A New Year a new project!

Happy New Year and welcome to the first post about the York: Gateway to History Heritage Lottery Funded project.

‘York: Gateway to History is an exciting project to create a 21st century Archive and Local History Service for York – a service which serves and reflects all communities and cultures, past and present, in this ancient city’

Sarah, Community Collections & Outreach Archivist with the York: Gateway to History activity plan

Sarah, Community Collections & Outreach Archivist with the York: Gateway to History activity plan

I’m Sarah, the newest member of the team, working as Community Collections & Outreach Archivist. I’m responsible for building connections with community groups across the city and supporting these groups in the creation, storage and celebration of their archive collections and heritage.

To improve access to the collections I’m also going to be working on the currently un-catalogued non-civic archive collections. As with Justine’s York: A City Making History project, I’ll also be using MPLP to gain greater intellectual control over the collections, to make them more accessible to new researchers.

So, what can you expect from my posts over the next 2 years? Well, I’ll be keeping you updated with both the cataloguing and outreach elements to the project with some relevant theoretical discussion thrown in! I’m also keen to include some guest blog posts, hopefully from some of our newly formed community links as it’s a great chance to share some different perspectives on the project from across the city.

I’ll be giving you regular updates on this project through this blog but also through our Facebook and Twitter pages. You can also tweet about us using the hash tag #gatewaytohistory. So get involved and send us your comments and we hope you’ll be as excited about this project as we are!

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 –

Many hands make light work

As promised, here is an introduction to the work of the  City Making History Project volunteers – processing the civic archive at item level whilst I catalogue it at series level.

Getting to grips with the task ahead.

Day One – Getting to grips with the task ahead.

A while back I hosted a training and induction day for the volunteers to meet each other and me, find out about the project, and have a go at some of the work involved. When I asked everyone to introduce themselves we uncovered a whole spectrum of reasons for volunteering – interests in family history, local history, academic research and considering a career in archives/heritage. None of the group had volunteered with CYC libraries and archives before, though some had at other archives.

I talked about preservation, MPLP, the theory behind the project, my arrangement and description work, and then we had a nosy around the collection as a whole. It was great to see people ‘browsing’ in the strongroom, poking into boxes to get a gist for the material – something that hopefully the new catalogue will be able to replicate with its navigable structure. Then we got stuck into the practical bit…

Library colleague James carefully wrapping one of the volumes

Library colleague James carefully wrapping one of the volumes

The team are processing the collection in two ways, packaging and weeding. Different parts of the collection will require different types of packaging to protect them, so we started with wrapping large vulnerable volumes in Tyvek. The collection has lots of these nineteenth century volumes that are unboxed, and the leather is slowly deteriorating into ‘red rot’ (not actually rot but a horrible fine red dust that gets everywhere). Tyvek is a water resistant breathable membrane that protects records from accidental water damage whilst allowing the organic materials within to ‘breath’ and find equilibrium with their environment (important for paper, leather  and parchment). It also contains any red rot and dirt to prevent it being transferred onto the shelf or other records.


Everyone getting stuck in – spot the functional map in the background!

Tyvek comes in large rolls. We wrap the volumes up just like a Christmas present and tie it with acid free unbleached linen tape. We thread a temporary label onto the tape so you don’t have to open the package to see what’s inside. You can see what a difference is made with this photo of Sanitary Inspector’s Report Books below.

Before on the right and below, After top left

Before on the right and below, After, top left

The other task we’re doing is weeding the collection for duplicates. I often say to people that a vital societal function of the archivist is to throw things away! Archive space is finite and archival preservation (including simple storage) is expensive. If we kept every random scrap of paper indiscriminately we wouldn’t be able to understand, organise or navigate what we have. As we can’t keep everything, we follow professional principles to determine what has a relevant informational value or not, called appraisal. However, there is a step even before where we simply go through taking out any duplicate records:

We've kept one of each of these records, so these are the surplus.

We’ve kept one of each of these records, so these are the surplus.

Once we started going through part of the civic archive, looking for duplicates, it was amazing how much we found. This photo above shows the duplicates taken out of only 25 boxes of records about festivals in York, such as the 1900th anniversary celebrations and the 1951 festival. They are wonderful records, but we don’t need to keep 100 copies of an invitation to a luncheon with the Lord Mayor, or 10 copies of the same festival programme! Of course we keep one, but the space we free up by taking out all these unnecessary copies, will allow us to go out and collect new material so our collection continues to record the story of York.

