Farewell from your Community Collections & Outreach Archivist

The time has come to reflect and officially bring to a close the York: Gateway to History project. It has been an incredible two years and we at Explore have come together as one Library and Archive service.

My role on the project is also coming to an end this week and I can’t believe how far we have travelled since that first week. So here is my personal journey on the project. Enjoy!Sarah with HLF project plan

January 2014 – The activity plan strand of the project gets underway when I started as Community Collections & Outreach Archivist. I was daunted by the challenge but excited to get started!

February 2014 – We got straight in and worked with Lord Deramore’s Primary School in Heslington to unlock the history of the school and discover it’s place in the local community. We worked with three fantastic volunteers who wrote a whopping 17,000 word resource and presented it to the school.

Our three experienced and dedicated volunteers hard at work at the school. From left, Alan Bollington, Phil Batman and Roger Barham

June 2014 – By now I’m travelling all over the city by bus, car and on foot to meet all kinds of different community groups. By the end of 2015 we had created a network of 170 individuals from 78 different community groups. You can see where I went during the project on this handy map!

We also started working with the York Normandy Veterans Association on a project to record their memories and preserve their archives for future generations. In 2015 we hosted a celebration evening for the Veterans and created a special short film about the project.

July 2014 – To help manage over 400 community archives and to support outreach activities in 2015, Georgie and Francesca came onboard as Community Collection Assistants!

CCA staff

October 2014 – We launched the Poppleton History Society archive in Poppleton Library with an event to showcase the collection and network with members of the local community.


November 2014 – To support First World War commemorations we worked with York’s Alternative History Society to launch our pop-up banner exhibition. The banners went on display at York City Screen Cinema before being toured across all our libraries during 2015.


January 2015 – We opened our brand new Archives & Local History service at York Explore! During 2015 we welcomed a grand total of 94,858 visitors to the service who came to look at archives, browse our local history books and research their family histories.

Archive Reading Room

February 2015 – We hosted the first of our Gateway to Your Archives workshops. In total 98 representatives from 52 different community groups attended a workshop in 2015 and 98% said they felt more supported by Explore as a result.

One of the Gateway to your Archives workshops.

One of the Gateway to your Archives workshops in progress!

If you are interested in learning about how to manage your community archive, all new resources will be launched onto the Explore website next month. Included in this will be our new training films, on YouTube now!

March 2015 – Alongside the Workshops came the Archives Roadshow. We toured all 17 of Explore’s libraries and asked people ‘What Should York Remember?’.

A grandmother, daughter and grandchildren share York memories with Explore staff and volunteers and Tang Hall Library

We gathered 600 responses to the question and even created a vox-pop short film featuring local peoples thoughts!

May 2015 – We said goodbye to Francesca and hello to Jenny as Community Collections Assistant. Jenny took over responsibility for cataloguing and supporting our outreach activities.


June 2015 – To help us catalogue our community archives we set up a Community Collections volunteer project. We got 8 volunteers in total who worked to catalogue 5 large collections adding up to 99 boxes, 203 volumes and 32 rolls!


The volunteers also worked to create content for the Voices of the Archives booklet and pop-up banner exhibition. They provided quotes and unique insights into our community collections along with our community partners and researchers.

combined booklet and banner image

Group with cake_1August 2015 – We worked with York Learning throughout the project to help adult learners explore the archives and use them as a starting point for art and creative writing. Learners on an art project explored the local history of Acomb to create a piece of public art in Lidgett Grove Church and we were invited along to the launch. A local resident even made a special cake!

September 2015 – We commissioned artist Emily Harvey to interpret the 600 responses from our ‘What Should York Remember?’ activity. She created York Panorama: What York Means to Us which is a tactile representation of how York’s residents and visitors view the history and culture of the City.

Emily busy creating the panels in her studio!

It’s a permanent legacy to the project and is available on the 1st floor at York Explore Library and Archive!

...and watching people enjoy the artwork at York Explore!

November 2015 – We finished off the project by hosting a celebration event at York Explore. City Archivist Victoria Hoyle and HLF Board Member Sue Mendus gave inspirational talks to our community partners and we all shared a drink to celebrate our success!


