Ware and tear – The challenges of cataloguing a large solicitors archive

This week I wanted to share the journey of one of our archive cataloguing projects and how we made a 78 box collection accessible to the public for the first time.

Our volunteers work incredibly hard and you’ve heard from and about them in our earlier blog posts and on social media. They dedicate their time to us every Thursday in the Archives Reading Room at York Explore.

One of the largest community collections to have been brought back on-site was Ware & Co Solicitors. It’s a complex legal collection with documents relating to a wide range of Yorkshire families, properties and businesses.

The challenge was how to organise such a large collection with so many different parts. The records themselves were also quite challenging as they date back to 1554 so can be difficult to read and interpret without specialist skills.

Volunteers enjoying historical legal documents, complete with wax seal!

Initially we thought that it might prove to be an easy collection, despite it’s size, as there was an old printed list and most of the boxes were labelled. We set the volunteers off checking items in the boxes against the list. The complexity of the records and the list meant this was slow going and we all started to feel like we were never going to get anything done! Families, properties and business were all mixed up together, often in poor condition, with many items not appearing at all on the original list.

So we needed a new approach. The work the volunteers had done so far had given us a good idea of the types of records and their condition but it wasn’t sustainable to keep working at such a detailed level.

Our new system was to first come up with an arrangement for the collection. We printed out the names of 67 families as well as 15 properties and businesses and set the volunteers the challenge of matching up the boxes to the names. Once all the boxes had been assigned a name, this gave us a starting point for writing catalogue entries. We chose to keep the descriptions brief as almost all of the collection consisted of the same types of legal records.

The volunteers, who by this time had a lot of experience using the collection, recorded the key details about the items including covering dates and a brief description of the documents.

We also set our volunteer Richard the task of discovering more about each family. The information he found was especially important as some of these families have played a key role in the history and development of the local area.

In just 4 weeks…that’s 80 hours…we had gone from a un-usable collection to one full labelled and searchable on the online catalogue. Without the support of our volunteers it would have taken one member of paid staff over 2 weeks to complete the collection…and that’s without them working on anything else!

The now organised Wares Solicitors collection. Searchable on the online catalogue at Ref no. WSC

The now organised Wares Solicitors collection.  Ref no. WSC

We learnt a valuable lesson on this project, that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to tacking an archive cataloguing project, and it’s something we’ll take forward to the rest of the archive team as we build a lasting legacy to the Gateway to History project.

The full collection will be searchable via the online catalogue w/c 21st September with the reference no. WSC For further information about this collection please email jennifer.mcgarvey@exploreyork.org.uk.

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One thought on “Ware and tear – The challenges of cataloguing a large solicitors archive

  1. Interesting to hear how you tackled this big task. Congratulations!

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