There’s a lot of work to be done to go through all of the archive but its amazing how quickly its going with a team of focused people each gifting 3 hours of their time a week.

There will be more progress updates in the future, and hopefully guest posts from some of the volunteers themselves letting us know what they are enjoying and finding out as they go along. In the meantime we’ll be beavering away, so keep an eye on Twitter for more on the spot photos of what we find.

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.

The York: A City Making History Project needs YOU

It’s now that time in the project where we are looking for people to help us. Whilst I can just about catalogue the archive in the time available, I won’t be able to package everything to modern preservation standards on my own. This is where you come in!

The idea is that I catalogue at series level, then you weed for duplicates and package at the item level. Then when our new strongroom at York Explore is finished next year, we can move it all back catalogued and stabilised.

As well as hopefully being an interesting and fun experience for those taking part (getting your hands on all these wonderful records I’ve been banging on about for months, and making a real contribution to their preservation) the volunteer team is one reason why this project can be so ambitious in its scale. Traditionally an archivist on a funded cataloguing project would do every task from weeding, cataloguing, packaging and labelling on their own. Now, whilst we might enjoy this (I certainly do) it’s not really the most efficient use of time. A more MPLP approach is to split tasks up more efficiently into those that should be done by an archivist, and those that can be shared with others.

So, we are looking for up to 8 people who can do 3 or 6 hours per week on a set week day and time, to be arranged. It won’t be at York Explore, but instead at our external storage site, near the Askham Bar Park and Ride. We are provisionally looking at an early June start date and just carrying on until it is done!

If you would like to find out more, please follow this link to the Volunteering section of our website. There you can find more details of the project in the “Downloads” section on the right hand side, and how you can apply. We expect this to be quite popular, so please do get in touch soon if you are interested!

Speading the Word: The City Making History project goes to Liverpool

A while ago I was invited to speak at a Liverpool University Centre for Archive Studies (LUCAS) event entitled “New Directions in Cataloguing”. The organisers were putting together a programme of speakers from new initiatives to explain what they were doing, and give an opportunity for archivists and archive students to discuss strengths, weaknesses and possibilities.

Last Wednesday was the actual event, on a bitterly cold and sleety afternoon in Liverpool. I had spent a lot of time working on my presentation, and was really looking forward to the chance to put my project methodology “out there” to a group of my peers and hear what they had to say. I was also keen to hear the other speakers, who have taken different approaches to cataloguing a wide range of collections in very different circumstances. There was:

  •  A civic archive project from Hull History Centre. They have split their backlog into chunks of historical themes and are attacking it on a project by project basis using lots of volunteers and a programme of events   
  • The archivist who catalogued the personal papers of the artist Barry Flanagan, which have been interweaved with his artworks via an interactive website at http://www.barryflanagan.com/ Unusually the papers were not in an archive but kept by the estate, who funded and controlled the project.
  • One of the team of Hillsborough project archivists who were responsible for the cataloguing and digitisation of the Hillsborough disaster records which were made public last year. This was an unusually high-profile archive cataloguing project and it was fascinating to hear how they dealt with a different set of challenges to the ones we are used to. 

I was the second of the four speakers. As I got up and launched full pelt into my presentation all my nerves disappeared and I genuinely enjoyed myself. It was so nice to be able to talk in detail about my project methodology, and to share our ideas with a lecture theatre jam-packed full of other archivists to see what they had to say. I talked about the problems we initially faced, the way the project was designed, and the MPLP mindset that we feel has changed the way we think about cataloguing.

What I was trying to offer was that MPLP is a way of thinking harder about the cataloguing process, and a way of critically evaluating all the options open to you, then building your project to suit. Our project is particular to our circumstances, and so should everyone else’s be. It’s also about focusing on access and user needs, and pragmatically proving sufficient information for people to find what they need right now, and then supplementing it with more detail later on.

Happily there was a positive reaction to this approach, as well as the tools I am using such as the functional map and the authority files. I also discussed what we see as the strengths and weaknesses, as transparent processes and evaluation were what the whole afternoon was about. I talked quite a bit about the risks of the project, because we are trialling a new method, and we genuinely won’t know until the end how well it has worked. I mentioned the blog and what I am trying to do here with you guys, recording the thinking process and talking openly about theory.

