Flood update – no news is good news

With some dramatic flooding around York today, you might be wondering how the archive basement is doing. Our usual problem is with saturated ground, rather than the river level, so I’m pleased to report that all is well – but will keep you posted if we have any dramas as the water rises through the day.

If you want to keep an eye on the city, The York Press website is covering the floods and has some great pictures. For historic photos of previous floods and their impact on the archive see my previous post on flooding, or search our Imagine York photo catalogue for plenty more.

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!


Behind the ever-developing theories and methods for working with archives, there are two central tenets that archivists can pretty much agree on: access and preservation.

This cataloguing project is targeted primarily at access, but as the rain fell and the river levels rose in York over the weekend, our attention switched back to preservation as we checked the basement in one of our strongrooms for flood water coming through the floor.

Water has always been a threat to records in York. The York civic records were once kept in St William’s chapel on Ouse Bridge (not the current bridge, or the one before, but the one before that), but by the late nineteenth century had ended up in the Guildhall. A strongroom was provided for them, but unfortunately it was in the basement by the river. In the introduction to his catalogue of 1909, deputy town clerk William Giles wrote:

 “They had been there but a very short time when the flood occurred which inundated the basement of the building and saturated the greater portion of the records, doing considerable damage to them.”

In October 1892, the river Ouse rose over 16 feet above its normal level, flooding many more streets, businesses and houses than was usual.

However, he noted that the damage actually went back much further than that particular flood as:

 “Some…were gradually mouldering away…and it was but a question of time when they would have fallen to pieces and [been] lost altogether.”

But good things can come from bad; if it hadn’t been for the 1892 flood Giles might never have spotted the poor condition of the records, secured expert advice and conservation and then written his list so that the City of York knew what it had and had a duty to protect. His catalogue only covers a part of the collection, but was written (in his spare time!) because preservation and access were important to him.

Catalogue of the charters, house books, freeman’s rolls, chamberlains’ etc accounts and other books, deeds, and old documents belonging to the corporation of York together with report on their renovation, compiled by William Giles, Deputy Town Clerk, [1909, City of York Corporation]

Whilst parchment and paper can be surprisingly robust, it’s still amazing the events records have endured, and that anything has come down to us at all! From wars and plagues, to fires and floods, what we survives today is what people before us preserved (accidentally or on purpose), and what archive repositories make accessible in the present, add to, and then pass on to the future.

Happily, we didn’t get flooded this weekend, but even if we had found a few puddles, the historical records will be fine as they are stored away from the basement (which is chiefly used for temporary storage of non-archival material). However, it is obviously not an ideal situation! So, work is underway on the Gateway to History project, a major bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund asking for around £1.5 million to help bring access and preservation at the archives up to 21st century standards. You can find out how it is going on the website, or sign up for occasional project newsletters by mailing gatewaytohistory@york.gov.uk with the subject line “Please add me to your mailing list”.