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!


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.

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.

How authority files can make archive catalogues more like IMDB

The replacement of paper catalogues like Giles’ with digital databases has allowed archivists to cram ever more information into them, and made them more flexible for researchers to use. The digital elements I’m working on up until Christmas are called “authority files”.

When we catalogue a record, one of the things we record is its creator. This is because much of the value of archives comes from knowing about the context in which they were made: why, how, when, and by who etc. So, a catalogue entry might say Creator: City Treasury.

That’s all well and good but what exactly is the City Treasury? When did it operate? What did it do and why? Is it still around? Traditionally, a researcher would have to go away and look it up in other sources, or the cataloguer might have written an introduction to help you out.

But with databases we can be a bit more cunning. We create an “authority file” for each creator (which may be a person or family but for us will be mainly corporate bodies) with relevant information and then every time we catalogue a relevant record we link it back to that one place. It’s like an actor record on IMDB, that you can click to from the IMDB entry for a film they were in.

This is really efficient because I only have to research and describe the City Treasury once, then every record that has something to do with the Treasury will link back to it. This is important as I reckon I’ve got about 170 to create!

To complement our cataloguing standard for records, we have one for authority files called ISAAR (CPF) [PDF]. This specifies a list of fields (metadata) to pick from. They include the name, dates of operation, location, and more technical things like any legal documents that founded or altered the authority.

As well as linking authority files to records, you can link them up with each other to show relationships. For example, here are three phases in the life of one of the CYC committees:

Public assistance committee (1929-1948)–>

Welfare Committee (1948-1970) –>

Social Services Committee (1971-1974)

I know this because I’ve looked it up, but what about a researcher using the catalogue for the first time? A search for “Welfare Committee” will only return records from 1948-1970, which is frustrating if you are looking for older or newer records that you know should exist. If there are authority files attached to the records, then there will be an explanation of the changes over time and links to click to find the other versions.

Authority files serve three purposes:

  1. They provide an additional browseable pathway for discovering and exploring a collection. 
  2. They consolidate information in one central place. The cataloguer only needs to research and describe once and users  can see the information at a glance, or click, from any relevant record. 
  3. They show the complex relationships between records creators, and how they change over time. In this collection (which contains the records of an unusually large number of both public and private authorities) they can show precisely when and how responsibility for various functions shifts into the council, and out again and back in again over hundreds of years.

For example, the Yorkshire Museum was run by the York Philosophical Society during the 1830s-1960s,  then by the Council 1960s-2000s and then transferred to the York Museums Trust 2000s-the present. One function but with three very separate authorities creating records.

Authority files are sometimes seen as luxury extras by archivists but for this project they are absolutely essential. The whole point of a traditional organisational structure is that it arranges records under their respective creators, but I just don’t think it can adequately handle complexity over time.  Authority files give me a separate (and better) way of expressing the concrete facts and relationships of the record creators, freeing me up to take a different tack with my structure.

By using authority files you can even move away from hierarchical catalogues altogether if you want to, which is the norm in Australia (arguably the world leaders in archives and records theory).

We are a bit more attached to our traditional ways in the UK but in this project we’re deliberately taking elements from various international approaches and using them as building blocks to create what we think is the best solution in our circumstances. Realising that there isn’t one right way of doing it, but a tool box of options, has been incredibly liberating and fingers crossed will result in a catalogue we can be proud of and build on in the future.

Finding yourself in the archives

One of the joys and challenges of researching archival sources is going beneath the skin of a physical item and transporting yourself back to the moment when it was created, whether fifty or five hundred years ago. Sometimes working out what a record is about, or whom, can be a slow and difficult process requiring in-depth historical knowledge, painstaking research and a deliberate approach.

But sometimes it isn’t.

A few months ago, Victoria (my boss, the civic archivist) gave an introductory talk about the archives at York Explore. She took along a slideshow presentation showing various images of records to indicate the types of things we have in our collection.

This was one of the photos, a black and white school photo taken at Mill Mount School in 1927.

Mill Mount School photograph 1927

If you click on the image you can see it properly in full or zoom right in to see the detail.

