Why Conservation?

 

In the Past Caring project, there are approximately 2000 bound items and boxed paper documents of the York Workhouse and Poor Law collection which are in need of some form of preservation or conservation action. That’s a lot of items to go through! Before their arrival to Explore, the collections were housed first in the Workhouse and Poor Law Union’s deposit and then the York City Art Gallery. Through general use and non-ideal storage conditions of the collection’s 200 odd years, some of the documents and books are in a physical state where they can’t be produced for users without incurring further damage. The purpose of the conservation aspect of the Past Caring Project is to make sure the collection is stored, produced, and used in a way that will help maintain its longevity. Items that are especially damaged or vulnerable will be given remedial repairs and practical treatments to stabilize and help avoid future damage.

An overview of the historic damage

While some of the collection is in relatively good condition for its age, many paper documents and volumes have issues that present challenges. The following types of damage are common for archive material, but in this collection the problems have been exacerbated by its previous storage conditions.

One of the major challenges to be addressed is the significant amounts of powdery red rot in the collection’s leather bindings. Red rot is the acidic degradation of leather, which over time causes the leather to become weak, often splitting or breaking on areas it should flex. Many of the affected bindings are in the later stages of deterioration, the leather becoming powdery and coming off. This is problematic for users as it is a skin and respiratory irritant, but also because the powdery deposits easily transfer to shelving; reading room surfaces; on and inside other documents; and the readers themselves.

At one point in its history, the collections have been stored in humid or damp conditions. This allowed for severe mould damage on occur a portion of the bindings. While the mould is currently inactive, large deposits remain on the volumes and documents. Inside the bindings, the text blocks are cockled and discoloured, with losses and pages adhered together. As the bindings are fragile and the mould deposits are a health and safety hazard for users, the bindings cannot be accessed in their current state.

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Many bindings have physical damage from heavy use and improper storage. This includes abrasions, bumped corners, tears, covers falling off, spines detached, and more. The paper documents have rusting metal fastenings and severe paper tears, pleats and crumpling which limits readability and cause handling difficulties.

Other types of damage include extensive sooty black dirt throughout the collection, brittle papers, and iron gall ink damage. Through the course of the project I will blog further about the conservation issues described.

What’s the plan?

Prevention
The specialized archive store where the collection is currently housed was purpose built to hold Explore’s on-site collection (for more information, read about the Gateway to History project). The store operates within PD5454:2012 guidance. This means that the store follows published recommendations for the storage of library and archive materials, which include guidance for ranges of temperature and humidity levels within the store that the collection is best suited. This aids in slowing further degradation of the material. The archive store also has a security system and measures against water ingress and fire.

The items which have been damaged by improper packaging or storage will be addressed by repackaging to mitigate further damage when it’s used and moved.

Intervention
Using a variety of conservation techniques, the project will address the most pressing of concerns for the collection, with the goal of making the material available to use. This includes surface cleaning of documents to remove heavy deposits of sooty black dirt; making paper documents accessible by unfolding and pressing; repairing severe tears and losses to paper documents and bindings; cleaning and removing deposits from mould damaged items; consolidating the leathers and providing protective covers on bindings with red rot to enable reader handling.

I will continue to post about the project  and  the conservation as it progresses, if you’re interested in reading about a particular topic, feel free to contact me with suggestions!

Thanks for reading,

Tiffany

 

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For more information about conservation I’ve added some links that may be of interest

Institute of Conservation

Archives and Records Association

 

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A new addition to the Past Caring team

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Hello all,

Today I am writing to introduce myself as the newest member of the York Explore team: the Past Caring Project Conservator. Over the next year and a half, I will be working with the Project Archivist Julie-Ann Vickers on the Past Caring Project (find out more about the Past Caring Project on our dedicated page, or our previous blog posts).

While Julie-Ann works on researching and cataloguing the informational content of the archive, my task is to take care of the physical aspects of the collection. I will be assessing the condition of the archives and carrying out preservation and remedial conservation work to ensure the material can be handled by readers, as well as ensuring the future accessibility of the material.

As a book and archive conservator, my goal for this project is to help balance the preservation and access needs of a collection. Maintaining the physical collection is important to keep the records available for the long term and to enable readers access to its intellectual value. In my next blog post, I will talk more about the specific conservation issues of the Past Caring project.

In the months ahead I will be looking for volunteers to help with the preservation and conservation process, so if you are interested in working with historic material, drop me a line or keep up to date with the Explore York blog as more information on how to volunteer will be posted in future blog posts.

I will be posting here about once a month and regularly contributing to our twitter account.

