Today I’m back with an ole favourite, a Lucky Dip post. Lucky Dip posts are an experiment of mine where I grab a random record then try to prove how *any* document, however unlikely, can be fascinating.
This Lucky Dip was not picked out by me in the usual way, but was noticed by a work experience volunteer recently. It caught both our eyes (and nearly caused back injury) because it has an all-metal binding. Not just the spine, but the boards as well. How intriguing… definitely worth looking closer.
It’s certainly an impressive beast. It is labelled on the front ‘Infectious Diseases Notification Register’. I’m not sure what type of metal it is made out of, other than that it is heavily pitted (though not rusted). Has anyone come across these before and can tell us more?
The hinges appear to be made of brass. They have a lovely chunky feel and smooth action. Inside there is a pasted label from the supplier, where we find out that this is a ‘Kalamazoo’ binder. Apart from the comedy value of the name, there is further info on the label. Firstly, that the binder was bought in the 1930s, though the earliest entries in it date from the 1960s. Secondly, that it was guaranteed for 7 years – I find this quite surprising, due to the substantial nature of it, you would expect a much more ambitious promise, such as 50 years! A different marketing culture to today perhaps… It looks like an expensive bit of stationery invested in for something consciously intended for permanent value, which we still assess it to be today.
Ok, let’s delve inside the physical object to the information within. As I learnt whilst researching council functions, many individual activities of local government came about as the result of very specific pieces of central legislation. When regulatory changes occurred, central government sent out circulars to inform local government of their new or amended responsibilities. Where new committees have been formed due to an Act of Parliament, or a particular record required like this register, you often find a copy of the legislation tucked or pasted at the front of the record series. Useful context for both the original creator, and the user today.
This binder is divided into sections, with one each for the different diseases that required a return. Reporting incidences of infectious diseases is quite a long term function in local government, which became expanded with numerous Acts and regulations. The list of diseases covered by this register is quite large, and includes many ‘nil’ returns for what we think of as more ‘historical’ diseases such as cholera, leprosy and ‘plague’ *phew!*
Others are far more prevalent, such as measles which is the busiest part of the register. Most cases relate to children, and were compiled on a daily basis, giving the name of the child, their age, address and school. In this register you can therefore see the illness spreading through a school very easily, or you could extract the data and display a distribution on a map of York. This is why the record was created, to gather such statistical data and ‘notify’ it upwards to a central authority.
When archivists appraise a record, we always look to see if the information in a record is duplicated elsewhere, and then preserve the efficient ‘compilation’ version instead of the bulky low level paperwork. So, we’d keep a register like this instead of every single scrap of paper sent to the person who compiled it. (This is a generalisation of a nuanced process, but a guiding principal nevertheless). This register is a great example of where very fine level detail (names, addresses and sickness relating to individuals) has been brought together in a clear compact high-level compilation. A definite ‘must keep’.
In addition there are some annual summaries of diseases which compile at an even higher level – listing numbers for diseases in a year. Even better maybe? Well, not necessarily, as we would expect the data to be published formally by the Medical Officer of Health or in the council minutes, and so would advice someone to consult the published version as the easy to use, most authoritative source for that particular level of detail.
The register also records whether the child had been immunised for measles or not. This was added in a different colour pen and precisely included the date of immunisation, so another source must have been consulted later to build up this picture. It’s surprising to me, knowing nothing about epidemiology, how many of these children had been immunised but caught measles anyway. Why is that different today? What changed? Did statistics gathering on a local level, fed up to a national level, lead to more investment in research and development into measles? Or was it simply that the disease was more common so you were more likely to be exposed to it?
I don’t know! But now I know that I don’t know, and this chance encounter has given me an avenue to explore, a learning experience to follow, not proscribed by a course of study, or broadcast by the media, but personally triggered from just from having a nosy and trying to understand one individual civic record.
‘Using archives’ is simply taking information that someone has recorded or expressed for a purpose, then using or appreciating it in either a) the manner it was intended, or b) some way completely new!
So, we could map the spread of measles in one street in a week, compare the proportions of diseases between cities or decades, or find out how statistics were collected by central government. The record doesn’t care, it just is. Part of why we preserve archives is because we know that we don’t know the full extent of their value, and that value will be uncovered as our own and future generations dig deeper.
Zooming in to tiny detail, or out to the macro level, gives us new insights into our past, based on the raw stuff of recorded history, these individual records.