So here we are in March 2016 and we have completed our evaluation report and submitted it to the Heritage Lottery Fund. It was a chance to reflect on everything we have done and think about the future.

Sarah in her final week at Explore with the completed evaluation report

Sarah in her final week at Explore with the completed evaluation report

All that is left to say is thank you to everyone that has come on this journey with us! It has been incredible and we couldn’t have done any of this without your support and dedication. We at Explore have an exciting future with new projects, partnerships and catalogued collections. You can take a look at our ambitious plans in our Access Plan. If you have any questions or comments about the project please do get in touch at archives@exploreyork.org.uk

The archives team at the end-of Gateway to History project celebration event

A new opportunity: transforming the card catalogue

Today marks the start of our exciting new volunteer project to transfer the contents of our local history card index onto the library catalogue. The card index was created between the 1960s and 2008 and contains details of all the books, pamphlets and journal articles in the local history collection – and a lot more besides. Whilst the catalogue itself is incredibly useful, up until now it could only be accessed by people visiting York Explore. By transferring the information to the library catalogue we will make the information about our local history collection available to a much wider audience for the first time.

Piles of cards

Some of the cards after they have been sorted.

The project has taken quite a bit of planning, and given the size of the index (we think it contains around 150,000 cards!) I decided early on in the process that the best way to tackle it was by dividing it up into categories depending on the type of material the cards relate to. As our main priority is to have the local history book stock on open access when York Explore reopens, I decided that the first phase of the cataloguing project would concentrate on the cards relating to books. The work to sort the index began at Tang Hall Library last week, and is being carried out by staff as they have extensive knowledge of what the index contains.

Once a batch of cards has been sorted at Tang Hall, they are being transferred to Sycamore House Reading Cafe in central York for the cataloguing work to commence. Volunteers are adding the information from the cards to our library management system, Workflows, under the watchful eyes of our apprentices, Kelly and Alice, who are supervising the project on my behalf.

Volunteer working at computer.

One of our volunteers inputting details from the cards onto the library catalogue.

The great thing about working from the cards is that we don’t have to move large numbers of books around whilst York is closed – we can just match up the books with their catalogue entries when we come to re-shelve the collection later in the year. As a result, all the entries we are creating at the moment are ‘shadow entries’, and each one will only be made live once the book is ready to go back on the shelf.

Local History book stock

Some of our Local History book stock.

Today is the first of many we’ll have to commit to this work, and it will take us a significant amount of time to complete the transfer, however the end result will be a collection with much greater accessibility that there has been in the past.

We are looking to put together a dynamic team of volunteers to work on this project over the summer at Sycamore House, so if you are interested in helping us make our local history collections accessible to the public please let me know (Laura.Yeoman@exploreyork.org.uk). Full details of the role can also be found on our website.

Lucky Dip #4 – Chamberlains’ account books 1666-1679

Aisle 4 contains some of our older civic records. Let me introduce you to Lucky Dip #4 – Chamberlains’ account books 1666-1679 [CB 26].

Chamberlains' Account Book Volume 26 1666-1679

Chamberlains’ Account Book, Volume 26, 1666-1679 [CB 26]

The Chamberlains kept the official City accounts, and the post goes back at least as far as 1290 in York. We have two major series of their records, known as the Chamberlains’ books and Chamberlains’ rolls.

The rolls (1398-1835, with gaps) are the “official” audited accounts, and were signed off once a year, whereas the books (1446-1835, with gaps) were everyday records and contain more detail and bits and pieces such as receipts and bills.

Lucky Dip #4 records money in, money out, savings, investments and charity accounts of the City of York during part of the reign of Charles II. It’s so information-rich that any page is fascinating, but here are a couple to show a range of transactions.

In order to spend money, the City had to first receive money. Listed on this page are some of the “casual receipts” for miscellaneous income in 1668. These include interest on bonds, and one resident’s payment to become a freeman.

