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.


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.

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.

Taking Stock of ‘A City Making History’

Phase 1 not included as it was the recruitment phase before I got here

Phase 1 not included as it was the recruitment phase before I got here

It’s now week 33 of this project, and I thought it would be a good time to take a step back and look at what I’ve done so far. I’m going to give a recap of Phases 2-4 of the project and then talk about what I’m doing for Phase 5 over the next four weeks. Obviously the work below only represents a portion of what I do in any given week as I have communications responsibilities too, but these fit around the core cataloguing project which drives the timetable.

(Phase 1 was the recruitment phase before I got here, so is not part of my remit!)

Phase 2 – Orientation and Research (8 weeks) 

This was where I arrived and got up to speed on the history of York and the archive. It was a very useful phase that is sometimes overlooked in archive projects but has paid off many times since, as it gave me a solid grounding in the knowledge and resources that are available and that I need to be able to do my job.

Phase 3 – Sub-Fonds and Structure (10 weeks) 

Having got the gist, I then spent time working out what records I could expect to find by looking at the council, not the records. I chose to use a functional structure, instead of an organisational one, and divided the civic archive fonds into 13 sections, sub-fonds. This created the big picture overview of the whole collection.

Phase 4 – Authority files (12 weeks (+ Christmas hol))

This was not part of the original project plan because the importance of the authority files only emerged after we started. As a functional structure was chosen, another way of capturing context and provenance was required so I researched and constructeda web of interconnected authority files in our CALM database.

Phase 5 – Move and Cataloguing Prep

That’s taken us up to now, Phase 5, which is going to be a short (4 week) but vital phase to initiate the switch between the intellectual and theoretical work, and the physical cataloguing. Processing 210 cubic metres of archives would be challenging enough if it was business as usual here at the archive, but due to the art gallery refurbishment and the success of our HLF lottery bid we have to completely evacuate this building in a few months time. Eek.

So what happens to me and the civic archive? I am going to be moved, along with part of the material, to a local storage facility. Some of the collection is going further afield to conservation-grade archival storage for the rest of the year and so will be inaccessible for the duration of my project.

So what I need to do in the next 4 weeks is spend time in the strong rooms assessing the archive and carving it up into blocks of material. I also need to decide what to do to each block of material and when. A key aspect of MPLP is not cataloguing everything to the same level of detail without any thought, but instead evaluating what is actually needed in each case for better public access. Some parts of the archive (like the minute books) are relatively straightforward so can be processed first and put into storage. Other bits such as the Town Clerks series are very chaotic and will need to come with me to I can physically work on them.

Quite a challenge then, but an exciting phase as I get stuck into working in the strongrooms, applying my understanding of the council’s functions and recordkeeping systems to the physical task of evaluating and sorting material. Having a time pressure does make it more stressful, but should help me to keep on track. There will be upsets and surprises no doubt, but by this stage I feel equipped to deal with whatever comes up. Bring it on!

If you’d like to come and see the old archives in Exhibition Square before the move, we have some afternoon spaces left on our Residents Festival tours this Saturday. Tours are free and last half an hour, they just need booking in advance at any library.

How authority files can make archive catalogues more like IMDB

The replacement of paper catalogues like Giles’ with digital databases has allowed archivists to cram ever more information into them, and made them more flexible for researchers to use. The digital elements I’m working on up until Christmas are called “authority files”.

When we catalogue a record, one of the things we record is its creator. This is because much of the value of archives comes from knowing about the context in which they were made: why, how, when, and by who etc. So, a catalogue entry might say Creator: City Treasury.

That’s all well and good but what exactly is the City Treasury? When did it operate? What did it do and why? Is it still around? Traditionally, a researcher would have to go away and look it up in other sources, or the cataloguer might have written an introduction to help you out.

But with databases we can be a bit more cunning. We create an “authority file” for each creator (which may be a person or family but for us will be mainly corporate bodies) with relevant information and then every time we catalogue a relevant record we link it back to that one place. It’s like an actor record on IMDB, that you can click to from the IMDB entry for a film they were in.

This is really efficient because I only have to research and describe the City Treasury once, then every record that has something to do with the Treasury will link back to it. This is important as I reckon I’ve got about 170 to create!

To complement our cataloguing standard for records, we have one for authority files called ISAAR (CPF) [PDF]. This specifies a list of fields (metadata) to pick from. They include the name, dates of operation, location, and more technical things like any legal documents that founded or altered the authority.

As well as linking authority files to records, you can link them up with each other to show relationships. For example, here are three phases in the life of one of the CYC committees:

Public assistance committee (1929-1948)–>

Welfare Committee (1948-1970) –>

Social Services Committee (1971-1974)

I know this because I’ve looked it up, but what about a researcher using the catalogue for the first time? A search for “Welfare Committee” will only return records from 1948-1970, which is frustrating if you are looking for older or newer records that you know should exist. If there are authority files attached to the records, then there will be an explanation of the changes over time and links to click to find the other versions.

