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.

Where Do You Think You Are? A Community Collections Tour of York Part 1

Hello, I’m Georgie. I’m a Reading and Learning Advisor, usually based at York Explore Library. Since August, I’ve been seconded to our Archives & Local History department working on the Community Collections Project, alongside Sarah Tester and Francesca Taylor.

Community collections consist of non-civic records belonging to individuals, families, businesses and community groups. I was assigned 40 collections of Family and Personal Papers to research and begin to list on CALM, which is the archives management system we use.

I’ve come across some really fascinating stories in the past three months. I was familiar with some of the names – such as the Morrell family and William Etty, but others were new to me. Many of the people who created these collections (which include letters, personal financial records, and diaries) were not particularly famous, but the papers they left behind offer a fascinating insight into not only their personal, family, and professional lives, but also into life in York and Yorkshire from the sixteenth to the twentieth century.

While walking in York one day, I spotted a plaque near Treasurer’s House, commemorating York astronomer, John Goodricke.

Plaque commemorating John Goodricke, near Treasurer's House

Plaque commemorating John Goodricke, near Treasurer’s House

This spawned the idea to look around York for other plaques, statues, and buildings connected with the people behind the collections I’m working on. I did a little research online, and then spent the afternoon of Tuesday 7th October walking around the city, locating sites connected with the people behind some of our Community Collections.

I have divided my tour into three segments which I will share on this blog over the next few weeks.

This week’s post focuses on two York families whose legacy can still be seen around the city today.

The Morrell Family:

One of the collections I’m working on  consists of the personal and household accounts of the Morrell family of York. These papers mostly relate to Robert Morrell and his wife Anna Morrell (nee Wilson). Robert and Anna had a son, William Wilberforce Morrell, who married Lydia Hutchinson in 1869 and had two sons – Cuthbert, born in 1872 and John Bowes, born in 1873.

Cuthbert and John were co-founders of the York Conservation Trust which still cares for several of York’s oldest buildings. John played a key role in the movement to establish a university in York, and the ‘JBM’ Library at York University is named after him. He also served as Lord Mayor of York. He became Director of Rowntrees when he was only 25 years old.

Apart from the JBM Library, there are two other locations in York commemorating the Morrell brothers and their importance to the city.

One is this beautiful timber-framed 14th century house located at the bottom of Walmgate, the Bowes Morrell House.

Plaque from Bowes Morrell House

Plaque from Bowes Morrell House

 Bowes Morrell House, 111 Walmgate

Bowes Morrell House, 111 Walmgate


There is also the Cuthbert Morrell House, at 47 Aldwark, which was formerly part of the Blue Coat School

Plaque outside Cuthbert Morrell House, 47 Aldwark.

Plaque outside Cuthbert Morrell House, 47 Aldwark.

The Gray Family:

Another family whose name is still recognized in York today is the Gray family, who were solicitors in York from at least 1695. Several of the collections I’m working on relate to either Gray’s Solicitors or to the family’s personal life. William Gray was born in Hull in 1751. In 1777 he married Faith Hopwood. In 1788, he bought the property that became known as ‘Gray’s Court’, near Treasurer’s House. The Gray family lived there until 1945. Today, it is a luxury hotel, located between Chapter House Street and Ogleforth:

Gray;s Court Hotel, formerly the residence of the Gray family (1788-1945)

Gray’s Court Hotel, formerly the residence of the Gray family (1788-1945)

Gray's Court

Gray’s Court

William became a solicitor, and was a partner in the firm of Graves & Gray. By 1843, the firm had become simply ‘Gray’s Solicitors’ and successive generations of the family were partners. The firm was later joined by partners William Henry Cobb and Ernest Ralph Dodsworth.

In 1897, Gray’s  moved  from their offices at 75 Low Petergate to Duncombe Place.

Gray's Solicitors. The firm moved to this premises on Duncombe Place in 1897.

Gray’s Solicitors. The firm moved to this premises on Duncombe Place in 1897.

These collections won’t be available when we open in January as there is  still need to do some processing work we need to do. We can’t get started on this until we have the new archive open, but we’ll be gradually making collections available throughout 2015 and will let you all know as soon as they are ready.

Next week, I’ll share some images relating to another well-established York legal firm, and to one of York’s most influential businessmen and politicians.

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!

The CMH project: an end and a beginning

The NCGS-funded City Making History project officially comes to an end this month, though work on the civic archive will continue as part of our preparations for reopening the archive in the improved HLF-funded spaces at York Explore in late 2014. The online civic catalogue in all its glory is intended to be one of our opening offerings.

My time is currently being spent finishing the paperwork; writing up the final report and making sure all the documentation is in place for sustainability. This is the perfect time to sum up what has been achieved by this ambitious project since June 2012, and what will be finished off in the next year.

Functional Structure

Functional structure imaged in 'bubbl.us'

Functional structure imaged in ‘bubbl.us’

A major aim of this project was always to get the first big picture idea of what’s going on the civic archive, and that’s just what the big functional map has achieved. Instead of opening all the boxes and building the structure based on what I found, I instead researched what the council has done over the last 800 years and then tested it with actual documents. I have aspirations that we will be able to use this as a visual interface for browsing the catalogue, with the addition of a bit of technical wizardry…

Authority files

My IMDB of the council. An unexpected outcome of the project, but one that was vital to preserve archival context and express the provenance of documents in the collection. Every series of records will be linked to a creator, and an authority file will include facts such as the dates, functions and legal responsibilities of that creator. I get giddily enthusiastic every time I talk about authority files because they have really improved our knowledge of ourselves. There are 150 ones written at the moment, and we can keep extending those in the future.

