Trainee Thursday: Bridging the Digital Gap.

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In 2018, The National Archives launched the first cohort of Bridging the Digital Gap (BDG) trainees. The traineeship was developed to address a skills gap in the sector, but also to contribute to something more ambitious: the vision of a disruptive digital archive. Established archival practices have naturally been shaped by the physical records they aim to protect. Rather than digitally simulating these practices, The National Archives aims to “fundamentally rethink archival practice from first principles”. They intend to create a second-generation digital archive that is “digital by instinct and design”.

BDG trainees are effectively an embodiment of this disruption. None of the trainees are archivists; we have no practices to unpick. We all entered archives (some for the first time) with diverse backgrounds but two things in common: digital experience and an interest in archives. Everything we learn is built on the foundation that digital stewardship is an essential archival practice.[1] Even if an archive only holds physical records, the archivists are using computers to catalogue, engage users, and correspond with depositors. Whether you can read this blog in years to come will essentially depend on digital stewardship (including generous appraisal). We are all, to some degree, digital archivists. But Bridging the Digital Gap doesn’t just draw connections between archives and digital stewardship. It makes archiving instinctively digital; it collapses the gap by design.

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In October 2019, the second group of BDG trainees entered the archives. Four in London and four in Yorkshire. I am fortunate to count myself amongst this cohort, and I am doubly fortunate to be seconded to York. (How can you fail to feel blessed when your commute involves riverside cycles or medieval walls?) I studied English Literature at the University of York a few years ago and will always associate York with that period of growth. But Yorkshire was never just a backdrop to an academic experience. It unlocked it. Knotty paragraphs unravelled as I ran along the Ouse. Ideas landed on long rambles through fields. Dissertation panic dissolved in a euphoric cycle down Rosedale’s Chimney Bank and an agonising ride (on ancient/broken bikes) between Scarborough and Robin Hood’s Bay. I dived into Yorkshire and surfaced revived. I learnt that often all we need is an alternative perspective, an opportunity to engage with obstacles differently.

We are typically encouraged to conceive of technology (and most other things) in a binary and oppositional way. Paperbacks versus Paperwhite. Letters versus emails. Man versus robots. And yet, Kindle didn’t eradicate books, nor did Audible. They just enabled more people to read. Likewise, digital archives don’t threaten physical ones, they just consolidate their content and extend their reach. Technology, when used effectively, is exceptionally good at improving access: a fundamental archival principle.

Similarly, for the archive sector to be open and adaptable, it requires alternative access points. A master’s qualification might unlock entry for one person, whilst creating an insurmountable barrier for another. I glimpsed into the archival world when researching the Hogarth Press. But I couldn’t find a way into the workforce. I couldn’t afford a master’s in Archives and Record Management and I couldn’t see another way in. I started working as a freelance writer and learnt about SEO. I built rudimentary websites and tried teaching myself code. I stopped being fearful of digital technology (I am an old soul millennial) and recognised its potential. Two years later, I encountered this traineeship, and everything connected. I crossed the bridge into archives, and I brought my digital experience with me.

© City of York Council / Explore York Libraries and Archives Mutual Ltd.
© your123 / Adobe Stock

In the following posts, I will be recounting my time as a BDG trainee and ruminating on the realm of digital archives. What I write will be informed by my secondment at Explore York Archives but not representative of Explore York itself. I’ll release my posts on Thursdays, for the sake of alliteration, but not every week. (Adaptability being a core principle of digital stewardship!) For now, I want to thank York for having me and The National Archives for reconnecting us. Of the many things I’ve learnt on this traineeship, one thing underlies them all: access and connection are vital. I am so grateful for being granted both.  

Frances Bell @inawildflower


[1] The terms digital preservation, curation, and stewardship tend to be used interchangeably. The Oxford English Dictionary defines preservation as “[keeping] in its original or existing state”, but digital records tend to require the migration from one format to another. Curation is useful because it draws attention to the activities of building and managing digital assets, but it lacks emphasis on future engagement. Digital stewardship encompasses both. The term draws from the environmental movement to embed the idea that archives collect, hold, and evolve records for future generations. This Library of Congress blog explores the overlapping terms, and I found it useful for deciding which one to use.

Read about some of the fascinating research being carried out on our recently catalogued  Poor Law records…our guest blogger from Clements Hall Local History Group tells us about their project.

 

Relieving officer

What was it like to be poor in 19th century York?  Clements Hall Local History Group is using recently catalogued Explore York Poor Law records to better understand how poverty was experienced – and to give a voice to the poor themselves.

The focus is on one parish – St Mary’s Bishophill Junior, an area both inside and outside the city walls. Researchers are looking at records of three periods: 1839-43, 1859-63, and 1879-83. The project aims to identify a sample of individuals, and attempt to track them through their lives. It is hoped to assemble a number of life stories which detail contact with the relief system, including any periods in the workhouse.