"Casual Receipts"

“Casual Receipts” – click to get to the massive image you can zoom into

If the City chose you to be an officer, like Sheriff, you either had to accept the appointment or pay hefty fine to avoid it. As being an officer was not only a faff but could cost a lot of your own money (which you may or may not manage to claim back), many people paid the fine to avoid it. This was a substantial amount of income for the City, who sometimes took advantage of it by targeting their nominations to those they knew would prefer (and could afford!) to pay up.

In March 1668 they managed to get an impressive total of £60 off two candidates in the space of a week! That was a lot of money, and such fines for exoneration from office were a substantial portion of city income for centuries.

Close up of text

The fines were sometimes fixed and sometimes varied – for some reason John Paylin paid twice as much as Andrew Hessletine to get out of being a Sheriff!

So what did they spend it on? Like today, part of the money was spent on setting up young people in apprenticeships, another portion paid the people who kept the public administration running, such as the mayor, common clerk, cook, baker and caretaker:

Quarterly salaries paid for the running of the common chamber including the mayor and caretaker.

Daily expenses were varied, seen below for the month of January 1668/69. Payments went to a messenger delivering a letter, a lawyer for drawing up a petition, a porter for carrying coal to the council chamber, and slightly worryingly, “To the tipstaves [sherrif’s officials] for whipping people openly and privately” – presumably to do with the corporation’s responsibility for crime and punishment.

Payments made in January 1666/67

Payments made in January 1668/69

But not all the money could be spent on local matters. York had national responsibilities to send money up to the king. Lucky Dip #4 has several examples of these taxes, particularly for wars, via the expenses claimed by the sheriffs for collecting it.

Close up of text

Entry for paying the sheriffs’ expenses to collect the royal assessment for war funds.

So that’s the content of the record, but what happened after it was no longer in current use? All physical objects have a history of their own, and a significant point for these accounts was the flood of 1892 when the records came to the attention of William Giles. As well as writing his catalogue he also sorted and arranged the records (just like I am doing 100 years later, albeit differently) and sent some to be conserved and rebound at the Public Record Office in London.

The codex we are looking at would not have been familiar to its original authors as it has been altered in the 19th and 20th centuries. The volume is actually made up from a number of smaller volumes, which have been bound together with a new PRO binding and titlepages.

Open volume with modern title page

Can you see the different sized quires bound together into one composite volume?

You can easily see where books of different sizes have been put together. We are lucky they didn’t cut them down to fit and look neater which sometimes happens!

We see Giles as a bit of a hero, but his actions were not purely beneficial. Whilst he arranged for the records to be professionally conserved by experts of the day,  some of their methods of conservation proved damaging in the long run.

We can see it here where some of the pages have been discoloured to a dark yellow.  This page isn’t too bad as the text is dark but for some pages in our older records it is almost impossible to read what’s written.

Open volume with one yellow page and one white page

The page on the left was conserved in Giles’ time and has gone yellow since.

Modern conservators now follow a principle that all work should be reversible. Parts of Lucky Dip #4 were conserved again, to modern standards, using high quality acid free paper to stabilise the pages and make it clear which bits are original and which are additions. It was attached with starch-based glue so it can be removed with water if required.

Page with modern conservation repairs with white paper.

Modern conservation paper stabilisation of a fragmented page.

I’m really fascinated by the journey of physical items, on top of the informational value they contain. It really is like archaeology; you search for clues and look at different layers to put a story together. Nowadays we help out our successors by keeping records about our records, recording exactly what we have done to an item “on our watch”.

As I re-catalogue the archives I will give them new reference numbers, but the older ones will still be recorded on the catalogue entry. This means old and new references will still match up and this chapter is only one of many in the 350 year old chain of custody (all within the City of York Council) from the clerks who wrote them, via Giles and his contemporaries to us in the early 21st century and beyond.

Strongrooms past and present

Hello and welcome to a slightly delayed post due to the Bank Holiday weekend. One of the fun parts of having a blog, is looking at the statistics to see where people are coming from to visit the site. So far I’ve had over 2000 hits from 21 countries on every continent apart from Antarctica which is pretty cool.

Now the blog has been up a while I’m starting to get more generic searches bringing people in. This is really exciting as it means the blog has a wider relevance and usefulness than just this project. This week I’ve had several hits from people who searched Google for something to do with “strongrooms” and found me! So, here we are with some further info on everyone’s favourite bit of the archive.

