the Second World War.

And minutiae is the byword.

“We’ve already had some really interesting anecdotes such as geese holding up the traffic,” says Sarah. “That’s never recorded anywhere in an archive collection, but it’s part of life in York and should be there.

“Then there are events such as fireworks at Clifford’s Tower, even what it felt like to go down Shambles in a wheelchair, which was an interesting window into what people see as important to them.”

York Press:

Fireworks erupt from Clifford’s Tower bringing a Jorvik festival to an end

York Press:

One respondent recalled going over the cobblestones in Shambles in a wheelchair

At the New Earswick Library roadshow, Robert West thinks it is important to note the ‘new’ Joseph Rowntree School – and the old one, how the Folk Hall has changed, Hartrigg Oaks, that sort of thing. But he looks out of the window and says: “Telephone poles along the road. They’ve all gone.”

Which is precisely the sort thing Sarah is looking for.

“A lot of people say ‘you won’t be interested in this’, but mostly they tell us things we haven’t heard,” she says. “It’s about finding out what people think matters to them.”

And how about this one.

“A woman drew a story about a dustbin lorry that fell into a hole near Kings Square, caused by a collapsed sewer,” says Francesca. She remembered several ladies being evacuated from the hairdressers with nets and rollers in their hair and when the lorry was recovered a Roman gate was discovered.”

Just that one story tells us so much about social history. It dates from the 1980s, when perms were the thing, the lack of supervision would give today’s health and safety inspector nightmares and there’s even a bit of archaeology to boot.

York’s 1,000 year history encapsulated in one paragraph.

“It’s not just about museums, and council records, we’ve got those,” says Sarah. “Real life stories help form communities, which is why we want to represent them in our archives.”

And not just ones from the middle and later aged, everyone has a memory of York. Take the boy who turned up at the Dringhouses roadshow and when asked what should York remember, drew a picture of the Bar Walls.

“He did it all jagged round the edges and when his sister added the Minster he stopped and drew the walls around to make sure it was inside,” says Sarah. “This child is four years old and his mum told us he never draws at home.”

But one of the most common responses is ‘I’m not from York’. When pressed, it turns out some of the protesters have lived here for 40 years, but still consider themselves non resident. Interesting. It seems these roadshows are not just history lessons, they spark social history debates, such as how long do you have to live in York to call yourself a Yorkie?

York Press:

York Library archivist Francesca Taylor notes Robert West’s memories at the New Earswick Library roadshow

Which is perhaps odd when so many people’s roadshow jottings describe York as more like a big village or small town.

“Although people may have spent a large chunk of their lives here, the feeling we’re getting is that where they grow up is where they’re from,” says Francesca. “It’s one of the most important parts of their lives.”

To compound the point, one man even wrote ‘you’re not a true Yorkie until you’ve seen the Minster without scaffolding.’ Memories of open spaces feature strongly, whether evoking happy childhood memories or bemoaning the loss of them. But in the main, most recollections so far have been fond ones.

“The negative stuff tends to be about areas that are changing right now,” says Sarah. “Unless they are talking about traumatic events, such as war, people like to reminisce about positive things.”

One of the roadshow regulars is the all pervading smell of chocolate. At New Earswick the mere mention of it prompts Mary Marlowe to recall other aromas and stories.

“Where we lived in Wigginton, the chap who was there before us worked at the sugar beet factory and he levelled the garden using beet washings, so the grass didn’t do very well,” she says. “Smells are very evocative, when my husband came home every Friday from work on the train, in the days when you could open the window, the sugar beet factory was the first thing he could smell.”

But don’t be fooled into thinking memories like this are insignificant, because York: Gateway to History is the subject of PhD research at the University of York as an exemplar of community engagement.

“At conferences people are always interested to find out more, because traditionally archivists don’t do this sort of thing,” says Sarah. “We’re trying to promote our services and our history to as wide an audience as possible. Hopefully we’re setting a new direction.”

• THE roadshow will be at Bishopthorpe Library from 10am to 1pm today, then at Poppleton Library on May 8 from 2-4.30pm. If you can’t attend you can find out more from citymakinghistory.wordpress.com/2015/02/05/coming-soon-to-a-library-near-you/

• York: Gateway to History project is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund with support from City of York Council.