To claim relief a person had to have the right of settlement in a parish administered by York Poor Law Union. Settlement was conferred by various means including birth, marriage, residence in an area for a particular time, employment, and through various property qualifications. The project is interested in anyone applying for relief for whom St Mary’s Bishophill Junior was responsible. For example, in 1837 Joseph Spink (40) was an unemployed whitesmith living in the Shambles. A widower with four children – George, Joseph, Mary Ann and Henry – he was awarded eight shillings relief. The 1851 census records Henry as fifteen, a servant, living in Bishophill with his grandparents John and Mary Tempest.

The project aims to place an individual’s experience in context: how did the parish deal with its poor, and how much did it spend? Was a child on relief more likely to grow up to be an adult on relief ?  How did a large family – or bereavement – affect reliance on relief?

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Explore has one of the best collections of post-1834 out-relief records in the country. Out-relief allowed people to receive relief in their own homes, rather than enter the workhouse. Application and Report Books (PLU/3/1), catalogued by ecclesiastical parish, offer a wealth of data for research: name of claimant plus address, age, marital status, occupation (e.g. charwoman, soldier’s wife; shoemaker) and any disability. They also give the reason for seeking relief, whether relief is temporary or permanent, and details of relief from other sources such as charities. Where relief is in cash, the value and length of period of relief is noted. If in kind – for example, flour, tea or candles – quantities and period are recorded.

Outdoor Relief Lists (PLU/3/2) are also being mined. These name paupers, and total relief received weekly, plus amounts received per quarter and half year. The Lists  have statistical columns; for example, for gender, marital status, children and vagrants.

These sources are supplemented for project research by other Poor Law Union records such as Board of Guardian minute books. The role of the Relieving Officer can be explored by a 19th century Manual for Relieving Officers. (PLU11/5/4/9) Census data, birth, marriage and death registers, and Ordnance Survey maps for 1836, 1852 and 1889 are among other useful sources.

Project volunteers have benefited from training from archivist Julie-Ann Vickers who  also prepared a series of useful short guides to Poor Law records. Further training was provided by Kate Gibson, University of Sheffield.

For further details of the project contact e: enquiries@clementshall.org.uk

The Clements Hall project coincides with a three year University of Leicester/The National Archives (TNA) research project is examining poverty across England and Wales. ‘In their own write: contesting the New Poor law 1834-1900’ will use a sample of thousands of letters written by paupers to give their own point of view.

You can read about the project at https://intheirownwriteblog.com/page/2/

Thanks for reading

York and the 1918 ‘Spanish’ Influenza Pandemic

One hundred years ago, the ‘Spanish Influenza’ attacked York

Hello, I’m Chloe – from January to March of this year I’ve been on a placement at York Explore, researching the impact the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu had on York. As a History Masters student, I’m used to research, but this has been a new and exciting experience for me!

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Chloe researching the 1918 influenza in York Explore’s reading room

I’ve been looking through newspapers, diaries, council minute books and cemetery records, and have found some surprising results. First, a little background information. The title “Spanish Flu” came from reportage from Spain; their press was uncensored, unlike in Britain, so it looked like they were suffering more from the epidemic. The flu killed around 100 million worldwide, with 200,000 in England and Wales.

Workhouse death register_1918

Extract from York Workhouse death register, 1918

The first wave hit York in July 1918, with a second more deadly wave in October. I’ve found answers to:

  • Who was most at risk from influenza?
  • How did local authorities respond?
  • Which areas of York were badly hit?

As well as much more! This information will be displayed as an exhibition on Sunday 18 March at York Explore Library and Archive, Library Square, 11.30am-3pm. Come along to our archives reading room to find out more about how York was impacted by the flu, and see some of the original documents I used.

It has been an interesting, but also an emotional experience for me. I was surprised at how different the Spanish Flu was from the bouts we have now. I didn’t know much about it before, so this placement has been eye-opening for me. There were times when I smiled, particularly after reading a newspaper notice apologising about a shortage of Bovril, which was believed to help prevent the flu. On the other hand, it was sad reading through cemetery records and seeing all the lives cut short through this epidemic.

Looking through the archives has been a personal experience. There are such a variety of documents – this type of research is so different from reading a history textbook. You get more of a sense of the people living through this experience one hundred years ago. The staff and volunteers at York Explore are all friendly and I would encourage you to visit.

You can find information on how to get to York Explore here: https://www.exploreyork.org.uk/york-explore/

Hope to see you at the exhibition, and thanks for reading!

Chloe

Action packed boxmaking

Hello all,

As we near the end of conserving the Poor Law Union and Workhouse Records, I have been busy completing the final lot of repairs to especially damaged material and creating bespoke boxes. Today I thought I would share how I’ve been making the enclosures.