Series-level cataloguing

This is what looks like the ‘actual’ cataloguing, but is really only the final third, after the structure and authority files. Every series is being catalogued onto CALM, our software, and linked to one or more authority files. A series can be 1 file or 20 boxes. Following a MPLP process, we are not going into any further detail everything has been done to the consistent standard, but we will add in links to existing item level information, and target new projects onto specific areas once it is done. This work is ongoing, and will carry on throughout the next year based at our York offsite storage location.

Item-level processing

Wrapping volumes to preserve them for the future

Wrapping volumes to preserve them for the future

Also going on offsite is our item-level processing, aka, the weeding and packaging of the whole collection one item, file or box at a time by our snazzy team of City Making History project volunteers. I introduced the work in my last post and everything is going well, we’ve freed up several cubic metres of space for new archives by removing unnecessary duplicates and preserved fragile 19thc registers by wrapping them in Tyvek. This work will continue alongside the cataloguing, preparing the civic collection to be used again when we reopen in 2014.

Digital and online catalogue

An important part of the NCGS project was to setup the first digital catalogue for our archive service. This has been done in software called CALM, where our cataloguing now sits beside authority files and accessions information in one big database. We originally planned to make our catalogue available online via the Archives Hub, but it is not compatible with our need to use authority files, so Helen, our E-services librarian has cleverly found a way to link it up to our main library catalogue. This is still in testing but is an exciting development that we had not previously thought possible. It will allow people to search for books, Imagine York’s historic photographs and archive material all in one place, emphasising that these original documents are an open resource for everyone who wants to see them, not just academics or celebrities on Who Do You Think You Are!

Una Stubbs visited us as part of her WDYTYA journey

Una Stubbs brought a film crew with her when she came do use our records, bu you won’t have to!

Phew it’s been a busy 17 months (a 2 month extension was added to the project due to the disruption caused by moving out of our old home at the Art Gallery,) but now we’ve built the necessary foundation for a better future for the civic archive. There is still plenty of work to be done, but all the plans and processes are in place for it to tick along, ready for our grand launch next year.

So what about the blog? As I’ve said before, it will morph into a blog for the whole service, so expect new voices and a possible change of design. Thank-you for following along this journey so far, I’ve enjoyed all your contributions very much, and though the project is formally coming to an end, the blog is going to get busier again with updates on the civic archive, the Gateway to History Project and wider work  going on everyday behind the scenes. Stay tuned and stay in touch!

Justine Winstanley-Brown
– Project Archivist –

Full steam ahead

Image of Schoolboys on model train (1927)courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales

Image of schoolchildren on model train in Sydney (1927) courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales

Since I got back from my holiday everything has speeded up. I’ve now moved offices to the offsite storage location, and am working there 4 days a week. On Fridays I’m back at the art gallery or hot-desking in the new council building West Offices, to catch up with my line manager and plan the week ahead.

Big news of the day is the first delivery of civic archive material from the art gallery to me takes place on MONDAY, courtesy of an 18-tonne lorry.  Wow. After the archive team has spent weeks of packing and prepping and barcoding, records are starting to move, ready for evacuation of the building.

Actually I have two lots of big news. I’ve also started the final cataloguing into CALM (our software)! As I haven’t got any records to hand yet, my first job is retro-cataloguing the Giles catalogue into CALM, which is going quickly and well. Series and items are slotting into the structure perfectly, and all the authority files that I created are ready to be linked with just a couple of clicks. So satisfying that months of preparation and planning are paying off.

Opening screen of CALM - it can be used for tracking all sorts of info, from locations to conservation work. It's used by museums as well as archives.

Opening screen of CALM – it can be used for tracking all sorts of info, from locations to conservation work. It’s used by museums as well as archives.

CALM is essentially lots of linked databases, and its interface is dry and not very sexy. Even though it’s new for us, CALM has been around quite a long time, which shows a little in the design and quirkiness of some of its operations. Don’t judge a book by its cover though as underneath it’s great and does pretty much everything we need it to. A brand new completely overhauled version is in development at the moment, and I went along to one of the user groups a few months ago to contribute our views about what we like and don’t at the moment.

This is what CALM looks like on the back end. The public side is different, so this isn’t what the catalogue will look like in use.

Screenshot of CALM - Ignore the FindingNo field - that hasn't been tweaked to it's final form yet.

Screenshot of CALM – Ignore the FindingNo field – that hasn’t been tweaked to its final form yet.

On the left you have the tree view, which shows the hierarchical structure of the catalogue, just like windows explorer. You can see the tree is constructed from my functional map of the council over time. Every level has a catalogue record, but only the bottom level represents an actual record or record series.

This how hierarchical description following the international cataloguing standard ISAD(g) works. There is a specified list of minimum information you should provide at each level plus many optional fields, which you can see a few of on the right, waiting to be filled in. There’s a bit of judgement involved in working out how much detail to go into and what information is most important for users, especially when trying to adopt a More Product Less Process mindset.

The structure is sparsely populated at the moment, but will grow to many thousands of civic records, all held within my 13 subfonds. One of the best things about it is that you can alter and change it at any time. This is why I’ve decided to not make the “Reference Number” the permanent ID number for citation and so forth. I know I bang on about it all the time but think it’s important to accept that no catalogue is perfect and static, but will need to be adapted, and so build that potential in from the beginning for sustainability.

Unlike Giles who published a linear list, my main contribution is the structure and records I populate into it – which will organically grow and change over time. Starting with a mostly blank CALM install is both scary and exciting, when my role finishes I’ll be able turn round and see exactly what I’ve done, but from that point it takes on a life of its own and hopefully keep getting bigger and better.