Space, the final frontier…

Close up of tape measure

Our move out of the art gallery is fast approaching. As the new strongroom at York Explore won’t be ready until next year, the records need to go into storage in the meantime. The bulk of the archive will be going away for a year to remote storage, but what about the civic archive that I’m working on?

The idea is to move these records into a secure local storage facility here in York, and for me to go with them so I can still work on them directly. This is obviously a bit of a nuisance in the middle of a major cataloguing project but it can’t be helped!

I need to contribute to this process by working out exactly what the requirements will be for the new space, so that it can be negotiated, budgeted for, and set up correctly ready for me and the records to move in smoothly.

The first thing I did was go through the collection and work out which records have to come with me, and which were better off going away to storage. For example, the heavy plan chests on the mezzanine are very unwieldy and take up lots of space, so I should prioritise cataloguing them before the move so they can go straight into storage.

Wooden plan chests with rolled plans piled on top.

This is about a third of our wooden heavy plan chests.

Also, minute books are very straightforward to catalogue – I don’t actually need to physically have them with me, if I have a basic list to work from. So that’s another big chunk (c.60 shelves) that can potentially be knocked off.

Shelf with bound volumes on it

There are about 60 shelves full of council minute books

After I’d been through the archive in this way, I then had to work out what is left and what space I need to fit it in. At the moment, our shelves are 44cm deep, 97cm wide and are set between 20-60cm tall. There are currently 729 standard ones in use in strongroom 1, plus another 80 extra deep ones that rolled plans are kept in.

Non-standard shelves include these extra-deep short ones for the wrapped PH plans

Non-standard shelves include these extra-deep short ones for the wrapped PH plans

However, that size is not necessarily the best to fit the boxes we have, so today I’m measuring our various standard boxes to see how they fit together, and come up with a size range for each dimension of a shelf that I can give to the contractor so they can supply the right racking.


Here are two of our standard box sizes. The height of one tall one is about the same as two medium ones.

Like many things in archives, you need to be systematic and accurate. I don’t want a surprise on moving day finding out that the boxes won’t fit. I once bought a sofa that wouldn’t fit through my hallway (we had to take the window out to get it in the front room) so I’m being extra careful to get it right this time!

In a few weeks Victoria and I will do a site visit to see what facilities there are, such as loading bays, room for our large work table, computer/office access, and see if there is the right space to accommodate us based on the shelving needs that I’ve worked out.

The move is becoming a lot more real at the moment, and as soon as the plans are fully in place I can finally get stuck into physically cataloguing the records, starting with those on my priority list that may be going away for storage. Interesting times!

Speading the Word: The City Making History project goes to Liverpool

A while ago I was invited to speak at a Liverpool University Centre for Archive Studies (LUCAS) event entitled “New Directions in Cataloguing”. The organisers were putting together a programme of speakers from new initiatives to explain what they were doing, and give an opportunity for archivists and archive students to discuss strengths, weaknesses and possibilities.

Last Wednesday was the actual event, on a bitterly cold and sleety afternoon in Liverpool. I had spent a lot of time working on my presentation, and was really looking forward to the chance to put my project methodology “out there” to a group of my peers and hear what they had to say. I was also keen to hear the other speakers, who have taken different approaches to cataloguing a wide range of collections in very different circumstances. There was:

  •  A civic archive project from Hull History Centre. They have split their backlog into chunks of historical themes and are attacking it on a project by project basis using lots of volunteers and a programme of events   
  • The archivist who catalogued the personal papers of the artist Barry Flanagan, which have been interweaved with his artworks via an interactive website at Unusually the papers were not in an archive but kept by the estate, who funded and controlled the project.
  • One of the team of Hillsborough project archivists who were responsible for the cataloguing and digitisation of the Hillsborough disaster records which were made public last year. This was an unusually high-profile archive cataloguing project and it was fascinating to hear how they dealt with a different set of challenges to the ones we are used to. 

I was the second of the four speakers. As I got up and launched full pelt into my presentation all my nerves disappeared and I genuinely enjoyed myself. It was so nice to be able to talk in detail about my project methodology, and to share our ideas with a lecture theatre jam-packed full of other archivists to see what they had to say. I talked about the problems we initially faced, the way the project was designed, and the MPLP mindset that we feel has changed the way we think about cataloguing.

What I was trying to offer was that MPLP is a way of thinking harder about the cataloguing process, and a way of critically evaluating all the options open to you, then building your project to suit. Our project is particular to our circumstances, and so should everyone else’s be. It’s also about focusing on access and user needs, and pragmatically proving sufficient information for people to find what they need right now, and then supplementing it with more detail later on.

Happily there was a positive reaction to this approach, as well as the tools I am using such as the functional map and the authority files. I also discussed what we see as the strengths and weaknesses, as transparent processes and evaluation were what the whole afternoon was about. I talked quite a bit about the risks of the project, because we are trialling a new method, and we genuinely won’t know until the end how well it has worked. I mentioned the blog and what I am trying to do here with you guys, recording the thinking process and talking openly about theory.

All very exciting really!  Working in a small archive service, it’s really important to stay in touch with the bigger archival community as how else can we make sure what we are doing is both up to date and theoretically sound? There were some great questions from the audience about topics I hadn’t had time to talk about such as what series-level cataloguing means practically in the searchroom when someone only wants to look at one box, and another about where conservation needs fit into the project.