Authority files serve three purposes:

  1. They provide an additional browseable pathway for discovering and exploring a collection. 
  2. They consolidate information in one central place. The cataloguer only needs to research and describe once and users  can see the information at a glance, or click, from any relevant record. 
  3. They show the complex relationships between records creators, and how they change over time. In this collection (which contains the records of an unusually large number of both public and private authorities) they can show precisely when and how responsibility for various functions shifts into the council, and out again and back in again over hundreds of years.

For example, the Yorkshire Museum was run by the York Philosophical Society during the 1830s-1960s,  then by the Council 1960s-2000s and then transferred to the York Museums Trust 2000s-the present. One function but with three very separate authorities creating records.

Authority files are sometimes seen as luxury extras by archivists but for this project they are absolutely essential. The whole point of a traditional organisational structure is that it arranges records under their respective creators, but I just don’t think it can adequately handle complexity over time.  Authority files give me a separate (and better) way of expressing the concrete facts and relationships of the record creators, freeing me up to take a different tack with my structure.

By using authority files you can even move away from hierarchical catalogues altogether if you want to, which is the norm in Australia (arguably the world leaders in archives and records theory).

We are a bit more attached to our traditional ways in the UK but in this project we’re deliberately taking elements from various international approaches and using them as building blocks to create what we think is the best solution in our circumstances. Realising that there isn’t one right way of doing it, but a tool box of options, has been incredibly liberating and fingers crossed will result in a catalogue we can be proud of and build on in the future.

Functional vs structural (or organisational) arrangement

So, version 1.0 of my structure is now thoroughly tested and ready to go. I worked on it in a visual mind-map format, but have now distilled it into a simplified and accessible two-level text based catalogue structure. The final thing I need to do before showing it here is to provide some context by discussing why and how I’m following a “functional” approach, rather than a “structural/organisational” one.

Traditional archive cataloguing was developed to deal with the records of complex bureaucratic organisations such as national governments. A typical structural or organisational archive catalogue takes the arrangement of the departments as the basis for the structure, and forms a mirror image into which documents can be placed. So, in a local government context you might have a sub-fonds (section of a collection) called “ City Solicitor”, “City Engineer” or “Parks department”.

One benefit of this system is that records can be transferred directly from the originating department into that department’s place in the catalogue. This is good for preserving provenance and original order. It is also easy for someone to find a record if (and this can be a big if!) they are familiar with the organisation.

Laying lines for electric tram outside Micklegate

The department responsible for electrifying the tram lines in 1910 was the “City Engineer’s Dept”. It doesn’t exist anymore, is that a problem from a researcher’s point of view?

So why not just stick to this approach? Well, there are times when this might not work – such as when cataloguing the records of a group that does not have a defined hierarchical structure. However, in this instance, the major one is change over time.

Large complex bureaucratic organisations like councils or large businesses do not keep the same structures over time, they shift and change and reorganise themselves. To deal with this, you might split up the records into the different iterations of the department so it’s clear which records come from which phase.

The problem is that whilst strategic structural reorganisation may take place every decade, the underlying functions being carried out don’t really change very often! The records of street lighting, council housing or parks management may now “belong” to different departments or directorates, but someone is still creating the same records as before; logging incidents, arranging tenancies or procuring plants! Functional arrangement is simply basing your structure on the functions people are carrying out, rather than the labels attached to the department so we have “Legal” “Finance” and “Outdoor spaces” instead. This allows you to keep series of records created by a function intact, instead of artificially splitting them up to fit.

Drainage work on Church Street York in 1924

This drainage work was carried out in 1924 – should the records be catalogued under the department name or would the function “street improvements” be more helpful?

I’ll still capture and provide information about departments and reorganisations, but will bolt it on as an extra using something separate called authority files, instead of using it as the basis for arrangement.

It’s only a subtle difference really, but it means that you don’t have to rearrange your catalogue every time there is a reorganisation. This is vital for this project as some of the council’s functions spread back over centuries and it makes sense for a researcher to find records on council meetings in the 1500s somewhere near those from the 1900s, or records on maternity services grouped together despite the different providers of those services over time.

A final note – this is not quite the same as subject-based arrangement. I’m not grouping records based on topic or theme, there is still a discernible function being carried out. Neither am I breaking up records to suit my scheme, I’m just sorting the existing units I have (usually the “series”) into a sensible structure to aid navigation. The fact that vast swathes of the civic archive are in disarray and have little original order, instead of coming to us directly from the department “intact”, is one of the reasons why this approach makes the most sense.

The subtle art of cataloguing

I had a steady week testing and refining my structure, which should be ready to show you soon. I’ll give a run down of how it works when you can see it, but today I’m going talk about how archival theory underpins and influences what I am doing.

First comes motivation. Simply put, archives are kept so that they can be used. In 1922,  Hilary Jenkinson wrote that the ­primary duty of the archivist is towards the records, with a secondary duty towards the users. Ignoring the debate of which is the more important, that dual responsibility to both archives and users is the main balancing act for archive professionals. This is similar to the access vs preservation dynamic that I’ve mentioned before, but slightly different as the preservation is not just physical, but intellectual.