For me, and maybe for you, the 1920s is simply one of the various conceptual historical chunks that lives in my head as a way of arbitrarily dividing up the past.

But for a lady in the audience that day, it wasn’t just a generic historical source representing 1920s education; it was her school photo, capturing her childhood in York and the people she shared it with.

“That’s me!”

After pointing out herself, seventh from the left in the front row, the lady said she knew the names of other people in the photo. After the talk, we sent her a copy and she recently sent us back a list of all the girls and teachers she could remember. This will be cross-referenced with the catalogue entry so in the future, a user researching a person associated with that school in that year may for the first time be able to put a face to a name.

Mill Mount School photo detail

Can you see the girl seventh from the left in the front row? She is now 97 and still lives in York!

Instead of a silent picture, we now have one more piece of the interconnected web of York life with its communities of friends and neighbours, colleagues, hobbies and gossip.

Archivists can’t catalogue everything in minute detail because a) we were not there and b) we can’t be experts on every period of history! Our expertise lies in protecting, preserving and making accessible the raw stuff of history so that YOU (or your mother or your great-great-great-great-great grandchild) can get in amongst it and make your own discoveries.

Archives are not just windows into the past, they are the authentic creations of individual people who lived before us and, as this shows, still live among us. They are archaeology that was never buried.

Every record was created for a purpose at a point in time, and whatever other purposes we use them for (such as evidence of our ancestors or primary sources on the wider themes of history) their integrity is based on their original identity, their true purpose. In this case, a photo taken as a visual memento of a group of girls at school is once more serving this true purpose 70 years later for one of the last, or perhaps only, surviving person it still can.

Da-da! Functional map finally revealed

Functional map on wall

The map looming a little ominously on the wall – each of the clusters you can see is a subfonds.

I finished the functional map back in early September and moved on to my next major task (building authority files) but I’ve just got round to having it printed out on the massive CYC printer so I have a real physical copy to stick on the wall and share with you. I’m sorry I didn’t get round to doing this sooner, and whilst I’m sure no one was waiting on tenterhooks, I shouldn’t have left it hanging – that’s bad blogging! For some reason the print unit put it on a black background which doesn’t photograph very well close up  (but looks funkily retro on the wall) so I’ll use screen shots from my computer to show detail.

Close up of functional map

So, here are my 13 main categories which form my “sub-fonds” level in the CALM catalogue:

  • FIN Finance
  • ADM Administration
  • LEG Legal
  • COU Council, Committees and Freemen
  • ORD Public Order and Justice
  • SOC Social Assistance
  • UTL Utilities
  • DEF Civil and Military Defence
  • PPT Planning, Property and Transport
  • CUL Culture, Recreation and Tourism
  • ENV Environment and Trade regulation
  • EDU Education and Training
  • HEA Health

Each section is then broken down into 3-5 subsections, again based on function.  Legal, for example,  is split into 5 sections:

  • Property
  • Disputes
  • Civil registration and ceremonies
  • Legislation
  • Boundaries and jurisdictions 

Everything below these two levels is just an indication of what kind of records will fall into each sub-section, not actually how the catalogue will look, because the lower levels must be constructed “bottom-up” by identifying the real-life series of documents (on schedule to start in January). This is to make sure we respect provenance and original order. 

Looks pretty simple right? That’s kind of the idea, that a lot of thinking and testing goes into making a robust end structure that I can fit everything into and is easy to navigate. It means that I shouldn’t have to think too much about each series as I physically catalogue it, just put it in its allocated place, like sorting post into pigeonholes.

The software I’ve used is called bubbl.us and was just the first one I came across online after a quick search. My first stage was to brainstorm all the different information I came across in my research in a big higgledy-piggledy mess. 

Brainstorming using bubbl.us

Once I had captured everything in one workspace, then I started a new sheet and built a more ordered hierarchical structure by grouping the functions that emerged. When I changed my mind, I could delete bits, add bits or just drag the bubbles into a new section.

Archivists often arrange collections by writing notes on slips of paper and then moving them about on the desk until happy with it. This is just a digital method for the same process which I recommend to anyone, and is much less likely to blow away if someone leaves the window open!

