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!

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2 thoughts on “The story so far: methods and sources

  1. Interested in the process, in particular creation of a structural ‘map’. Relating this to an example: researching post-1834 vagrancy. Would a ‘map’ make connections between sources so a researcher would not only drill down into poor law records, but would also be intro to other sources, such as police, and court records?

  2. Hi Dick, I’m glad the process is of interest – I’m hoping to de-mystify it a bit by showing the actual tasks that I get up to, dry though they may be! I will explain more about the ‘map’ soon when I have it at a more polished stage, the main idea is that is arranged by function, rather than specific council departments (which change often over time) and is a technique used in modern records management. There will definitely be cross references to related material within different areas of the collection, and hopefully to other collections such as court records, but that depends on resources further down the line.

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