TEENAGE tearaways, anti-social behaviour, routine drunkenness, fear of foreigners, tracing absent parents, feeding the hungry, homelessness, economic and political migration - all have been with us at least as long as there have been written records.

The Dorset History Centre packs more than a thousand years of social history into some eight miles of shelving covering 12-13,000 square feet of climate-controlled vaults beneath its Dorchester headquarters - rated among the very best of their kind in the country. The Centre's recent work with the Dorset Federation of Women's Institutes recently won it a National Hidden Treasures award from the British Library.

"It was a project the Dorset Federation came up with after the Second World War in which each WI was asked to write a memoir of how the war affected their town or village and it threw up some fascinating submissions,' says principal archivist Jacqui Halewood.

"There's some beautiful calligraphy in the document, as well as hand illustrated pages and typed notes; but the detail is astonishing. There's a wonderful story from Beaminster of a German airman who came down nearby, took a scarecrow's clothes, but kept his flying boots. Apparently he walked into town and spoke to some people - in German!

"One lady thought he was complimenting her on her hair, although she couldn't really understand him and wondered why he was wearing funny boots. He walked straight past the military police who were busy cleaning their motorcycles before eventually being captured."

There's also an account from Bloxworth WI which notes that a unit of black American troops was stationed nearby. "The US Army was still segregated in those days of course, but they soon realised that candy tasted the same whether it was given by black or white American troops!

"But it's also worth noting that every WI records how much jam it was making - and this wasn't the jam of Jam and Jerusalem, this was food production to help the war effort, as were the knitted clothes and nets they produced," adds Jacqui.

The WI project is unique which is why the grandees of the British Library lavished it with such national recognition, but it's a perfect example of the kind of detail from ordinary people's lives that makes the Dorset History Centre such a fabulous resource. Funded by Dorset, Bournemouth and Poole Councils, it is effectively the latest incarnation of the old county records office.

County archivist for almost 25 years, Hugh Jaques is only the second person to have held the position and much as he appreciates the past - and more importantly, can interpret it - he has a clear eye on the future.

"When my predecessor started in 1955 she had two basement rooms and no desk. In their first year they received 56 visitors, which wasn't bad considering the facility was barely made public," he says.

Last year, somewhere between nine and ten thousand people visited the office, which received some 3,000 enquiries from all over the world and around 35,000 web page visits.

"If you want to see it as such, in lots of ways Dorset is the centre of the world," says Hugh. "Families have always moved around - agricultural labourers in the 19th century moved to Canada, the United States, Australia (although some, famously, were obliged to!) so we get enquiries from all over the world.

"Equally, a port like Lyme Regis would have had direct contact with the spice-producing colonies, the West Indies, the slave trade, tobacco in Virginia - Dorset may be a small county with no motorways, but its presence is felt globally."

Hugh wants to refresh and extend the Centre's already mesmerising website, keen to make his obvious passion for history all the more relevant in the 21st century. "The 1629 Dorchester Offenders Book is a chronicle of everyday petty crime - there were riots in the town in 1720. Our only church court records, those of Wimborne Minster, find church wardens reporting on the spiritual state of the parish and contain accounts of public drunkenness, sexual licence - it's like reading the News of the World!"

We've never been more interested in history, but there's a lot more to it than tracing your family tree and watching Time Team. The Dorset History Centre holds parish records covering a thousand years - as well as lists of the lords of the manor dating back to Domesday - but it's when you get behind those records that it gets most fascinating.

"The history of the poor tells us a lot about life in the past and this is where we've been able to do so much outreach work with schools throughout the county. Each parish was responsible for its poor from the time of Queen Elizabeth I to the 1830s, so you might think a parish ledger is a bit fusty-dusty, but often it will tell you it spent a shilling on a shirt, for example, and for whom. They also used to transport people around the country - we have a case of a woman and her children who were returned to Wimborne Minster from Newcastle on Tyne, presumably because her husband, the breadwinner, had died and she was originally from Wimborne.

"History is far from solemn. You have 16th century accounts written in wonderful Shakespearean language, but of ordinary people's lives. Equally, a deposition recorded in Victorian times to claim Poor Relief might sound a bit dull, but it is a handwritten account of what a real person said, in their own words."

In lesser hands, the Dorset History Centre would be little more than a dumping ground for the records of county life, but it has to be highly selective. It chronicles the histories of ancient boroughs like Poole and Dorchester, as well as the rapid ascent of Bournemouth from the its first foray into local government in 1856, to its position as the county's largest town today.

Business records include those of Poole Pottery - the designs of which alone Hugh says will take an archivist a year to catalogue - to those of a village blacksmith's single logbook; or half a million documents representing 500 years of a country estate that will take years to catalogue.

"There's nothing romantic about the archives, no piles of yellowed, dusty pages decaying, but the scale and reach of what is held here can be over-whelming, so the task is to order it so that it can provide answers to quite specific questions."

It is those magical moments of discovery that bring the information to life.

"If you want to know who has lived in your house, or what members of your family might have done, we can point you in the direction of a possible answer," says Jacqui.

"What has changed in recent years though is that when you tell people you are an archivist they no longer glaze over - they want to tell you about their history. Suddenly that history has come alive again and this is where it lives."