There is such an extraordinary variety of items in archives that it is possible to find something relating to almost any imaginable subject in our archive alone. To prove the point I looked for documents mentioning a variety of things beginning with the letter Y. I found:
- Y is for Yacht: The logbook of the yacht “Lady Evelyn”, recording cruises to Norway in 1880, Albania and Corfu in 1881, and Ireland in 1884.
- Y is for Yoga: A leaflet from around 1980 with information about facilities and courses at a yoga residential centre.
- Y is for Yaktails (although not, apparently, for yak): In a codicil to his will in 1892 Thomas James Hooper left to his daughter Carrie Cotton an Indian box “with fittings and counters and Indian yaktails and chowns”. (I tried to find out what a “chown” is, but Google could not come up with an answer.)
- Y is for Yellow Fever: A photograph of a memorial to officers and men of the Bedfordshire Regiment who died of yellow fever in the West Indies in the 1860s.
- Y is for Yams: A photograph of a yam farm in Nigeria in the early 20th century.
- Y is for Yoke: The will of Stephen Rayley of Sandy, who in 1551 left to his son Walter items including a bedstead, two pairs of sheets, a coffer, a coulter (part of a plough) and a yoke with hooks and staples.
There were a few items I couldn’t find – nothing turned up when I searched for yo-yos, yurts and yoghurt.
Archive reference numbers are complex, indicating both the collection to which an item belongs and its place within in that collection. The collection code may also indicate something about the collection itself. In our archive larger collections get their own dedicated code letters, but many of the smaller ones will have a reference beginning with the letter X. This indicates that the items belonging to that collection have been deposited with the archive on long-term loan.
While many collections held by an archive will have been donated, with ownership passing to the archive, others are simply deposited for safe-keeping and accessibility while ownership remains with the creator or their successor. In some cases this is a given – hospital records, for example, are classed as public records and remain the property of the health authority, and everything deposited by Church of England parishes still belongs to the Church. Records relating to an organisation or institution that is still functioning are more likely to be deposited on loan. Family collections vary; children may be delighted to get rid of an attic sized collection of local history memorabilia hoarded by their father and happily donate it (and the problem of storing it) to the local archive, or they may want to retain ownership of their great-aunt’s diaries while depositing them for safe-keeping.
When a collection is deposited with an archive on loan, the archive is likely to accept it conditionally. Packaging and cataloguing a large collection is a time-intensive and therefore costly task, and there will often be a penalty clause requiring payment to be made as compensation for this time if the collection is withdrawn within a specified period (typically 20 or 30 years). Arrangements will need to be made for any items that the archive does not consider worth preserving – most depositors are happy for these to be disposed of, but some want them returned. Terms and conditions should always be set out in a deposit agreement so that any future confusion or disputes can be avoided. Unfortunately in the past the need to make sure a deposit agreement was in place was not always taken so seriously, and the paperwork for older collections can be vague or missing. The longer the time since a collection was deposited, the more likely it is that the legal status will be uncertain. It is also more likely that contact will have been lost with a depositor. Inevitably many collections will now be “owned” by defunct organisations or by individuals who died years (or decades) ago. Add to the vagaries of ownership of the records themselves the difficulties of establishing the ownership of copyright and at times an archivist can feel more like a lawyer!
When TV documentaries visit an archive they often show a white gloved archivist or presenter gingerly handling documents. We are often asked by visitors why we do not use gloves to protect our archives. In the UK this has largely become a thing of the past as archives have realised the disadvantages of wearing gloves. Firstly, they actually make it more likely that a document will be damaged because they reduce dexterity. It is easier to turn pages when you can feel what you are doing directly, rather than through a layer of cotton. The other reason is that of practicality. Gloves get dirty quickly and need to be washed or the dirt will be transferred onto other documents – most archives are not likely to have facilities to launder gloves, or the budget to cover the expense of cleaning and replacing them. Hands are very much easier to wash!
Some archives do issue gloves to visitors who wish to look at photographs, which are more sensitive to the oils in skin and more likely to be damaged by handling. Others will just ask people to handle them carefully by the edges and avoid touching the image. Providing suitable supports or weights, careful supervision, and encouraging gentle handling all help to protect documents without needing to worry about gloves.
I have already talked about the genealogy resources that can be found at an archive. In this post I am going to turn to local history resources and look at the items that might typically be available for researching the history of a village (or a town or city, or other location not beginning with V!). These include:
- Ordnance Survey maps
- Valuation maps and related records
- Enclosure maps and awards – these are an extraordinary resource showing how a parish was reorganised when the common fields were divided into individual allotments, often in the late 18th or early 19th centuries. New roads and footpaths were often introduced at the same time.
