Strongrooms past and present

Hello and welcome to a slightly delayed post due to the Bank Holiday weekend. One of the fun parts of having a blog, is looking at the statistics to see where people are coming from to visit the site. So far I’ve had over 2000 hits from 21 countries on every continent apart from Antarctica which is pretty cool.

Now the blog has been up a while I’m starting to get more generic searches bringing people in. This is really exciting as it means the blog has a wider relevance and usefulness than just this project. This week I’ve had several hits from people who searched Google for something to do with “strongrooms” and found me! So, here we are with some further info on everyone’s favourite bit of the archive.

Why have strongrooms?

Yet again we have to go back to the big two, Preservation and Access. Archives are always under threat from:

  • Fire
  • Water
  • Theft
  • Pests such as insects and mice
  • Pollutants
  • UV light
  • Incorrect humidity and temperature

A strongroom is one of the ways we try to protect against them – a designated secure place with controlled access.

Though the threats may be the same, solutions vary depending on resources, purpose and technology. I’m clearly not intending to write a monograph on the development of the strongroom but here are couple that I’ve spent time in personally, dating from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries.

Brasenose College Muniment Room

As Oxford colleges historically relied on landed estates for income, they accumulated a lot of property paperwork. Unlike today where deeds are registered, the physical bundles of parchment recording centuries-worth of sequential transactions were the legal proof of ownership. They had to be kept safe and easily to hand (preservation and access!) and often this was done in a purpose built muniment room.

The one in Brasenose College is on the top floor of the square tower over the main entrance. It’s built in stone, which is good fire protection, and has tiny windows and one access staircase which helps prevent against theft. When it was built the surrounding buildings were lower, so it would have stood very tall. The most precious records, such as the college’s  founding charter, would have been kept even more  secure in a muniment chest. I don’t have a picture of the Brasenose one, but it was built by carpenters inside the room itself and so is too big to fit down the narrow spiral staircase (visible as the rounded corner on the left of the tower) – a great anti-theft measure!

These sturdy oak muniment chests often had more than one lock so that several keyholders had to open it at the same time, in order to stop any one individual embezzling funds! Here is a dramatic example from The National Archives, which is covered in iron, was used by the Chancery, and dates from the 14th century.

14th century muniment chest for storing archives

Image source: The National Archives, Wikipedia Commons

The Victoria Tower, Palace of Westminster

On a much larger scale is the Victoria tower, at Parliament. The Houses of Parliament (technically the Palace of Westminster) were built in the 1840s-1870s  to replace the Old Palace which was destroyed in the fire of 1834. Some of the oldest parts of the building survived, but much was lost forever including the original records of the House of Commons. Ironically, the fire itself was started by workmen burning old tally sticks – financial records made of bits of wood.

When the new Palace was built the architects were specifically instructed to include some kind of fireproof repository to keep the records safe in future. Their answer was the Victoria tower. More famous for being the Queen’s entrance to the Palace (you’ll see her pass under the archway during state opening), it actually contains 12 floors of archive strongrooms including an extra-secure one for Acts of Parliament.

There is a brilliant interactive tour on the Parliamentary archives website  that I really recommend. The sprial staircase that goes up the inside of the Tower was  supplemented with a small lift in the twentieth century.

City of York Archives  

Jumping forward to the present day, new archive strongrooms are not typically built in towers, but are housed in a mixture of purpose built or repurposed buildings.  Our current strongrooms fall into the latter category, being formed in the twentieth century from part of the nineteenth century Art Gallery building. You’ve already seen the basement in a previous post, so today I’ll introduce you to strongroom 1. Obviously I can’t describe all the  security measures, as that would be counter-productive, but I can show you around.

Archive corridor mosiac from former Art School

In the corridor outside we have a mosaic tile floor – left over from when the space was used as an art school. Archive corridors should always have smooth level floors (not thick carpet) so you can wheel trolleys piled high with records along them quickly and safely.

Here’s one of the secure metal doors with an additional security grille, protection against theft and fire.

Metal strongroom door and security gate

 Inside, here is the central aisle which you’ve no doubt seen before on this blog and our main website:

Archive strongroom

Looking a little more closely we can see that strongroom one is not ideal protection against all the threats in my list, as it has windows which let light in during the daytime.

Windows in archive strongroom

There’s also a slight problem to do with our largest plan, one of the ones that will be catalogued in the course of this project.