Why have strongrooms?

Yet again we have to go back to the big two, Preservation and Access. Archives are always under threat from:

  • Fire
  • Water
  • Theft
  • Pests such as insects and mice
  • Pollutants
  • UV light
  • Incorrect humidity and temperature

A strongroom is one of the ways we try to protect against them – a designated secure place with controlled access.

Though the threats may be the same, solutions vary depending on resources, purpose and technology. I’m clearly not intending to write a monograph on the development of the strongroom but here are couple that I’ve spent time in personally, dating from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries.

Brasenose College Muniment Room

As Oxford colleges historically relied on landed estates for income, they accumulated a lot of property paperwork. Unlike today where deeds are registered, the physical bundles of parchment recording centuries-worth of sequential transactions were the legal proof of ownership. They had to be kept safe and easily to hand (preservation and access!) and often this was done in a purpose built muniment room.

The one in Brasenose College is on the top floor of the square tower over the main entrance. It’s built in stone, which is good fire protection, and has tiny windows and one access staircase which helps prevent against theft. When it was built the surrounding buildings were lower, so it would have stood very tall. The most precious records, such as the college’s  founding charter, would have been kept even more  secure in a muniment chest. I don’t have a picture of the Brasenose one, but it was built by carpenters inside the room itself and so is too big to fit down the narrow spiral staircase (visible as the rounded corner on the left of the tower) – a great anti-theft measure!

These sturdy oak muniment chests often had more than one lock so that several keyholders had to open it at the same time, in order to stop any one individual embezzling funds! Here is a dramatic example from The National Archives, which is covered in iron, was used by the Chancery, and dates from the 14th century.

14th century muniment chest for storing archives

Image source: The National Archives, Wikipedia Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:14th_century_muniment_chest.jpg

The Victoria Tower, Palace of Westminster

On a much larger scale is the Victoria tower, at Parliament. The Houses of Parliament (technically the Palace of Westminster) were built in the 1840s-1870s  to replace the Old Palace which was destroyed in the fire of 1834. Some of the oldest parts of the building survived, but much was lost forever including the original records of the House of Commons. Ironically, the fire itself was started by workmen burning old tally sticks – financial records made of bits of wood.

When the new Palace was built the architects were specifically instructed to include some kind of fireproof repository to keep the records safe in future. Their answer was the Victoria tower. More famous for being the Queen’s entrance to the Palace (you’ll see her pass under the archway during state opening), it actually contains 12 floors of archive strongrooms including an extra-secure one for Acts of Parliament.

There is a brilliant interactive tour on the Parliamentary archives website  that I really recommend. The sprial staircase that goes up the inside of the Tower was  supplemented with a small lift in the twentieth century.

City of York Archives  

Jumping forward to the present day, new archive strongrooms are not typically built in towers, but are housed in a mixture of purpose built or repurposed buildings.  Our current strongrooms fall into the latter category, being formed in the twentieth century from part of the nineteenth century Art Gallery building. You’ve already seen the basement in a previous post, so today I’ll introduce you to strongroom 1. Obviously I can’t describe all the  security measures, as that would be counter-productive, but I can show you around.

Archive corridor mosiac from former Art School

In the corridor outside we have a mosaic tile floor – left over from when the space was used as an art school. Archive corridors should always have smooth level floors (not thick carpet) so you can wheel trolleys piled high with records along them quickly and safely.

Here’s one of the secure metal doors with an additional security grille, protection against theft and fire.

Metal strongroom door and security gate

 Inside, here is the central aisle which you’ve no doubt seen before on this blog and our main website:

Archive strongroom

Looking a little more closely we can see that strongroom one is not ideal protection against all the threats in my list, as it has windows which let light in during the daytime.

Windows in archive strongroom

There’s also a slight problem to do with our largest plan, one of the ones that will be catalogued in the course of this project.

Archive strongroom 1 with large plan

Our largest plan, propped up in the corner. It’s a good thing we inherited high ceilings from the Art School!