So how does this relate to my catalogue? Well, the fundamental purpose of a catalogue is to facilitate use. It does this by being more than just a list of what is there – it is an interpretation of a collection designed with users in mind. An ordered representation of often disordered material. 

Unlike historians who discover and weave together pieces of evidence to construct and present an argument, archivists aim to be neutral gatekeepers facilitating interaction between archives and users. Unfortunately, the act of cataloguing is not a neutral one. By arranging raw material into groups of records (series), placing those within bigger groupings (sub fonds), and selectively describing what is there, archivists pass the collection through a filter to create a finding aid.

Is this a problem? It is if we have a particular agenda, conscious or subconscious, and if we try to make the collection fit what we want to be there. For example we may have a particular interest in labour relations, women’s history or genealogy, but that shouldn’t affect how we describe the collection. Neither can we twist it to fit what users are looking to find. User needs must inform the creation and format of a catalogue, but this mustn’t be at the expense of the integrity of the records.

By “integrity”, I mean what is there and how it fits together. We can’t change the collection to fit our purposes – but neither can we ignore the fact that the whole point of the exercise is to enable use.

Therefore, the art of cataloguing is to find a way to honestly and dispassionately express the chaotic but organic structure of records in way that is helpful and accessible for a whole variety of users.

One important way that integrity can be maintained is by close attention to the original order of the material. The way documents have been filed or stored together by their creator (whether it be an author, a bank or a protest group) provides a lot of the context; the clues as to how it was used and why.

Respecting original order is a useful rule of thumb, but what do you do when the records have already lost it? It’s all very well accessioning a new collection direct from the source but what if you have inherited centuries-worth of records where some have been sorted, shuffled and re-organised over time?

This is the problem with the York civic archives, so in my next post I’ll talk about how I’m attempting to reconcile these principles of archival theory with the reality of a huge disrupted collection. By understanding the theory, I can adapt the methodology from conservative techniques that simply wouldn’t work in this situation to new ones that will; using MPLP and a functional structure to create a catalogue that is honest to the records but ultimately helpful for users.

That is the aim at any rate – do you have any thoughts about the process? Is theory really that important or am I just over-thinking a task that otherwise would be simpler. Could we just write a big list and have a google-type search box? Does it matter to users than archivists can’t ever be neutral? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

The story so far: methods and sources

There are two weeks left in my research phase, so here’s what I’ve been up to. I started out by exploring the history of York and local government, and then researched the changing structure of the council departments and committees using printed minute books.

I now have a good idea of the workings of the council and the activities it has carried out over time. So, I drafted the first version of my functional structure: a mind map/spider diagram of all the different activities, grouped hierarchically into topics such as city finance or education, which will form the backbone of my catalogue.

Once I had built this theoretical understanding, I spent last week looking at the reality of the actual documents, to see if they matched my expectations. I can then test and refine my structure to make sure it is robust and flexible enough to fulfil its purpose of expressing the context and content of the collection.

It was tempting dive into the strongrooms and open lots of boxes but a central idea of MPLP is to minimise the number of times you sweep through the physical material. I need to save my ‘sweeps’ for later on when I am actually arranging and describing individual series of records, so I made use of existing resources to help me gain this understanding more efficiently.

I used two major sources for this: one compiled from decades-worth of paperwork, the other from a recent physical survey.

The first is a set of digital folders, where any existing information on a record group (called an ‘accession’, but not really an accession in the technical sense) has been collated. An accession number can be attached to a single item, or 100 boxes! Each accession number has its own folder and contains anything from a brief description, right up to detailed lists or complete transcriptions created by members of staff or volunteers.

Here is the top level of the the hundreds of digital folders of accession information. In each folder there could be descriptions, transcriptions or searchable databases – you don’t know until you look!

The second is a stack of paper forms that record information taken during a collections audit. Staff walked through the strongrooms, filling out a piece of paper for each accession that they found on the shelves in turn. These forms detail the number of boxes or files in an accession, the condition of the records and where they are currently stored.

The 1000+ audit forms have been sorted into numerical order so you can search for the one you want. They are written in pencil because they were filled out in the strongrooms.

So, last week I got the list of all the accessions that are in the scope of my project, and annotated it with the extra information I could extract from these sources. I have ended up with a really useful overview of the collections, all without opening individual boxes.

My annotations, in terrible handwriting, form my working notes for what is in each accession and what existing documentation there is. Ones that look particularly complicated are highlighted in orange.

I found the exercise very useful – it might seem tedious, but much of an archivist’s time is taken up with these kind of tasks, working deliberately and methodically through large quantities of material so that individual researchers don’t need to in the future. It was a good reminder for a cataloguer like myself of the value of consulting existing sources, so as not to duplicate effort and to make use of legacy knowledge when building new cataloguing systems.

This is my completed list – all these accessions are in the scope of my project.

I’m on a training course tomorrow in Manchester to learn all about the Archives Hub – so my next post will look ahead to the end of the project and the online digital catalogue that is the final output. Enjoy the lovely weather in the meantime!