Exploring York and York Exploring

I’ve been at City of York Council for a month now, so what have I been doing? Well, my main focus has been to get a better idea of what non-civic archive collections we hold. Over the past month I’ve worked my way through a total of 1,023  individual archive entries, relying mostly on the original accessions register. I’ve then been recording the type, dates, size, ownership and level of detail that has been recorded about the collection.

I’ve chosen to record this information in a spreadsheet as it’s easy to use and move data around into other ‘sheets’ when you need to create themes or different sections. It’s the digital equivalent of sorting out boxes in a room!

I’m a massive fan of colour as a way to visualise links between things and to highlight priorities.  Each colour represents a different type of collection and I’ve used a traffic light system to make it clear, at a glance, what collections will need exploring in more detail.

Still from the accessions audit spreadsheet

Still from the accessions audit spreadsheet

With each collection ranging in size from just 1 piece of paper up to 30 boxes,  it’s important to find new ways to make these diverse collections accessible to our users. Through  dividing collections into clearly defined themes we aim to make it easier for our users to explore a new side to York’s history. So at the end of the initial audit of the collections I’ve divided the non-civic collections into the following themes:

  • York Individuals and Families
  • York  Businesses
  • York Charities and Voluntary Organisations
  • York Events and Local Culture
  • York Artwork and Photography

These themes are still subject to change and it might be that as I move collections around and get a chance to explore the physical records, which are held off-site, that I discover some of these themes are too broad, too specific or that we need to add additional ones.

Using themes will also make it easier to  identify where our collections are weakest, and where we should be looking to actively collect. We hope that through supporting local community groups we can expand the reach of the non-civic archive to reflect ‘all communities and cultures, past and present’.

Reading in York Explore Library

Reading in York Explore Library

I’ve also been busy researching a bit more about the history and culture of York using the resources in York Explore library which is especially important as I’m new to the city. I’ve also been reading about other archive outreach projects and best practice guidance to better understand how we should scope our own project. We’re keen to avoid using previous projects as a framework for our own as the needs of each community is different, so we’ll be taking the time to find out exactly what York’s community groups need and then use other projects and best practice guidance to support our ideas.

All of this background work is time consuming and involves a lot of reading, but it’s an essential part of the project which will enable me to work with our communities in the best way possible so that they feel confident in my knowledge and skills.

Look out for further posts as I develop the themes and begin to explore York’s community groups. As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome!

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Taking control of the archive, box by box by box

Joy and Edward getting stuck in with the inventory

Joy and Edward getting stuck in with the inventory

Time has flown since my last blog post! I’ve now been to the local storage contractor I told you about, to see the space for the first time and see how much of the collection we can fit in, based on the measurements taken the week before.

It was a really useful visit as it let us see all the facilities including office space, access for delivery vehicles, security, internet, processing space, shelving etc. It looks like a really workable space, phew! We’ve worked out how much we can fit in there, and are negotiating for the extra shelving we need.

As expected, we won’t be able to fit in all the civic archive at once, so the rest will be stored elsewhere with the non-civic archive collections until a large chunk has been catalogued, then we can have a swap over.  This obviously requires a high level of physical control of individual boxes so we can safely transport and accurately identify them. We do this with an inventory. This control is required for the whole archive, not just the civic records.

Chloe and Phil focusing hard on day 3 of the inventory

Chloe and Phil focusing hard on day 3 of the inventory

So, three temporary staff have joined us for a few weeks working full time with Joy and Victoria to make a precise inventory and package items that need stabilising for the move. This means boxing for some and wrapping in Tyvek for others. When the movers are appointed, we’ll then get the barcode stickers and can link this up to our new inventory so we know exactly where everything is at any one time.