 It was moved into the strongroom alright, but subsequently a lift shaft for the art gallery has been built to the left  between it and the door, and to get it out we will have to lift it over the all the shelving under the window in the previous photo. I will definitely be on hand with my camera when we attempt that manoeuvre in the Spring!

So there we have a couple of archive strongrooms past and present. I’ve run out of space for today so I’ll do a post on up to date purpose-built archives another time so you can see how the same threats to the preservation of documents are being mitigated in new and increasingly energy efficient ways in the 21st century.

Out and about

Last week I had a bit of a change from my normal routine. I went to the University of Manchester to take part in a training course, and the archives hosted a visit from 46 members of the York Civic Trust.

As I’ve mentioned before, the new digital catalogue will be available online. There are a number of ways we could do this, but the one we hope to use is the Archives Hub. The Archives Hub is a JISC-funded service that supports education and research by helping archives to get their catalogues online. They don’t hold material themselves, but are an aggregator where you can search archives from hundreds of repositories without going to their individual websites. They also conduct research and development work on data and technology with partners all over the world.

They run free training days where you can learn how to add catalogues to the Hub. This is what I went along to on Tuesday.

IT Training room at the University of Manchester

It was a really useful day. I learned how to use the Hub, and tips and hints for making our catalogue work with their system. It was interesting to see the variety of attendees, from trainee and student archivists, cataloguers like myself, to librarians who are unfamiliar with archival methods but have responsibility for original material. There were also a number of participants from The National Archives, who provide the online services ARCHON and the National Register of Archives who wanted to gain insight into the way the Hub works.

It was great for me to discuss my project and other peoples’, hear about successes and problems, and ask questions about our specific needs. I feel like I have a good understanding of what we need to do and who to talk down the line to make sure that everything is compatible. Many thanks to Jane Stevenson and Lisa Jenkins for a very interesting day!

On Wednesday I was again fortunate to meet new faces, this time archive enthusiasts from the York Civic Trust who came on a half-day visit to the archives. I am afraid I don’t have any photos, but the visitors attended two talks by Richard Taylor, Archives and Local History Development Manager, on the past and future of the service and were shown behind the scenes by the Civic Archivist, Victoria Hoyle. I then gave a brief introduction to the City Making History project and what we hoped to achieve. I really enjoyed meeting the members and answering their perceptive questions which included disposal,  cataloguing processes and plans for future projects. Unfortunately we ran out of time, but hopefully everyone enjoyed their visit.

In the future when the archive has moved,  we hope to do tours more often for all sorts of different groups but at the moment we are very limited by space and staffing.

This week I’m back to my research, but with a boost from interacting with others who are engaged with our work and looking forward to the outcome. Though we can’t run behind the scenes tours very often, you can ask me questions on here anytime so if there’s anything you ever wondered about archives in general or this one more specifically then don’t be shy – leave a comment. You can even post anonymously if you’d prefer!


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”.

Beginning with books

It’s the beginning of Week 4, and I’m settling in well. I’ve got my desk, door keys and (most importantly) I know where to find the tea.

For any cataloguing project, an archivist has to have a Plan – I can’t just pick up boxes and start making lists of what’s inside. My job is to get an understanding of the collection as a whole, and then share that understanding with everyone else (i.e by creating a catalogue) so you can then dig deeper and find out more.

So, the first thing I need to do is good old desk research. I need to learn about the bodies that created the records in the first place, how they worked and where they fit into the bigger historical picture. In this case I am lucky because there are plenty of books on the subject of York and on local government.

Here are some I’ve been reading in the last few weeks, they’re from York Explore and the archive’s own reference collection. The big red one, the Victoria County History volume for the City of York is also freely searchable online and can be useful for finding out tidbits of info about your street or area.

Learning from secondary sources first (such as books) means that when I see a primary source later (an original record) I will already have a gist of what it is about – and so save time having to look things up later.

My plan for the week is to keep going with the historical research and take a look at similar civic archives in other cities to see how others have approached these issues in the past.

If you’ve got any thoughts, questions, or suggestions for things you’d like me to write about, remember you can add a comment on any page or use twitter.