Many hands make light work

As promised, here is an introduction to the work of the  City Making History Project volunteers – processing the civic archive at item level whilst I catalogue it at series level.

Getting to grips with the task ahead.

Day One – Getting to grips with the task ahead.

A while back I hosted a training and induction day for the volunteers to meet each other and me, find out about the project, and have a go at some of the work involved. When I asked everyone to introduce themselves we uncovered a whole spectrum of reasons for volunteering – interests in family history, local history, academic research and considering a career in archives/heritage. None of the group had volunteered with CYC libraries and archives before, though some had at other archives.

I talked about preservation, MPLP, the theory behind the project, my arrangement and description work, and then we had a nosy around the collection as a whole. It was great to see people ‘browsing’ in the strongroom, poking into boxes to get a gist for the material – something that hopefully the new catalogue will be able to replicate with its navigable structure. Then we got stuck into the practical bit…

Library colleague James carefully wrapping one of the volumes

Library colleague James carefully wrapping one of the volumes

The team are processing the collection in two ways, packaging and weeding. Different parts of the collection will require different types of packaging to protect them, so we started with wrapping large vulnerable volumes in Tyvek. The collection has lots of these nineteenth century volumes that are unboxed, and the leather is slowly deteriorating into ‘red rot’ (not actually rot but a horrible fine red dust that gets everywhere). Tyvek is a water resistant breathable membrane that protects records from accidental water damage whilst allowing the organic materials within to ‘breath’ and find equilibrium with their environment (important for paper, leather  and parchment). It also contains any red rot and dirt to prevent it being transferred onto the shelf or other records.

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Everyone getting stuck in – spot the functional map in the background!

Tyvek comes in large rolls. We wrap the volumes up just like a Christmas present and tie it with acid free unbleached linen tape. We thread a temporary label onto the tape so you don’t have to open the package to see what’s inside. You can see what a difference is made with this photo of Sanitary Inspector’s Report Books below.

Before on the right and below, After top left

Before on the right and below, After, top left

The other task we’re doing is weeding the collection for duplicates. I often say to people that a vital societal function of the archivist is to throw things away! Archive space is finite and archival preservation (including simple storage) is expensive. If we kept every random scrap of paper indiscriminately we wouldn’t be able to understand, organise or navigate what we have. As we can’t keep everything, we follow professional principles to determine what has a relevant informational value or not, called appraisal. However, there is a step even before where we simply go through taking out any duplicate records:

We've kept one of each of these records, so these are the surplus.

We’ve kept one of each of these records, so these are the surplus.

Once we started going through part of the civic archive, looking for duplicates, it was amazing how much we found. This photo above shows the duplicates taken out of only 25 boxes of records about festivals in York, such as the 1900th anniversary celebrations and the 1951 festival. They are wonderful records, but we don’t need to keep 100 copies of an invitation to a luncheon with the Lord Mayor, or 10 copies of the same festival programme! Of course we keep one, but the space we free up by taking out all these unnecessary copies, will allow us to go out and collect new material so our collection continues to record the story of York.

There’s a lot of work to be done to go through all of the archive but its amazing how quickly its going with a team of focused people each gifting 3 hours of their time a week.

There will be more progress updates in the future, and hopefully guest posts from some of the volunteers themselves letting us know what they are enjoying and finding out as they go along. In the meantime we’ll be beavering away, so keep an eye on Twitter for more on the spot photos of what we find.