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.
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.