Bespoke enclosure for Poor Law Union volume

Around fifty of the Poor Law Union volumes are too large, too damaged, or otherwise poorly suited to fit inside our standard archive boxes (or would rattle around our next standard size). In creating bespoke enclosures, I was looking for a design that would be:

  • Simple to make
  • Create a minimum of waste board or card
  • Did not require rivets (to avoid purchasing materials and equipment we didn’t already have).

After completing several tests designs, I found a one that fit the bill. Once a workflow was established, these enclosures could be completed in about 20-25 minutes each, doing four to six at one time, as the space allowed.

I choose a four flap design, made with 1000 micron (1mm) archival laminated boxboard and tied with 16 mm unbleached cotton tying tape. I based the design on this one here, but modified slightly it avoid having the abrasive tapes directly against the books (a majority of the volumes had red rot damage which was just consolidated).

Below is a diagram of the boxboard construction and measurements.

 

First, the volume is measured using a book measuring machine, which helps ensure that any wonky books are accurately measured at their largest dimensions. These dimensions are entered into an excel file I created with the box formula (linked at the bottom of the post). It doesn’t take much time to calculate by hand for one or two enclosures, but when completing them in batches, I found this system reduced the overall making time since the measurements could be done ahead of time and boxes completed when it was convenient.

 

 

The boxes are made from three pieces of board (protector piece A, vertical piece B, a horizontal piece C ) that are cut and creased so that they fit snugly against each other. The two pieces of equipment have been helpful is a board chopper and a board creaser, which improve accuracy and speed when creating the boxes. The pieces are then rounded at the corners with a corner rounder, and then folded into shape.

 

 

I use a straight chisel to create a slot one-third of the way from the top and bottom edge of each side of horizontal piece C.  The tying tape is threaded through the slots using a piece of polyester as a needle to pull it through, this holds the tapes in place when the enclosures are tied. Pieces B and C are then adhered together with EVA and weighted down until dry.

 

Once it is tested for size, the enclosure is now complete! 

Volume in enclosure

Thanks for reading!

Tiffany

Link to the excel Four flap enclosures template.

 

 

Final thoughts…

Three months go really fast, especially when you always have something to do and you enjoy what you do. So have been my three months working at York Explore Archive: quick, but really interesting. Certainly, working with Julie-Ann, Tiffany and the volunteers who work in this project has been a wonderful experience that I will never forget.

In these months, the archive has allowed me to learn how York was between 19th and 20th centuries. It was, without doubt, a very different city from the one we know today: for example, The Shambles was not so dreamful as to open Harry Potter shops for tourists. Streets such as Walmgate or Hungate were areas where some of the poorest people of the city lived. And, of course, York was not the clean and healthy city that we know today. Nonetheless, the huge amount of documentation of the Health Committee and other institutions show that the health care was a matter of great concern to the authorities.

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Butchers selling their wares in The Shambles in the 1890s

It would be really hard to try to explain in a few lines everything I have learned, so I think I am not going to try to!. I think it is much easier if you come to the archive and discover yourself all the possibilities it offers. So, I want to encourage all people living in York to come to this lovely centre one day to learn a bit more about this astonishing city, or even encourage them to work as volunteers on one of these projects. I can guarantee that if you come you are going to discover many of the secrets that this city hides. After all, an archive like this is a “box” where the entire memory of a city is stored, waiting for its citizens to open it up to learn.

Finally, I want to finish this post by thanking all the people who have supported me during these months to make this possible. All of you are an important part of this incredible experience.

Thank you so much everyone and thank you for reading,

Carlos Parra

Initial impressions…

This month we have a post from the newest Past Caring team member: our fantastic Erasmus intern from Spain…

Hello everybody,

I’m writing on this blog to introduce myself as the Erasmus intern who will be working at York Explore Library and Archive during the following months. My name is Carlos Parra and I am a graduate in History from the University of Valladolid (Spain) since July 2017.

Like all students, in the months before finishing this stage of my life I was totally full of doubts and fears: what’s coming now? What future waits? Will I be able to work in the field I have studied? I have never faced such a big decision and I really did not know what to do! The big moment was getting closer and closer and while this happened I was more confused about what to do. Finally, I got it, what I needed was time to think. In the meantime, I needed a way that would help me to prepare myself for the future so I decided to join the Erasmus programme.

The Law Faculty, Valladolid

The magnificent building which is home to the Faculty of Law and the Archives of the University of Valladolid. I gained experience in the Archives before coming to York.

