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

Ware and tear – The challenges of cataloguing a large solicitors archive

This week I wanted to share the journey of one of our archive cataloguing projects and how we made a 78 box collection accessible to the public for the first time.

Our volunteers work incredibly hard and you’ve heard from and about them in our earlier blog posts and on social media. They dedicate their time to us every Thursday in the Archives Reading Room at York Explore.

One of the largest community collections to have been brought back on-site was Ware & Co Solicitors. It’s a complex legal collection with documents relating to a wide range of Yorkshire families, properties and businesses.

The challenge was how to organise such a large collection with so many different parts. The records themselves were also quite challenging as they date back to 1554 so can be difficult to read and interpret without specialist skills.

Volunteers enjoying historical legal documents, complete with wax seal!

Initially we thought that it might prove to be an easy collection, despite it’s size, as there was an old printed list and most of the boxes were labelled. We set the volunteers off checking items in the boxes against the list. The complexity of the records and the list meant this was slow going and we all started to feel like we were never going to get anything done! Families, properties and business were all mixed up together, often in poor condition, with many items not appearing at all on the original list.

So we needed a new approach. The work the volunteers had done so far had given us a good idea of the types of records and their condition but it wasn’t sustainable to keep working at such a detailed level.

Our new system was to first come up with an arrangement for the collection. We printed out the names of 67 families as well as 15 properties and businesses and set the volunteers the challenge of matching up the boxes to the names. Once all the boxes had been assigned a name, this gave us a starting point for writing catalogue entries. We chose to keep the descriptions brief as almost all of the collection consisted of the same types of legal records.

The volunteers, who by this time had a lot of experience using the collection, recorded the key details about the items including covering dates and a brief description of the documents.

We also set our volunteer Richard the task of discovering more about each family. The information he found was especially important as some of these families have played a key role in the history and development of the local area.

In just 4 weeks…that’s 80 hours…we had gone from a un-usable collection to one full labelled and searchable on the online catalogue. Without the support of our volunteers it would have taken one member of paid staff over 2 weeks to complete the collection…and that’s without them working on anything else!

The now organised Wares Solicitors collection. Searchable on the online catalogue at Ref no. WSC

The now organised Wares Solicitors collection.  Ref no. WSC

We learnt a valuable lesson on this project, that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to tacking an archive cataloguing project, and it’s something we’ll take forward to the rest of the archive team as we build a lasting legacy to the Gateway to History project.

The full collection will be searchable via the online catalogue w/c 21st September with the reference no. WSC For further information about this collection please email jennifer.mcgarvey@exploreyork.org.uk.

Creating community connections

As we head towards the summer I’m reflecting on my time in York, since those days in early January when I first started. I’m very lucky to be living and working in such a beautiful city and to be meeting such enthusiastic people with interesting archives and projects to share.

I thought I’d use this blog post to share with you my top 3 tips for community engagement based on my experiences over the past 3 months, as we learn new ways of working going forward as Explore Libraries & Archives.

1. Be prepared to travel!

Since March I’ve met with representatives of over 20 different community groups across York from Parish Councils through to support services. The Google map I’ve created visualises the places I’ve been to with the stars representing our current and proposed projects.

The travels of a Community Collections Archivist!

The travels of a Community Collections Archivist!

As soon as I started this project I made the decision that I’d try and visit groups rather than expect them to visit me at West Offices.  I’ve had meetings in local pubs, village halls, and homes – always over a good cup of tea! Visiting the different locations in York has given me a real insight into the variety of community activity taking place, and has made it easier to understand how to develop partnership working. In turn I’ll be delivering activities at York Explore library in 2015; giving groups the chance to use our spaces.

Rufforth Church, one of many picturesque villages around York

Rufforth Church, one of many picturesque locations around York I’ve visited

2. Be flexible

Learning to be flexible is actually one of the hardest things to do, especially as part of an externally funded project. I’m a planner so I like to know exactly what I need to do and what I will be delivering. Our plan is to scope community archives, develop community relationships and deliver a programme of activities. What those archives are, how the relationships look and what those activities will be is where I’ve had to learn to be flexible. The result has been really interesting. By listening and being flexible we’re launching more projects and starting to assume a support role in linking community groups together. We hadn’t planned for this to happen, but its successful because its community driven.

3. Respond quickly or get left behind!

Community groups are often led by volunteers who also have full time jobs, which means that evening and weekends are normal community working hours. I’m sent most emails at the weekends, so I’ve learned that getting in touch towards the end of the week means that by Monday I usually have a response. I’ve also learned that I need to be prepared to reply quickly to those interested if we want to work with them. Projects loose momentum over time, especially for community groups who are very active, and the same group might find another partner if we don’t act quickly. In my experience, you can arrange a meeting, plan and set timescales to deliver a project within a few days, through being flexible and responsive.

Overall, it’s been a steep learning curve as the archive service is new to this kind of activity. We’ve already made some fantastic contacts around the city, and we’re thrilled that so many groups have ideas and plans for projects that they want us to be involved with. I’m sure there’s still so much we’ll learn over the coming years, which will continue changing how we work and hopefully inspire other organisations to work with their local communities.

Watch out for further blog posts from me as we’re launching another pilot project over the next couple of months. If you’re part of a community group and have comments and projects you’d like to share with us, feel free to get in touch –  sarah.tester@exploreyork.org.uk

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 –

Happy 1st Birthday CMH Blog!

Worldwide distribution of hits to this blog in the past year.

Worldwide distribution of hits to this blog in the past year.

I logged into WordPress today to be met by a little icon of a trophy in the dashboard, “ooh, what’s that?” I thought, well I clicked on it to find out and it seems that this blog is a year old this week. Cool. Time flies! Let’s dig a bit deeper into what we’ve been up to together this past year.