Getting home late, wet and cold after  several trains were cancelled and delayed by the power cuts and snow, I was so pleased with how the event had gone, and woke up to an inbox full of emails from people asking more questions and providing feedback in the morning. It really brought home to me how much I enjoy my work and am enthused by this process! It really is a special project to work on, and will be a contribution on so many levels when it is done.  It was good to take the time to put it in the context of what other archivists are doing,  compare and contrast, and I learned a lot about what else is going on in archives at the moment.

Thanks go to LUCAS for kindly inviting me to speak, and details of the programme can be found on the LUCAS website at The slides should also be going up there soon, so you can see what the other speakers and myself talked about.

Back at base, access to original archive material is now officially closed so we can prepare for the move ahead. There is still the full local history service at York Explore Library, and many of our records are available there in other forms such as Microfilm so please don’t hesitate to get in touch or check out our website to find out what’s going on during this period of change.

Lucky Dip #6 – Micklegate Strays

Morning, and welcome to Lucky dip #6. I recently researched the strays whilst working on my authority files so when I saw this cluster of boxes marked “Micklegate Strays” I picked one out in order to see what original records survive. I found that this box refers chiefly to exactly how the 1907 Act of Parliament came about.

Micklegate Strays boxes - I picked the top left "misc" one out!

Micklegate Strays boxes – I picked the top left one out as “misc” always appeals!

The strays were originally the ancient common lands. Following inclosure, the strays were vested in the corporation in 1763 in trust for the freemen. Each freeman had the right to graze so many animals, known as a gate or gait. This right could be rented out to other freemen (or later, non-freemen) if you didn’t want to use it yourself.

Working notes on current price of gaits

Working notes on current price of gaits when this bill was going through.

After municipal reform in 1835, rights to the strays were the only concrete benefit that the freemen had left. In the nineteenth century, tensions between the historic rights of a minority (York freemen) and the benefits of the wider community (York residents) grew. In 1907 the corporation sought to end the ambiguity by formally transferring  the strays of the Micklegate freemen to the corporation by Act of Parliament in return for compensation.

Opening the lid I find a scruffy pile of dirty papers, oh dear… As I went through them, however, patterns began to emerge and details fitted together to show fascinating insights into the mechanisms for how the strays were transferred from the freemen to the corporation and the controversy that caused.

The papers that first caught my eye were the working documents of the people involved in the laborious process of getting a local Act through Parliament. Lots of the records in the box are drafts and notes, not created to be part of the permanent record, but which ended up in here anyway.

Notes to the legal counsel assisting the bill.

This one stands out: “notes to counsel” that were given to the lawyer. They include facts, detail and instructions. However, towards the end there is a nice extra, a personal note about the personalities involved  (very clearly marked as such!)

At the end of the several pages of notes, there is a more personal one...

“The town clerk has been subjected to considerable insult…”

Another nice example of a behind-the-scenes process document is this envelope full of letters. They were written by a York MP of the time, written on House of Commons Library stationery, sending real-time information back to the council in York.


Envelope of letters sent from Parliament to York

This letter says that the bill was read that day but the committee stage was unknown yet. I like this letter as it hints at the excitement and worry of trying to get a local Act through Parliament, and how different communications were in 1907.

So that’s the process detail, what about the bigger picture, the context? The whole point of this Act was to take control of the strays of the Micklegate freemen, which included the Knavesmire (with its racecourse). The corporation and freemen came to an arrangement of £1000 per year to be paid in compensation, to be divided amongst the freemen and freemen’s widows. They signed an agreement on that basis following lobbying and publicity on both sides, including this printed letter by one group of freemen persuading others to support the plan.


Printed publicity material explaining the bill.

However, when the bill went to Parliament, the Charity Commissioners objected to straight cash being paid out indiscriminately. This threw a bit of a spanner in the works, and appeared in the regional papers in April.


My fingers are not usually that grubby – this box of records was presumably kept in the Guildhall basement and are filthy. I had to wash my hands frequently to avoid spreading dirt from the outside of papers to the clean insides.

In the end, it was agreed for the money to be distributed via educational grants and other specific funds for needy freemen, as opposed to all freemen. This was agreed, and the bill passed on those terms.

I enjoyed reading through this box after so recently researching the strays using secondary material as I can see where historians have drawn their facts and opinions from. The mix of formal legal papers and ephemera and correspondence shows so many angles of what was a historically significant moment in the history of York freemen. It shows the actual negotiation and development of the relationship between the freemen, who historically had been the corporation, and the post-1835 corporation which represented residents. It shows how local democracy is not a clear cut path of progress, but an ebb and flow between different groups in a community.

An archival postcript: You might have noticed that there are no catalogue references or accession numbers on the boxes. They are an artificial series put together sometime in the later twentieth century. This wasn’t done by the archive, but by the council, as a working legal compilation of reference documents about the strays. This highlights how the civic archive is a working business archive, containing many records: legal, architectural, environmental, that are vital to the running of the modern city. A record can be both a working document and a historical archive at the same time. In my new catalogue they will remain in this series, respecting this provenance, but they will be given the specific identity references they currently lack to control them.