- Tithe maps and awards – where these exist for a village they show the layout as it was in the 1830s, along with the identity of the landowners and occupiers.
- Parish records, which may include information about Church buildings, rectories and vicarages, lands owned by the Church, local charities, and early education, as well as decisions taken by parish officials.
- Parish council records – these relate to the civil parish rather than the ecclesiastical parish which is run by a parochial church council (PCC). Parish councils deal with the nitty gritty of village life: their role includes maintaining local facilities such as playgrounds and parks, organising local events, and commenting on planning applications.Parish council minutes will often include information about a wide variety of matters of local interest.
- School log books are not only a source for the history of a school, they can also provide information about local events and other matters relating to the village (or town) as a whole.
- Local newspapers often included regular village news columns.
- Trade directories list local businesses, ranging from shops and public houses to farms and craftsmen.
- Estate maps and records can be rich sources where part of a parish was owned by a major landowner.
- Sale particulars describe both individual properties and substantial estates, often in considerable detail.
Many of the records which are useful for researching genealogy also provide useful information for local historians.For example, censuses show the main sources of employment, and court records show the extent and type of crime in a village (and the main culprits! Every village is different, so while there are many common sources, each will also have its own unique records.
I have already talked about some of the odder items found in our archive, so in this post I am just going to share some Unusual Archives news stories:
- In 2011 a reader at the UK National Archives got more than he bargained for when the file he ordered contained packets of heroin along with a document sent from the British Consulate in Cairo in 1928.
- The National Archives of Australia are baffled as to why their collections include a letter flown out of Paris by balloon while the city was besieged by the Prussians in 1870.
- A miniature and rather chewed archive of miscellaneous small slips of paper was found in birds’ nests in the roof of a Russian cathedral near Moscow.
And two unusual documents which were not found in archives, but are likely to end up in them:
While genealogists and local historians generally know about archives and happy to make use of them, there is a wider public out there who are missing out on all our lovely documents. One of the interesting challenges for archivists is to find ways of engaging people who may not know we exist, have no idea what we have to offer, or who assume that archives are exclusive and only for “proper” researchers. As we have to do this on little or no budget, we have to be quite creative. Last year, for example, we organised a “treasure hunt”, where people used documents relating to some prominent town centre buildings to solve clues and find the location of hidden treasure on a map. Another current project is a series of workshops at which participants are using archives as inspiration for textile artworks which will be displayed in a touring exhibition.
A quick look around the internet shows the variety of outreach events put on by archives and local history centres. If time and distance were no object you could:
If you have an archive nearby take a look at their website – it is likely they will have some interesting events arranged.
Staples and another S, sellotape (meaning generic sticky tape rather than the branded version), are very high up my list of archival irritations. When we receive collections documents have often been stapled together, or torn sections have been patched up with sellotape. Once committee minutes began to be typed rather than handwritten, they were often stuck into minute books with either glue or sellotape, or worst of all, by an unholy trinity of glue, sellotape and staples, just to make absolutely sure they would never fall out. The poor book, meanwhile, is left bulging and cracking at the spine by the extra papers which have been added. Unfortunately old sticky tape often loses its stick and pulls off the page easily, leaving a nasty yellowed mark behind. Sometimes it only becomes loose along part of its length, while the remainder is still stuck firmly to the document. Staples tend to rust, and some old ones will be almost completely crumbled away. Rusty staples are often joined by rusty paper clips.
As you can imagine, all this rusty, sticky mess needs to be sorted out before the documents are put into archival folders and boxed. Staples have to be removed – I have an uneasy relationship with my staple remover as it has a habit of trapping bits of finger along with the staple – and sellotape will be removed where this can be done without damaging the document. Often we will ask the conservator to look at individuals items to make the decision as to whether it is better for their “health” to make the effort to remove sticky tape or glue, or just to leave things as they are. To hold related items together after staples have been removed they can either be put into folded archival paper, or brass paper clips can be used.
Unfortunately photograph albums can be another bugbear. Older albums are rarely of archival quality and photographs will need to be removed if possible. Some “self-stick” album pages unstick over time causing photos to fall out. Hopefully modern scrapbooking techniques, using archival quality paper and card and suitable inks and glues, should make things easier for the archivists of the future.