Thanks for reading!

Tiffany

Thoughts? Questions? Just want to chat about conservation? Feel free to email me at archives@exploreyork.org.uk

An appreciation of the humble minute book

We’ve all been there, you turn up to a meeting at work, or at a club or society, everyone gets settled, and then someone asks that dreaded question: do we have anyone to take the minutes? Cue much shuffling of paper and attempts to look busy in the hope that some heroic person will volunteer. Yet the much-avoided process of minute taking results in records that lie at the heart of why archives matter. The humble minute – as a legal record of the actions and decisions of an organisation – helps to ensure accountability and transparency in politics, business, and wider society.

For this reason alone, minute books may be the only series of records that survive to document an organisation, company or club. And often they are the only records to be preserved in their entirety, without gaps. You have only to look at one of the key series of records in the York Civic Archive, the York Council minutes, to find an example of the lasting importance of these records. We hold an unbroken run of the council minutes, known as house books, dating from 1476. And they are our most frequently consulted archives by a long margin.

Within the York Poor Law Union archive there are some records that survive in long runs, but the minutes of the Board of Guardians are the only volumes that survive in an unbroken sequence, from the very first meeting held on 17 July 1837 to the last meeting that took place on 27 March 1930. In a way, these 43 volumes act as a kind of autobiography of the York Poor Law Union, detailing who made decisions, what decisions were made, how the union changed over time, and how it interacted with individuals and other organisations.

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First meeting of the York Board of Guardians on 17 July 1837

However, in my experience, Poor Law Union minute books are a sorely underused resource. This is not without reason. For a start, the indexes to these weighty volumes, where they do exist, can be very patchy. In an age when producing an index was a completely manual process, some clerks were clearly more diligent than others. Minute books can also be frustrating. If you don’t have a precise term, or date within which to search, then you may find yourself wading through a lot of material that has absolutely nothing to do with your original enquiry. In the case of the poor law minutes, I suspect there is also the issue of not knowing what to expect. Researchers, naturally enough, may be unaware of the type of business likely to be discussed in a nineteenth-century Board of Guardians meeting.

Despite all this, the rewards of consulting minute books can be great. The eclectic nature of the information recorded means that you are never quite sure what you may come across. The business of the Guardians ranged from approving accounts, reading correspondence, dealing with individual cases of poor relief, approving apprenticeships, child emigration, staffing, hearing reports from officials (such as the Master of the workhouse) and a host of other matters. There is really something for everyone in these volumes, whether you are interested in finding out more about an individual, or you are chasing data for numbers in the workhouse. You can read about the tit for tat spats that the York Guardians carried on with other Poor Law Unions, and you can witness how their approach to the poor changed over the course of the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries.

I have put together a short gallery of extracts from the Board of Guardians’ minutes to illustrate just some of the fascinating stories to be discovered, enjoy.

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Accidental archives

We are now into the fourth month of the Past Caring Project and 2017 is shaping up to be a busy year getting York’s healthcare and poor law records sorted and catalogued. In a few months’ time we will be joined by a professional conservator, who will have the job of ensuring that all these fabulous records are repaired, cleaned and ready for use when the collections are open to the public in 2018.

In the meantime, I have been busy cataloguing the collections of the York Poor Law Union (1830s-1950s) and thought I would share some of the accidental archives I have been discovering as I go through the records.

The phrase ‘accidental archive’ is by no means a recognised term in the archival profession (a more technical term is ephemera), but I think it aptly describes the chance survival of the scraps of notes, letters and other records that I have been finding between the pages of the official Poor Law Union records. The majority of these bits and pieces of paper were inserted into official registers by the Victorian clerks and other officers who worked for the York Poor Law Union. They acted as reminders, references, or simply page markers. Most of these notes and letters were certainly not intended to be kept and placed in a 21st-century, environmentally-controlled archive store! However once inserted between the pages of official records, these notes were forgotten and so have survived by chance.

Most of these chance survivals are not going to result in ground-breaking research papers, but I think these records have a charm all their own – not least because they provide a glimpse of the working processes and daily grind of the officials that staffed the Poor Law Union. And in some instances these accidental archives do contain significant and quite fascinating details not recorded elsewhere.  But perhaps the best way to describe them is to show you some examples, which you can see below.

     Notes and letters found in an Application and Report Book, 1842

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In the image above you can see the various bits of paper found in the front of this Application and Report Book. These books were the official records of the York Union Relieving Officer, who recorded details of individuals applying for relief (welfare)rough-draft-of-applications2-1842.

