The First World War in our archive collections


2014 marks the start of the centenary commemorations for the First World War which will be taking place over the next four years. Locally there is a lot of activity in York marking this occasion, including a major new exhibition at York Castle Museum and a wide variety of community group projects such as the Poppy Road Poppy Project

So what about us? As the city archives we hold original archive material created during that period. However, you don’t find archives on a theme such as this conveniently labelled in a box all together as a collection, you have to do detective work amongst all your collections to draw out the individual treasures within.

This is what our MA placement student Lauren Bray did earlier in the year. As part of her MA programme placement at the Institute of the Public Understanding of the Past at the University of York, we set her on a resource discovery exercise to produce a guide to our collections, so we can highlight what original material we hold that can aid research and interest in the First World War. Instead of simply producing a paper booklet, she decided to trial creating a Pinterest board as a showcase. The Pinterest board is now live and available at

You don’t need a Pinterest account to see it, but if you do you can repin, comment and like individual pins.

As access to our archive collections is currently closed during the building work, we hope this can act as a shop window and taster of what types of material we have, and can be viewed in person when we reopen at the end of the year. The nature of our collections (focused on the civic archive and the archives of community groups) means that the archives relate as much to home life, as to military activity abroad. The records show how the city had to adapt quickly to the outbreak of war to solve practical issues locally, without the centralised instructions more familiar from the Second World War.


The ‘Chocolate Letters’ written by serving soldiers to the Lord Mayor in thanks for boxes of chocolate sent to the front are well known, having provided the inspiration for the play ‘Blood and Chocolate’ and are appearing at exhibitions all over the city. However, individual documents scattered over disparate collections can provide unique windows onto the local experience of the First World War in York and are important sources despite their relatively small size and number.

Did you know?

  •  Conscientious objectors in York such as William Varley were tried and incarcerated for refusing to follow military orders, such as wearing uniform

William Varley

  • Teenage Sea Scouts from York served on coastguard duty after the coastal bombardments?

 Sea Scout

  • Your house might have been hit in the Zeppelin raid in May 1916 and there might be records of a claim for war damages?


We hope you come along and see the records and our First World War exhibition once we are setup with our new facilities at York Explore, and you can get stuck in in the meantime and find out something new about the war in York by visiting and sharing our Pinterest Board.

Libraries & Archives together at last!

Today I’m feeling inspired as I’ve just returned from the second day of my tour of Explore York Libraries.  I have been overwhelmed by the dedication, community spirit and welcome we received  from both staff and users.

A warm welcome from the staff at Rowntree Park Reading Cafe!

A warm welcome from the staff at Rowntree Park Reading Cafe!

I’ve never worked as part of a library service before so when I was invited to tour the libraries I thought this was an opportunity to see something a bit different.  I was surprised to discover how community focused our branch libraries are and how their activities feed into the work I’m doing. It’s especially important that we develop these links as Explore Libraries & Archives moves forward together as an independent organisation.

The Gateway to History project is bringing libraries and archives together, services that have traditionally operated separately. We believe that our strength is our integrated, community focused service.  I’m developing crucial community links to build a stronger public profile, driving our services forward and exploring new ways of collaborative working.

New Earswick Library...comfy seats and a great learning space!

New Earswick Library – comfy seats and a great learning space!

So what did visiting our branch libraries teach me? Well, first of all it was that we have some fantastic spaces for reading, learning and exploring local history. I’m working with Laura to find ways in which we can use these fantastic spaces to bring local history back to the community through the branch libraries.

Speaking with the branch library managers also gave me a really good idea of how our communities are working with their local library, often in more ways than I was aware of. For example, Dringhouses Library is based in the old school which is 150 years old this year. The library is working with the local community to celebrate through a programme of events.

Dringhouses Library - 150 years old this year! Happy Birthday!

Dringhouses Library building – 150 years old this year!

On the 5th August the library is running Remembering Dringhouses  from 9.30am-12.30pm and 2pm-5.30pm. Visitors will have a chance to share their memories of Dringhouses and find out about the history of their community. I’ll be based at the library all day to get a flavour of the event and to meet people from the community.

All branch libraries have a local history section - Have you spotted it at your local library?

All branch libraries have a local history section – Have you spotted it at your local library?

We also used the visit to hunt down the local history books in each branch. We are planning to find new and dynamic ways to represent archives and local history across all the branches to complement our new service at York Explore library. We’ll be doing this through building and sharing our community contacts, improving our local history stock and hosting events in the local libraries to engage a wider audience.  So, if you have ideas for how to bring local history to your branch library, we’d love to hear from you! Your input will shape our libraries and archives for the future.

Up until now I’ve largely been based at West Offices and traveling around the city to meetings with community groups. After visiting the branch libraries, I’m going to be based more and more out in these fantastic spaces. So if you’re a regular visitor to your branch library, you may just see me around and about, so feel free to stop and have a chat!

A new opportunity: transforming the card catalogue

Today marks the start of our exciting new volunteer project to transfer the contents of our local history card index onto the library catalogue. The card index was created between the 1960s and 2008 and contains details of all the books, pamphlets and journal articles in the local history collection – and a lot more besides. Whilst the catalogue itself is incredibly useful, up until now it could only be accessed by people visiting York Explore. By transferring the information to the library catalogue we will make the information about our local history collection available to a much wider audience for the first time.

Piles of cards

Some of the cards after they have been sorted.

The project has taken quite a bit of planning, and given the size of the index (we think it contains around 150,000 cards!) I decided early on in the process that the best way to tackle it was by dividing it up into categories depending on the type of material the cards relate to. As our main priority is to have the local history book stock on open access when York Explore reopens, I decided that the first phase of the cataloguing project would concentrate on the cards relating to books. The work to sort the index began at Tang Hall Library last week, and is being carried out by staff as they have extensive knowledge of what the index contains.

Once a batch of cards has been sorted at Tang Hall, they are being transferred to Sycamore House Reading Cafe in central York for the cataloguing work to commence. Volunteers are adding the information from the cards to our library management system, Workflows, under the watchful eyes of our apprentices, Kelly and Alice, who are supervising the project on my behalf.

Volunteer working at computer.

One of our volunteers inputting details from the cards onto the library catalogue.

The great thing about working from the cards is that we don’t have to move large numbers of books around whilst York is closed – we can just match up the books with their catalogue entries when we come to re-shelve the collection later in the year. As a result, all the entries we are creating at the moment are ‘shadow entries’, and each one will only be made live once the book is ready to go back on the shelf.

Local History book stock

Some of our Local History book stock.

Today is the first of many we’ll have to commit to this work, and it will take us a significant amount of time to complete the transfer, however the end result will be a collection with much greater accessibility that there has been in the past.

We are looking to put together a dynamic team of volunteers to work on this project over the summer at Sycamore House, so if you are interested in helping us make our local history collections accessible to the public please let me know ( Full details of the role can also be found on our website.