Of course, the final catalogue will be a slightly different shape depending on how many records survive from each function, and hopefully I’ll have time to make another visual representation of the actual catalogue when I’m finished.

It could even be a visual interface into the collection, a big poster that a user can go to and locate their area of interest (and corresponding catalogue reference), or one day maybe even an interactive app that you could click on a bubble and it takes you to the online catalogue entry. How cool would that be on a large touch screen or electronic whiteboard?

 Do you think you’d use a visual “browse” type interface instead of, or alongside, a text-based “search” interface? I think it would be great for users who don’t have a fixed interest to begin with, but just want to explore what we have, or when you are looking for something specific but don’t know exactly what to type in the search box. Having a strong browseable interface of some kind is necessary for this project because I’m only cataloguing to series level,  so there won’t be the quantity of searchable text  as you would find in a traditional item-level catalogue.

So that’s my structure as it stands. I’m now constructing the parallel and complementary web of authority files, the nitty gritty factual detail of which departments carried out which functions and when. This provides provenance and another access route into the collection.

There will be two posts on the blog this week – so come back on Friday to hear about the wonderful story of a York resident accidentally finding herself in the archives recently – in a photo from 1927!

Functional vs structural (or organisational) arrangement

So, version 1.0 of my structure is now thoroughly tested and ready to go. I worked on it in a visual mind-map format, but have now distilled it into a simplified and accessible two-level text based catalogue structure. The final thing I need to do before showing it here is to provide some context by discussing why and how I’m following a “functional” approach, rather than a “structural/organisational” one.

Traditional archive cataloguing was developed to deal with the records of complex bureaucratic organisations such as national governments. A typical structural or organisational archive catalogue takes the arrangement of the departments as the basis for the structure, and forms a mirror image into which documents can be placed. So, in a local government context you might have a sub-fonds (section of a collection) called “ City Solicitor”, “City Engineer” or “Parks department”.

One benefit of this system is that records can be transferred directly from the originating department into that department’s place in the catalogue. This is good for preserving provenance and original order. It is also easy for someone to find a record if (and this can be a big if!) they are familiar with the organisation.

Laying lines for electric tram outside Micklegate

The department responsible for electrifying the tram lines in 1910 was the “City Engineer’s Dept”. It doesn’t exist anymore, is that a problem from a researcher’s point of view?

So why not just stick to this approach? Well, there are times when this might not work – such as when cataloguing the records of a group that does not have a defined hierarchical structure. However, in this instance, the major one is change over time.

Large complex bureaucratic organisations like councils or large businesses do not keep the same structures over time, they shift and change and reorganise themselves. To deal with this, you might split up the records into the different iterations of the department so it’s clear which records come from which phase.

The problem is that whilst strategic structural reorganisation may take place every decade, the underlying functions being carried out don’t really change very often! The records of street lighting, council housing or parks management may now “belong” to different departments or directorates, but someone is still creating the same records as before; logging incidents, arranging tenancies or procuring plants! Functional arrangement is simply basing your structure on the functions people are carrying out, rather than the labels attached to the department so we have “Legal” “Finance” and “Outdoor spaces” instead. This allows you to keep series of records created by a function intact, instead of artificially splitting them up to fit.

Drainage work on Church Street York in 1924

This drainage work was carried out in 1924 – should the records be catalogued under the department name or would the function “street improvements” be more helpful?

I’ll still capture and provide information about departments and reorganisations, but will bolt it on as an extra using something separate called authority files, instead of using it as the basis for arrangement.

It’s only a subtle difference really, but it means that you don’t have to rearrange your catalogue every time there is a reorganisation. This is vital for this project as some of the council’s functions spread back over centuries and it makes sense for a researcher to find records on council meetings in the 1500s somewhere near those from the 1900s, or records on maternity services grouped together despite the different providers of those services over time.

A final note – this is not quite the same as subject-based arrangement. I’m not grouping records based on topic or theme, there is still a discernible function being carried out. Neither am I breaking up records to suit my scheme, I’m just sorting the existing units I have (usually the “series”) into a sensible structure to aid navigation. The fact that vast swathes of the civic archive are in disarray and have little original order, instead of coming to us directly from the department “intact”, is one of the reasons why this approach makes the most sense.