Actually, some of my friends had tried this opportunity before and their experiences were the key in persuading me that this was the right way. So, I started a long search for an institution that would accept me as an Erasmus trainee; and that was not easy at all. I sent an uncountable amount of emails, more than a hundred I am sure. Luckily for me, before I finished my Degree an institution accepted my application and agreed to welcome me as an Erasmus trainee. Furthermore, it was an archive – York Explore! One of the fields I am most proud to work in during my career.

A few months later, everything was ready for my trip and a few days before I started my traineeship I was flying to York. I cannot explain the mixture of nervousness and happiness that I felt: on one side, I thought I was leaving many things behind and, on the other hand, I just thought on the months to come. A new city, new friends, new job and a lot of experience before coming back to Spain. I can only thank all the people who helped me in my first days and made my arrival much easier.

Since starting work at the archive I have realised that many things about the arrangement and the organization are very similar to Spanish archives. However, a lot of things are different and this has offered me the opportunity to learn new points of view about the treatment of documents and about the methods used to bring citizens closer to the archives, one point in which Spanish archives, only used by academics, have a lot to learn. Furthermore, I think it is incredible how volunteers work together with archivists on cataloguing and repackaging tasks; it is a very strange situation to imagine this in a Spanish archive but I think it would be worthwhile for Spanish archivists to learn about this. In general, there are many things that Spanish archivists should learn about our English neighbour and I want to take the opportunity to do this during my Erasmus traineeship.

Certainly, the experience I am going to get during the following months has no price. Just a month here has been incredible, and I feel my work is very satisfying. 

Carlos

Learning paper repairs

This work has been basically split in two parts: on one side, the work with Julie-Ann has consisted of helping to catalogue one of the collections in the archive: the nineteenth and twentieth- century poor law and health care records of York, such as minutes of the Committees and improvement plans of the city of York.    On the other side, the work with Tiffany has consisted of helping to clean and repackage the items in the same collection.  Furthermore, I have had the opportunity to learn about repairing documents. This has allowed to me to improve my abilities as an archivist and historian, but also I have been able to learn more about this incredible city, thanks to the huge variety of documents that the archive keeps.

I think a month has already passed and it is just incredible. Time has passed very quickly but I am happy that I am discovering many new things and, of course, there is a lot to learn about this incredible city and about the documents.

Many thanks for reading,

Carlos Parra.

 

 

York’s sanitary inspection books – more than just old drains

It has been a busy start to the autumn for the Past Caring team. Tiffany, our conservator, has been working hard along with her volunteers to repair, clean and package the Poor Law records. Meanwhile I have moved on to the records of York’s Medical Officer of Health and the Health Department, which date from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century.   These records are proving to be one of the most surprising collections I have worked on – there is  not only a huge range of information, but also some really unexpected details turning up.

To illustrate this,  I thought I would focus on one particular series of records, the report books of the Assistant Inspector of Nuisances [1904-1925]. The duties of this officer might seem fairly self-evident, but it was a role that had quite wide-ranging responsibilities. There were a number of assistant inspectors at any one time, and each had their own particular duties to perform. Some inspectors were responsible for investigating drainage and sanitation, but others were responsible for reporting on cases of overcrowding; inspecting the homes of patients with infectious diseases; and dealing with public ‘nuisances’ – which could include anything from neighbours keeping noisy, dirty livestock in the middle of the city, to an unregistered tripe boiler setting up shop in a densely populated area like the Shambles.

Though each individual report is fairly brief, they nevertheless provide richly detailed snapshots of life in York in the opening decades of the twentieth century. The reports of overcrowding, in particular, show just how challenging living conditions were for some residents of city. The entry below, from 1909, records a family of 10 sleeping on just three beds across two bedrooms. In his report the Inspector also notes that the head of the household is reliant on casual work and has been forced to apply for poor relief in the past.

Severe overcrowding

In some cases, these volumes yield quite unexpected details. Recently, I was cataloguing the records from 1914-1918 when I realised that the reports included sanitary inspections of WWI billets, and provided not only the location of the billet, but in many cases also the name of unit billeted. This entry, from 22 November 1914, tells us that 25 horses and 11 men from the 8th West Yorkshire Transport unit were billeted in a stable and loft space in Park Grove.

Billets

Similarly, while the drain inspection reports record all the expected information on the drainage of properties, some entries also include meticulously drawn drainage plans. In the image below you can see a wonderfully detailed drawing of King’s Manor, a complex of medieval buildings in the centre of York. The buildings once housed the Yorkshire School for the Blind (as shown in the plan), but are now part of York University.

King's Manor

There are 23 volumes of the Assistant Inspector of Nuisances report books, and together they document living conditions, troublesome neighbours, illness, and even wartime measures.  And for all you house historians out there, the entries in the volumes are usually indexed by street and house number (or name), with many of the reports also listing the owners and occupiers of properties.  Just another fantastic resource in these surprising healthcare collections.