Archive strongroom 1 with large plan

Our largest plan, propped up in the corner. It’s a good thing we inherited high ceilings from the Art School!

 It was moved into the strongroom alright, but subsequently a lift shaft for the art gallery has been built to the left  between it and the door, and to get it out we will have to lift it over the all the shelving under the window in the previous photo. I will definitely be on hand with my camera when we attempt that manoeuvre in the Spring!

So there we have a couple of archive strongrooms past and present. I’ve run out of space for today so I’ll do a post on up to date purpose-built archives another time so you can see how the same threats to the preservation of documents are being mitigated in new and increasingly energy efficient ways in the 21st century.

The subtle art of cataloguing

I had a steady week testing and refining my structure, which should be ready to show you soon. I’ll give a run down of how it works when you can see it, but today I’m going talk about how archival theory underpins and influences what I am doing.

First comes motivation. Simply put, archives are kept so that they can be used. In 1922,  Hilary Jenkinson wrote that the ­primary duty of the archivist is towards the records, with a secondary duty towards the users. Ignoring the debate of which is the more important, that dual responsibility to both archives and users is the main balancing act for archive professionals. This is similar to the access vs preservation dynamic that I’ve mentioned before, but slightly different as the preservation is not just physical, but intellectual.

So how does this relate to my catalogue? Well, the fundamental purpose of a catalogue is to facilitate use. It does this by being more than just a list of what is there – it is an interpretation of a collection designed with users in mind. An ordered representation of often disordered material. 

Unlike historians who discover and weave together pieces of evidence to construct and present an argument, archivists aim to be neutral gatekeepers facilitating interaction between archives and users. Unfortunately, the act of cataloguing is not a neutral one. By arranging raw material into groups of records (series), placing those within bigger groupings (sub fonds), and selectively describing what is there, archivists pass the collection through a filter to create a finding aid.

Is this a problem? It is if we have a particular agenda, conscious or subconscious, and if we try to make the collection fit what we want to be there. For example we may have a particular interest in labour relations, women’s history or genealogy, but that shouldn’t affect how we describe the collection. Neither can we twist it to fit what users are looking to find. User needs must inform the creation and format of a catalogue, but this mustn’t be at the expense of the integrity of the records.

By “integrity”, I mean what is there and how it fits together. We can’t change the collection to fit our purposes – but neither can we ignore the fact that the whole point of the exercise is to enable use.

Therefore, the art of cataloguing is to find a way to honestly and dispassionately express the chaotic but organic structure of records in way that is helpful and accessible for a whole variety of users.

One important way that integrity can be maintained is by close attention to the original order of the material. The way documents have been filed or stored together by their creator (whether it be an author, a bank or a protest group) provides a lot of the context; the clues as to how it was used and why.

Respecting original order is a useful rule of thumb, but what do you do when the records have already lost it? It’s all very well accessioning a new collection direct from the source but what if you have inherited centuries-worth of records where some have been sorted, shuffled and re-organised over time?

This is the problem with the York civic archives, so in my next post I’ll talk about how I’m attempting to reconcile these principles of archival theory with the reality of a huge disrupted collection. By understanding the theory, I can adapt the methodology from conservative techniques that simply wouldn’t work in this situation to new ones that will; using MPLP and a functional structure to create a catalogue that is honest to the records but ultimately helpful for users.

That is the aim at any rate – do you have any thoughts about the process? Is theory really that important or am I just over-thinking a task that otherwise would be simpler. Could we just write a big list and have a google-type search box? Does it matter to users than archivists can’t ever be neutral? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

Clearing out the cobwebs and the clutter

We have three onsite strongrooms: creatively called strongrooms one, two, and three. These spaces are not perfect for keeping records (they have windows, and no environmental controls) but they are dry, have stable temperatures and can be accessed with a trolley. However, under strongroom three there is the basement…

Stairs going down to basement

Stairs going down to the basement – the square hole at the bottom is a sumphole and currently contains standing water

As I’ve mentioned before, the basement is below the water table and so occasionally floods. We are far from the only archive in this situation; Chester unfortunately suffered a flood only last week, but it is something that definitely needs addressing.

We lower the humidity by using an industrial dehumidifier, emptying it with a bucket twice a day – but we can’t leave it running unattended all weekend. During the week we get the humidity down to around 66% (just outside the recommended guidelines for converted archive storage of 55%-65% RH) but by Monday morning it can be as high as 74%.