Part of the fun of running a blog is checking your statistics to see if anyone out there is a reading it. As of right now this blog has received 10324 hits. That’s clicks rather than users, so if someone finds the site and clicks around a few pages (which is good because it means they’ve found something of interest!) then that shows as 3 hits. That might not sound a massive amount in a year by interweb standards, but it’s still pretty good by archive standards – that’s thousands of people interacting with and learning about this collection that otherwise might not have done so.

That particularly applies to online visitors from overseas, who we wouldn’t expect to just pop in and visit us in person. I love checking the country stats, and wonder who is sat behind a computer or mobile at the other side of the world looking at this page. It’s just so great the way the internet brings people to your virtual door through search engines, twitter links or facebook friends. In total I’ve had visitors from 81 countries. Here’s the top ten:

Top ten countries by visitor numbers

Top ten countries by visitor numbers

Also fun and interesting to observe are the search terms people  typed into Google which led to us popping up in the results. Some are highly specific – people looking for this project, this archive, or me. Others are more general history and archive queries, and it’s great to get these because it shows that my blog is a useful resource for a wider audience than just those interested in York.

My most popular search term is “archives” which is pretty exciting. It’s only responsible for 1% of my hits but if people are typing that into a search engine and coming across our little corner of the web then we must be doing something right! Other archive specific terms include “more product less process” “history of strongrooms”  “functional vs structural” and “archive shelves.”

Then there’s the local search terms which include things like: “old photos York” “chamberlain’s books city of York” “history projects in York” and of course our perennial favourite “floods in York”! It’s good that people with questions about the history of this city are making their way here and hopefully finding something useful, because that’s exactly what the archive is here for in the first place.

Then there’s the random ones that always make me crack a smile; “woman broom cobweb basement” “military moustaches 1880s” (and many other moustache queries) “swans paddling furiously image” and most weirdly… “firebird aquilegias”. I have absolutely no idea how that one led somewhere here… Any guesses? 

Soldier from thought to be from Strensall barracks on a motorcycle. From a page in a scrapbook belonging to a lady from Strensall.

Soldier thought to be from Strensall barracks on a motorcycle. From a page in a scrapbook belonging to a lady from Strensall. I love this image.

So that’s random visitors, what about regulars? Well 66 of you follow me by email, hello subscribers! I can’t see those who follow directly through a blog reader, but hello to all you good folk too! The numbers keep going up, rather than down, so hopefully that’s a good sign. Then, we have the VIP visitors – those of you who not only stumble upon, or follow the site, but actually join in and contribute to it by commenting. A massive thanks to all of you, you turn this blog into more than me just spouting off into the ether. A special shout out to two regulars, Dick and Aiudrey – one local, one international, who I enjoy hearing from so much and hope you all do too. Thanks to Aiudrey for sharing her reminiscences of when she used to live in York, and Dick for proving that at least one person out there doesn’t mind me talking about archival theory – therefore giving me the permission to do so!

It’s been a big learning curve this year, running a blog on my own, but it’s been a really worthwhile experience so far. Together we’re mapping the story of this project, exploring the collection and building an information resource that will stay on the web, open to anyone with internet access (and via a local library if you haven’t!) whether searching deliberately or stumbling fortuitously.

As a little postscript, the art gallery move was completed yesterday so as soon as I get my hands on the photos I’ll do a writeup here. It all got very physical at the end with door frames being taken out and holes put into walls, but the archive spaces have now been finally handed back to the art gallery and the records are in storage. Next job, building a new repository!

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.

Like a swan: serene on top, paddling furiously underneath.

Hello readers and apologies for the sudden hush that has descended onto this blog. It has been a very busy month, and blogging has had to take a back seat so that deadlines can be met. Most importantly though…


Hopefully you will have heard this already, but we have been successful with our £1.57 million Heritage Lottery Fund Bid towards the £1.77 million Gateway to History Project.

Railway poster of "York: Gateway to History"

A mid-century railway poster which was part of the inspiration behind the Gateway to History archive project.

The York: Gateway to History project is the much bigger sister of York: A City Making History project. Whilst I’m cataloguing the civic archive to make it easier to use and more accessible, the Gateway to History project is about dramatically improving the service as a whole and securing its future as a major community archive for local users and the wider world.

This project includes building a new state of the art archive store at the central York Explore Library, refurbishing various spaces in the building and also carrying out a brand new programme of work connecting the archive with all the communities in the City to ensure we are collecting and representing the authentic and varied experiences of York’s people.

The project has taken several years to put together, and was masterminded by Richard Taylor, Archives and Local History Development Manager and his project team. The HLF is paying 88% of the project costs, a total of £1.57 million.

I’m so thrilled that the civic archive is going to get the new home it deserves, alongside all the other city records to which it relates, so anyone can get in there and use it in comfort, when convenient and be expertly supported by staff.

It’s a big deal for archives in the city, and it’s a privilege to be part of this new chapter in the long history of a world-class archive collection. Interested in getting involved? We are looking for local people to join a project advisory board (no special skills or experience required) and to become archive champions, so please email gatewaytohistory@york.gov.uk  if you’d like to find out more.

There will be phases of disruption to our service from January as we prepare to move out of the art gallery, into temporary storage and then build and move into the new store so check our website for up to date news and info.

My work has been steaming ahead in the meantime, and I have authority files coming out of my ears. Authority files are awesome, and I think they will be soo useful for understanding the records in future. It’s exciting to be stepping towards the actual physical cataloguing of the collection in the New Year, my first job when I get back is to plan the workflows of how we are actually going to do that!

Thanks for sticking around despite the silence, and I look forward to catching up with more weekly City Making History content in 2013. Have a lovely Christmas, whatever you’re up to (my plans involve a massive pork roast and learning to knit) and see you in the New Year.