Out and about

Last week I had a bit of a change from my normal routine. I went to the University of Manchester to take part in a training course, and the archives hosted a visit from 46 members of the York Civic Trust.

As I’ve mentioned before, the new digital catalogue will be available online. There are a number of ways we could do this, but the one we hope to use is the Archives Hub. The Archives Hub is a JISC-funded service that supports education and research by helping archives to get their catalogues online. They don’t hold material themselves, but are an aggregator where you can search archives from hundreds of repositories without going to their individual websites. They also conduct research and development work on data and technology with partners all over the world.

They run free training days where you can learn how to add catalogues to the Hub. This is what I went along to on Tuesday.

IT Training room at the University of Manchester

It was a really useful day. I learned how to use the Hub, and tips and hints for making our catalogue work with their system. It was interesting to see the variety of attendees, from trainee and student archivists, cataloguers like myself, to librarians who are unfamiliar with archival methods but have responsibility for original material. There were also a number of participants from The National Archives, who provide the online services ARCHON and the National Register of Archives who wanted to gain insight into the way the Hub works.

It was great for me to discuss my project and other peoples’, hear about successes and problems, and ask questions about our specific needs. I feel like I have a good understanding of what we need to do and who to talk down the line to make sure that everything is compatible. Many thanks to Jane Stevenson and Lisa Jenkins for a very interesting day!

On Wednesday I was again fortunate to meet new faces, this time archive enthusiasts from the York Civic Trust who came on a half-day visit to the archives. I am afraid I don’t have any photos, but the visitors attended two talks by Richard Taylor, Archives and Local History Development Manager, on the past and future of the service and were shown behind the scenes by the Civic Archivist, Victoria Hoyle. I then gave a brief introduction to the City Making History project and what we hoped to achieve. I really enjoyed meeting the members and answering their perceptive questions which included disposal,  cataloguing processes and plans for future projects. Unfortunately we ran out of time, but hopefully everyone enjoyed their visit.

In the future when the archive has moved,  we hope to do tours more often for all sorts of different groups but at the moment we are very limited by space and staffing.

This week I’m back to my research, but with a boost from interacting with others who are engaged with our work and looking forward to the outcome. Though we can’t run behind the scenes tours very often, you can ask me questions on here anytime so if there’s anything you ever wondered about archives in general or this one more specifically then don’t be shy – leave a comment. You can even post anonymously if you’d prefer!

The story so far: methods and sources

There are two weeks left in my research phase, so here’s what I’ve been up to. I started out by exploring the history of York and local government, and then researched the changing structure of the council departments and committees using printed minute books.

I now have a good idea of the workings of the council and the activities it has carried out over time. So, I drafted the first version of my functional structure: a mind map/spider diagram of all the different activities, grouped hierarchically into topics such as city finance or education, which will form the backbone of my catalogue.

Once I had built this theoretical understanding, I spent last week looking at the reality of the actual documents, to see if they matched my expectations. I can then test and refine my structure to make sure it is robust and flexible enough to fulfil its purpose of expressing the context and content of the collection.

It was tempting dive into the strongrooms and open lots of boxes but a central idea of MPLP is to minimise the number of times you sweep through the physical material. I need to save my ‘sweeps’ for later on when I am actually arranging and describing individual series of records, so I made use of existing resources to help me gain this understanding more efficiently.

I used two major sources for this: one compiled from decades-worth of paperwork, the other from a recent physical survey.

The first is a set of digital folders, where any existing information on a record group (called an ‘accession’, but not really an accession in the technical sense) has been collated. An accession number can be attached to a single item, or 100 boxes! Each accession number has its own folder and contains anything from a brief description, right up to detailed lists or complete transcriptions created by members of staff or volunteers.

Here is the top level of the the hundreds of digital folders of accession information. In each folder there could be descriptions, transcriptions or searchable databases – you don’t know until you look!

The second is a stack of paper forms that record information taken during a collections audit. Staff walked through the strongrooms, filling out a piece of paper for each accession that they found on the shelves in turn. These forms detail the number of boxes or files in an accession, the condition of the records and where they are currently stored.

The 1000+ audit forms have been sorted into numerical order so you can search for the one you want. They are written in pencil because they were filled out in the strongrooms.

So, last week I got the list of all the accessions that are in the scope of my project, and annotated it with the extra information I could extract from these sources. I have ended up with a really useful overview of the collections, all without opening individual boxes.

My annotations, in terrible handwriting, form my working notes for what is in each accession and what existing documentation there is. Ones that look particularly complicated are highlighted in orange.

I found the exercise very useful – it might seem tedious, but much of an archivist’s time is taken up with these kind of tasks, working deliberately and methodically through large quantities of material so that individual researchers don’t need to in the future. It was a good reminder for a cataloguer like myself of the value of consulting existing sources, so as not to duplicate effort and to make use of legacy knowledge when building new cataloguing systems.

This is my completed list – all these accessions are in the scope of my project.

I’m on a training course tomorrow in Manchester to learn all about the Archives Hub – so my next post will look ahead to the end of the project and the online digital catalogue that is the final output. Enjoy the lovely weather in the meantime!

Why bother? The local perspective

I’m just starting my sixth week in the job and have been thinking a lot about not just how, but why I am cataloguing these records. Obviously my managers, my employer and the funding body think it’s a good idea, but it’s only just sinking in on a personal level quite how useful this really is.

Civic records are great (and unusual) because they record suggestions, arguments, discussions, decisions, policies and actions that affect everyone visiting, working in or living in a particular area. Walking to work and back, I feel like my eyes are suddenly opening to the fact that much of what I see and interact with is the way it is because of something to do with the workings of local government.