The scrappy notes placed in the front of this book include: a letter from someone asking for money, a note to send another individual to the Vagrants’ Office of the workhouse, and a rough working list of applications for relief (see left image).

I found this rough list of particular interest as its shows the working processes of the officer; it is also a reminder that those lovely neat official records from this period are often the final version of very rough drafts in rather illegible handwriting!

 

Invoice for stationery from between the pages of an Application and Report Book, 1842

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Above you can see another example of the chance survival of a working record of the  Relieving Officer.  This invoice (see close-up image right) lists the various items necessary for his daily work including foolscap paper, pen holders, blotting paper, and – something that every self-respecting Relieving Officer would not be without – copies of the Poor Law Act.

The items were ordered from a stationer’s store on Pavement, and the invoice not only tells us the name of the Relieving Officer (Mr Leafe), but also reveals that the store was run by a woman, Mary Moxon, who styles herself as ‘Printer, Bookseller, Stationer, and Genuine Patent Medicine Vender’.

 

Correspondence inserted into a Vaccination Register, 1899

 

vaccination-letter-rev-morrissyVaccination registers were maintained by the York Union’s District Medical Officers. A number of the registers that survive include letters, often from the parents of the child being vaccinated, supplying some reason why vaccination should be delayed or not carried out.

In this example (see left image), the Medical Officer has received a note from a Rev Morrissy in Cork, Ireland, stating that William Waterhouse (the father of the child to be vaccinated) has gone to South Africa and that he has no knowledge of the child being vaccinated. I was slightly puzzled why a York Medical Officer was receiving correspondence from Ireland about child vaccinations, but all became clear when I checked the entry in the Vaccination Register itself. The entry told me that William Waterhouse was  a private in the York and Lancaster Regiment. It seems he left York after the birth of his child, was stationed in Ireland for a time, and then went to South Africa with his regiment, which took part in the Second Boer War (1899-1902). So you can see how this short piece of routine correspondence helps to fill in some important details for the life of William Waterhouse, and his child. It also shows extent to which the Medical Officers chased up people in their effort to improve vaccination rates.

I could go on, but hopefully the above examples give you a flavour of just some of the accidental archives emerging from the York Poor Law Union records.

Something to do with everything

Well, here we are at the end of my eighth week on the Past Caring project. It has been a busy time, with my first few weeks spent meeting lots of new people, getting to grips with project goals, and getting my head around a new set of collections!

Over the last few weeks I have also been deeply immersed in the York Poor Law Union and Workhouse collections, which form the first tranche of records in the project. I am now more or less conversant with the intricate administrative workings of York’s Board of Guardians (who headed the Union), and their underlings, such as the Relieving Officers and District Medical Officers.  Researching these records has led me to the realisation that, like Dickens’ Circumlocution Office, the Poor Law in the nineteenth century really had ‘something to do with everything’.  Infectious diseases, schooling, rate collection, mental health, sanitation, and welfare – the Guardians’ rather extensive remit touched on most people’s lives in one way or another.

If you have been following me on Twitter you will know that I have been carrying out a detailed survey of the Poor Law collections over the last fortnight or so. And given this survey is now complete, I thought I would share some of my findings in a little more detail.

Having worked in a number of local authority archives, the first and most striking impression I had of the York Union records is their sheer variety. And this impression has only been confirmed by the survey. Vaccination records, title deeds, registers, minutes, indoor relief, outdoor relief, staffing records, correspondence, statistics, rate books, medical relief books, invoices – the list goes on. And the possibilities for using various combinations of these records to answer all sorts of research questions seem virtually endless at the moment.

Another feature of the York Poor Law records, and one that is probably common to many Poor Law Union collections, is the extent to which these records relate to and complement collections held at other institutions. To get the most out of these records many researchers will need to visit other archives in order to trace the administrative flow of information between, for example, the Union and the various hospitals in the region, or the Union and the central Poor Law Board. Like assembling a jigsaw puzzle that has been dispersed, information from various sources can then be put together to provide a fuller and more nuanced picture of the past.

Certain records in this collection are also striking for the snatches of often disturbing details they provide on individual lives. One series of records, known as Application and Report Books, records the circumstances of paupers receiving ‘outrelief,’ which could be any form of relief, such as money, food, clothing or medicine, granted to poor people outside the workhouse. Reasons for applying for relief were many and varied, ranging from ‘lunacy’ to ‘disabled from childbirth’, or simply ‘want of work’.  In the image below you can see an entry from 1838 in which the 13-year-old Bradley Hawkswell, illegitimate, deserted by his mother and with his putative father recently dead, applied for relief as he has been ‘partially disabled from a blow on the head’. This is more than just a run of extraordinary bad luck, but the setting out of a string of conditions that probably condemned Hawskwell, through no fault of his own, to a life of poverty and dependence.