All very exciting really!  Working in a small archive service, it’s really important to stay in touch with the bigger archival community as how else can we make sure what we are doing is both up to date and theoretically sound? There were some great questions from the audience about topics I hadn’t had time to talk about such as what series-level cataloguing means practically in the searchroom when someone only wants to look at one box, and another about where conservation needs fit into the project.

Getting home late, wet and cold after  several trains were cancelled and delayed by the power cuts and snow, I was so pleased with how the event had gone, and woke up to an inbox full of emails from people asking more questions and providing feedback in the morning. It really brought home to me how much I enjoy my work and am enthused by this process! It really is a special project to work on, and will be a contribution on so many levels when it is done.  It was good to take the time to put it in the context of what other archivists are doing,  compare and contrast, and I learned a lot about what else is going on in archives at the moment.

Thanks go to LUCAS for kindly inviting me to speak, and details of the programme can be found on the LUCAS website at http://www.liv.ac.uk/lucas/. The slides should also be going up there soon, so you can see what the other speakers and myself talked about.

Back at base, access to original archive material is now officially closed so we can prepare for the move ahead. There is still the full local history service at York Explore Library, and many of our records are available there in other forms such as Microfilm so please don’t hesitate to get in touch or check out our website to find out what’s going on during this period of change.

Taking Stock of ‘A City Making History’

Phase 1 not included as it was the recruitment phase before I got here

Phase 1 not included as it was the recruitment phase before I got here

It’s now week 33 of this project, and I thought it would be a good time to take a step back and look at what I’ve done so far. I’m going to give a recap of Phases 2-4 of the project and then talk about what I’m doing for Phase 5 over the next four weeks. Obviously the work below only represents a portion of what I do in any given week as I have communications responsibilities too, but these fit around the core cataloguing project which drives the timetable.

(Phase 1 was the recruitment phase before I got here, so is not part of my remit!)

Phase 2 – Orientation and Research (8 weeks) 

This was where I arrived and got up to speed on the history of York and the archive. It was a very useful phase that is sometimes overlooked in archive projects but has paid off many times since, as it gave me a solid grounding in the knowledge and resources that are available and that I need to be able to do my job.

Phase 3 – Sub-Fonds and Structure (10 weeks) 

Having got the gist, I then spent time working out what records I could expect to find by looking at the council, not the records. I chose to use a functional structure, instead of an organisational one, and divided the civic archive fonds into 13 sections, sub-fonds. This created the big picture overview of the whole collection.

Phase 4 – Authority files (12 weeks (+ Christmas hol))

This was not part of the original project plan because the importance of the authority files only emerged after we started. As a functional structure was chosen, another way of capturing context and provenance was required so I researched and constructeda web of interconnected authority files in our CALM database.

Phase 5 – Move and Cataloguing Prep

That’s taken us up to now, Phase 5, which is going to be a short (4 week) but vital phase to initiate the switch between the intellectual and theoretical work, and the physical cataloguing. Processing 210 cubic metres of archives would be challenging enough if it was business as usual here at the archive, but due to the art gallery refurbishment and the success of our HLF lottery bid we have to completely evacuate this building in a few months time. Eek.

So what happens to me and the civic archive? I am going to be moved, along with part of the material, to a local storage facility. Some of the collection is going further afield to conservation-grade archival storage for the rest of the year and so will be inaccessible for the duration of my project.

So what I need to do in the next 4 weeks is spend time in the strong rooms assessing the archive and carving it up into blocks of material. I also need to decide what to do to each block of material and when. A key aspect of MPLP is not cataloguing everything to the same level of detail without any thought, but instead evaluating what is actually needed in each case for better public access. Some parts of the archive (like the minute books) are relatively straightforward so can be processed first and put into storage. Other bits such as the Town Clerks series are very chaotic and will need to come with me to I can physically work on them.

Quite a challenge then, but an exciting phase as I get stuck into working in the strongrooms, applying my understanding of the council’s functions and recordkeeping systems to the physical task of evaluating and sorting material. Having a time pressure does make it more stressful, but should help me to keep on track. There will be upsets and surprises no doubt, but by this stage I feel equipped to deal with whatever comes up. Bring it on!

If you’d like to come and see the old archives in Exhibition Square before the move, we have some afternoon spaces left on our Residents Festival tours this Saturday. Tours are free and last half an hour, they just need booking in advance at any library.