I guess I had taken for granted before the varied range of activities the council has addressed, provided or regulated over time, so here is a pretty random list of things that have come up in my research:

Town-planning, public toilets, swimming pools, allotments, gambling, sex shops, buses, licensing, schools, libraries, roads, utilities, markets, bridges, heritage, policing, festivals, mental health, siege defence, royal visits, adult education, child protection, weddings, rat-catching , midwives, wages, immigration, railway stations, civic regalia, homelessness, apprenticeships, charities, war memorials, recycling, affordable housing, rogue trading, cycle paths, cholera, ice cream vans, pavements, sewers, actors and rotten bananas!

The City of York Council and its predecessor bodies were obviously not solely responsible all of these things, but have interacted with them at some level. Therefore, the civic archive touches on the whole spectrum of everyday life and local administration – whether carried out by public servants, commercial enterprises, community groups, charities or individuals. Importantly, there is also evidence of the things that didn’t happen; records of objection, accountability and protest.

Whilst particular activities vary over time (i.e siege defence or managing cholera epidemics) the major functions (such as trading, transport or public health) are pretty consistent over many centuries. I’ll write more about this in a later post, as it is probably the way I will be structuring my catalogue – by functions rather than administrative structure.

A 1930s bus, tram and motor car

Why did the council buy the city’s tramways from a private company in 1909? Why did they close them in the 1930s? Try looking in the civic archives!

There is obviously a wider historical significance for these archives in a national and even international context, which I will have to save for another day. However, it’s the local aspect that has grabbed my attention this week as I match up the history I’m reading about with the physical streets I walk on. The location of the bridges, the types of housing in my area, the major businesses, provisions for removing waste, these have all evolved through the discussions and decisions of people living and working in York.

So far I’ve been using secondary sources, but opening up these records means that in the future anyone can look for and find information that simply hasn’t been written about before. What really motivates me to get up and come into work on a rainy Monday morning is that new answers to not only ‘what happened?’ but ‘why did it happen?’ and ‘how did that affect people?’ are waiting in uncatalogued boxes, volumes and plans in the strong-rooms down the hall, and by the time I’m finished they should be that much easier to find.


Behind the ever-developing theories and methods for working with archives, there are two central tenets that archivists can pretty much agree on: access and preservation.

This cataloguing project is targeted primarily at access, but as the rain fell and the river levels rose in York over the weekend, our attention switched back to preservation as we checked the basement in one of our strongrooms for flood water coming through the floor.

Water has always been a threat to records in York. The York civic records were once kept in St William’s chapel on Ouse Bridge (not the current bridge, or the one before, but the one before that), but by the late nineteenth century had ended up in the Guildhall. A strongroom was provided for them, but unfortunately it was in the basement by the river. In the introduction to his catalogue of 1909, deputy town clerk William Giles wrote:

 “They had been there but a very short time when the flood occurred which inundated the basement of the building and saturated the greater portion of the records, doing considerable damage to them.”

In October 1892, the river Ouse rose over 16 feet above its normal level, flooding many more streets, businesses and houses than was usual.

However, he noted that the damage actually went back much further than that particular flood as:

 “Some…were gradually mouldering away…and it was but a question of time when they would have fallen to pieces and [been] lost altogether.”

But good things can come from bad; if it hadn’t been for the 1892 flood Giles might never have spotted the poor condition of the records, secured expert advice and conservation and then written his list so that the City of York knew what it had and had a duty to protect. His catalogue only covers a part of the collection, but was written (in his spare time!) because preservation and access were important to him.

Catalogue of the charters, house books, freeman’s rolls, chamberlains’ etc accounts and other books, deeds, and old documents belonging to the corporation of York together with report on their renovation, compiled by William Giles, Deputy Town Clerk, [1909, City of York Corporation]

Whilst parchment and paper can be surprisingly robust, it’s still amazing the events records have endured, and that anything has come down to us at all! From wars and plagues, to fires and floods, what we survives today is what people before us preserved (accidentally or on purpose), and what archive repositories make accessible in the present, add to, and then pass on to the future.

Happily, we didn’t get flooded this weekend, but even if we had found a few puddles, the historical records will be fine as they are stored away from the basement (which is chiefly used for temporary storage of non-archival material). However, it is obviously not an ideal situation! So, work is underway on the Gateway to History project, a major bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund asking for around £1.5 million to help bring access and preservation at the archives up to 21st century standards. You can find out how it is going on the website, or sign up for occasional project newsletters by mailing gatewaytohistory@york.gov.uk with the subject line “Please add me to your mailing list”.

Beginning with books

It’s the beginning of Week 4, and I’m settling in well. I’ve got my desk, door keys and (most importantly) I know where to find the tea.

For any cataloguing project, an archivist has to have a Plan – I can’t just pick up boxes and start making lists of what’s inside. My job is to get an understanding of the collection as a whole, and then share that understanding with everyone else (i.e by creating a catalogue) so you can then dig deeper and find out more.

So, the first thing I need to do is good old desk research. I need to learn about the bodies that created the records in the first place, how they worked and where they fit into the bigger historical picture. In this case I am lucky because there are plenty of books on the subject of York and on local government.

Here are some I’ve been reading in the last few weeks, they’re from York Explore and the archive’s own reference collection. The big red one, the Victoria County History volume for the City of York is also freely searchable online and can be useful for finding out tidbits of info about your street or area.

Learning from secondary sources first (such as books) means that when I see a primary source later (an original record) I will already have a gist of what it is about – and so save time having to look things up later.

My plan for the week is to keep going with the historical research and take a look at similar civic archives in other cities to see how others have approached these issues in the past.

If you’ve got any thoughts, questions, or suggestions for things you’d like me to write about, remember you can add a comment on any page or use twitter.