Joy inputting the handwritten invenotry forms onto a good ole spreadsheet

Joy inputting the handwritten inventory forms onto a good ole spreadsheet

While they’re doing that, I’m working out the staged move – splitting the archive into discrete chunks of the right size (such as the Giles-listed material or the NYCRO-catalogued Town Clerks boxes) and deciding which order everything should be catalogued in. I don’t want to make a mistake and find the series of records I need to catalogue first has accidentally been send a hundred miles away!

Aisle 1 as you've never seen it before - no loose papers!

Aisle 1 as you’ve never seen it before – no loose papers!

The next step will be for Victoria to recruit the volunteers who will physically process the records as I catalogue them. I’ll let you know as soon as the advert is ready in case any of you would like to apply. The final details are still being sorted out but it’s looking like we’ll need 8 people, able to give a regular commitment of one afternoon per week (on specific days), starting around June time. This isn’t finalised yet so please bear with me, you’ll know as soon as I do.

Stay tuned next week for my next Lucky Dip post, if I can nip into aisle 7 to grab something without getting in everyone’s way!

Clearing out the cobwebs and the clutter

We have three onsite strongrooms: creatively called strongrooms one, two, and three. These spaces are not perfect for keeping records (they have windows, and no environmental controls) but they are dry, have stable temperatures and can be accessed with a trolley. However, under strongroom three there is the basement…

Stairs going down to basement

Stairs going down to the basement – the square hole at the bottom is a sumphole and currently contains standing water

As I’ve mentioned before, the basement is below the water table and so occasionally floods. We are far from the only archive in this situation; Chester unfortunately suffered a flood only last week, but it is something that definitely needs addressing.

We lower the humidity by using an industrial dehumidifier, emptying it with a bucket twice a day – but we can’t leave it running unattended all weekend. During the week we get the humidity down to around 66% (just outside the recommended guidelines for converted archive storage of 55%-65% RH) but by Monday morning it can be as high as 74%.

Aisle of archive storage

Whilst there are lots of boxed records, others have been left loose on shelves and so are much more vulnerable to the environment

Because of these problems, the basement has been used over the years as temporary storage space, but we don’t actually know precisely what is down there. So, the Civic Archivist, Victoria, is conducting an audit to find out. She is identifying what needs to be kept and moved to better conditions upstairs, what can be returned to council departments and what is random rubbish that shouldn’t be there in the first place!

Moving a large roll of blank paper

Moving a large roll of blank brown paper in the style of the Chuckle Brothers.

Last week Victoria and two volunteers, Alex and Caroline, started work to sort out this space. They numbered the shelves and are working through the aisles boxing loose papers, throwing out rubbish and writing lists of what is there. Sounds simple? Not where the rolling racks were built in front of existing shelving and boxed items in. The worse case is “Aisle 1”, a concrete ledge, packed full of massive ledgers that are completely inaccessible. In the pictures, the shelving on left is fixed – it doesn’t move out of the way!

Space filled with ledgers

Before – boxed in ledgers going back several metres into the darkness

Empty space, cleared of ledgers

After – the ledgers have been moved and the space is now empty

In order to access these, Alex had to crawl down the space and retreive the heavy ledgers one by one. This is now empty, and will not be used again. Hurrah!

Any available space had been stuffed odds and ends, most of which are not archival. It’s been very satisfying for the team to make an impact, but it’s not glamorous work – lots of heavy lifting and sweeping up decades of dirt. However it’s vital preparation for when the archive moves out of the art gallery building next year. Everything will be audited because, just like moving house, there is no point moving things that shouldn’t be kept in the first place, and you need to plan how to set things out at the other end.

Caroline sweeping a high ledge with a broom

Once the space has been cleared, Caroline sweeps up with a broom

The audit should be finished this week – a lot of progress in a fortnight. These are the kind of tasks that can be left for years because its difficult for staff to fit in around operational and public duties, and is one reason most archives close for an audit week or two once a year. It’s amazing sometimes what you can achieve when you have a dedicated chunk of time, and it’s great to see the difference. Good luck to the team for the rest of the week, and I’ll keep the kettle ready for when they emerge into the daylight for breaks!