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1838 Application and Report Book

I’m afraid however that my survey of the poor law records has also confirmed the poor physical state of some of the records. Many of the volumes in the collection are suffering from an advanced case of red rot, a form of deterioration that affects vegetable-tanned leather, and which causes the covers to disintegrate into a fine powder. When working with the collection for any length of time I have to get fully kitted out in protective clothing, including gloves, coat and face mask (a somewhat alarming vision for any visitors to the archive!). Help will soon be at hand however when we are joined next year by a project conservator whose job it will be to halt the advance of the red rot, thereby ensuring that future researchers will be able to use these records without getting covered in a fine cloud of red dust!

For more images of the collection and updates on my progress don’t forget to follow our project Twitter account.

Thanks for reading, Julie-Ann

New season, new staff member, new project

project-archivistHello everyone

Autumn is well and truly upon us and for Explore York Libraries and Archives the new season brings with it an exciting new project, and me, the latest staff member to join the team. I’m Julie-Ann and over the next two years I will be researching and cataloguing the poor law and healthcare records of nineteenth- and twentieth-century York under the banner of the Past Caring Project.

This means, I’m afraid, that my official title is Project Archivist (Past Caring) – best to get that out of the way early on! I should point out that the pun is actually intended, as the title refers not only to the historical provision of healthcare, but also to attitudes towards the past and to the records that constitute our historical memory.

The Past Caring project has been made possible through a generous grant of £156 560 from Wellcome, the world’s largest charity supporting research into health and wellbeing. Over the course of the next two years we will be cataloguing and conserving the records of the York Poor Law Union and Workhouse, the York Medical Officer of Health, the Department of Health, and the Department of Housing and Environmental Health. All of these bodies struggled in various ways to alleviate and improve the welfare and health of York’s population, and the records in these collections offer a compelling glimpse into the poor standard of living endured by some individuals and communities. You can find out more about the project by visiting our dedicated pr page above.

For me, there are two standout reasons why this project is important: first, these collections document and give a voice to sections of society that are otherwise largely absent from the historical record; second, we will be approaching this material in a thematic way rather than looking at individual collections in isolation; that means we will be exploring links between the various offices dealing with poverty and health in York, as well as researching connections with other health archives held in the region. I like to think of it as a holistic approach rather in the vein of Dirk Gently – and like Dirk we are interested in the ‘interconnectedness of all things’!

There are a couple of ways to keep up to date with the project: I will be posting to this blog about once a month; but you can get more frequent updates by following our new twitter account dedicated specifically to the project.

Over the next few months I will be working with the records of the York Poor Law Union and Workhouse, so there should be plenty of interesting material cropping up!

Thanks for reading,

Julie-Ann

A great start to 2016!

I know I’ve been really quiet on the blog recently, but rest assured I have been working away behind the scenes. One of my big pieces of work at the end of last year was the creation of our 2016 Access Plan. The Access Plan will become an annual piece of work, letting you know what we are planning to do over the course of each calendar year. It includes details about our overall strategy, as well as information about partnership projects, funding bids and our cataloguing priorities. The plan will be published annually on our website (you can find the 2016 plan here), and we will update you quarterly on how things are progressing.

Which leads me on nicely to the fact that I’ve just published the first of our 2016 quarterly Access Plan updates (available on our website here). We’ve had a brilliant start to the year, with an increase in both the number of researchers we are hosting and the quantity of documents we are producing in the archives reading room. The plan contains details of a new partnership project we have formed with History and English students at York St John’s University, who have been helping us with some of our collections processing work. You can also find out more about our current projects – including some digitisation work and our Wellcome Trust bid – and some of the outreach events that we have hosted. I honestly can’t believe how much work we have achieved over the last three months. We really couldn’t have done this without the hard work and dedication of all the staff and volunteers at York Explore.

If you haven’t been into the Archives and Local History Service recently, then you won’t yet have had a chance to look at our new signage. We’ve improved our shelf signage, created some new banners for the stairwell and improved the appearance of the staff desk. We really hope you like the new look as much as we enjoyed creating it.


Next time you are in York Explore also keep an eye out for our new archives display case in the foyer. Over the coming months we will be creating a number of mini-exhibitions to coincide with local events and to promote the archive collections. Let us know if there is anything in particular you would like to see!

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