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!

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.