Aisle of archive storage

Whilst there are lots of boxed records, others have been left loose on shelves and so are much more vulnerable to the environment

Because of these problems, the basement has been used over the years as temporary storage space, but we don’t actually know precisely what is down there. So, the Civic Archivist, Victoria, is conducting an audit to find out. She is identifying what needs to be kept and moved to better conditions upstairs, what can be returned to council departments and what is random rubbish that shouldn’t be there in the first place!

Moving a large roll of blank paper

Moving a large roll of blank brown paper in the style of the Chuckle Brothers.

Last week Victoria and two volunteers, Alex and Caroline, started work to sort out this space. They numbered the shelves and are working through the aisles boxing loose papers, throwing out rubbish and writing lists of what is there. Sounds simple? Not where the rolling racks were built in front of existing shelving and boxed items in. The worse case is “Aisle 1”, a concrete ledge, packed full of massive ledgers that are completely inaccessible. In the pictures, the shelving on left is fixed – it doesn’t move out of the way!

Space filled with ledgers

Before – boxed in ledgers going back several metres into the darkness

Empty space, cleared of ledgers

After – the ledgers have been moved and the space is now empty

In order to access these, Alex had to crawl down the space and retreive the heavy ledgers one by one. This is now empty, and will not be used again. Hurrah!

Any available space had been stuffed odds and ends, most of which are not archival. It’s been very satisfying for the team to make an impact, but it’s not glamorous work – lots of heavy lifting and sweeping up decades of dirt. However it’s vital preparation for when the archive moves out of the art gallery building next year. Everything will be audited because, just like moving house, there is no point moving things that shouldn’t be kept in the first place, and you need to plan how to set things out at the other end.

Caroline sweeping a high ledge with a broom

Once the space has been cleared, Caroline sweeps up with a broom

The audit should be finished this week – a lot of progress in a fortnight. These are the kind of tasks that can be left for years because its difficult for staff to fit in around operational and public duties, and is one reason most archives close for an audit week or two once a year. It’s amazing sometimes what you can achieve when you have a dedicated chunk of time, and it’s great to see the difference. Good luck to the team for the rest of the week, and I’ll keep the kettle ready for when they emerge into the daylight for breaks!

Less Process More Pictures!

My last few posts have been quite process-heavy, but now I’ve finished my initial research phase and moved on to looking at the material I’ll be able to blog more about individual records. However, you don’t have to wait for my posts to see lots of archive images because there is now a new (and free!) exhibition on display at Library Square.

The first exhibition panel – one of several in Library Square

If you live or work in York you may have spotted that new display panels have appeared both inside and outside York Explore Library Learning Centre. These panels are part of an exhibition celebrating York 800 and the diversity of the archive collections that the City holds.

The great thing about this exhibition is that the content has been selected, researched and written not by archive staff but by a team of 12 volunteers – many of which have never used original archive material before. Working in three teams over six months, the volunteers identified documents and images and wrote the text to interpret it for others. The panels cover three themes, Medieval York, Modern York and the York Mystery Plays which are currently being performed just round the corner in Museum Gardens.

Internal display panels amongst sofas and bookcases

One of the freestanding displays – unmissable in the middle of the library

The exhibition is displayed in a set of beautiful new wooden display panels that were commissioned from a local carpenter’s workshop and funded by Yorventure. They are an investment for the future and will be used for many years to come, enabling us for the first time to put on high-quality exhibitions, and to bring archive content and services at York Explore onto the ground floor in order to reach a wider audience.

People having lunch outside the library, reading the panels

The panels have already attracted the attention of picnic-ers and add a splash of colour to Library Square

The graphic design was also commissioned from a local specialist. He has put together a video which gives a taster of how the exhibition looks, perfect for those of you not based in York or unable to pop in. Look out for Victoria Hoyle in the white dress and pink cardigan, Civic Archivist, who masterminded both the exhibition and the wider City Making History project.

One of the purposes of the exhibition was to showcase the archive collections to library visitors and people passing outside, who might not otherwise have found out about the material. One visitor has already made a discovery – seeing her grandma’s name in a nineteenth-century record shown on one of the pictures, and has contacted us to find out more!

The exhibition will run until late September, as a part of York 800, and can be seen seven days a week. It ties in with the cataloguing project as a taster of how rich the collections are and demonstrates perfectly how anyone can engage with and use the collections – not just specialists or academics.

Credits and acknowlegments of those involved

Many thanks to all those involved – especially the volunteers who contributed their time and put together such an engaging display.