Wednesday, 5 October 2016

The nature of the job: surveying the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust archive

Most of the boxes of the YWT archive;
we've since added a few more!

So, I'm about halfway through the 12 months of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust archive project - and what a six months it's been! The time is going quickly; summer was filled with continuing the survey of deposited material, drafting and re-drafting an archival structure and finishing off my Masters in Archives and Records Management at the University of Dundee. Now the Autumn has rolled around again and the new academic year is here, I wanted to give a quick update on the progress of the project so far and what's yet to come. I'm intending to do a few related posts, which you can explore through the labels at the bottom of the page - clicking either 'Yorkshire Wildlife Trust' or 'new professional' should show all the project-related posts - that will outline the more practical side of the project. This is the first in that series and is going to look at how I, as a newly qualified archivist, have approached surveying what is a large and complex archive.
I began my project by reviewing the box lists that were supplied when the material was accessioned. This gave me an idea of how varied the material is, as well as getting a handle on its original order. I then went to have a look at it on the shelves in the strongroom (left). This really brought home what just over 3.5m3 of archive looks like! For the most part, the material had been repackaged when it arrived so it was all neatly wrapped and divided in archival folders.

Boxed and unboxed files in the strongroom.
I decided to have a look at a couple of what I thought would be key files before I started the proper survey and I selected some of the foundation papers of the organisation, including correspondence from just before and just after the Trust was established, as well as the minutes of their first meeting. I also had a look at some of the unpackaged material relating to Askham Bog, which was the Trust's first reserve. This not only gave me insight into the post-war context in which the Trust was established but also gave me key names of the founding members - among them Arnold Rowntree and Francis Terry - and an idea of how the original Council thought the organisation would be structured. Examining the reserve files was a further step in understanding not only the sort of information likely to be found in the files - from scientific recordings of the habitat and species present, to photographs, through to independent research about the site - but also how the files were put together.
Askham Bog environmental data, 1933. 
I wanted to use the survey phase of the project to achieve several key objectives. Firstly, to get a good understanding of the material and how it fits together to intellectually represent a whole organisation. Secondly, to make a note of the content of each file: the types of records it contained, key topics covered by the file, significant correspondents and covering dates which will all be useful in describing the file at a later stage of the project. Thirdly, to gain an understanding of how the file was put together: did it have an intellectual order, was it structured around physical or practical constraints such as the size of the folder or the capacity of a filing cabinet drawer, who generated or collated the material and for what purpose. Fourthly, as both a new professional and as an outsider to the Wildlife Trust, to build up my knowledge of the depth and breadth of the archive.
A page of notes from my survey of
material on Bretton Lakes
Although only eight weeks were allocated to this phase of the project in the original project plan, I decided to take a little longer to do a more detailed survey concurrently with some structuring and describing of records (more of the latter in a future post). As the project was designed to describe the archive to file level, I needed to ensure I had enough information to create a usefully detailed description which could convey the right information to researchers - information to which they wouldn't have access otherwise.

I have worked in what I suppose is a pretty analogue way, filling four notepads as I've gone along and then reappraising what I've written as I type it into a master spreadsheet. From there, I've been able to move files around and to separate different levels of the archive out for further examination. This phase of the project is coming to an end now and I will be continuing with the final tweaks to the structure of the archive and starting to describe the records in our online interface, Borthcat. Whilst it will be refreshing to move from leafing through files to adding to our online catalogue, I'll miss discovering lots of little snippets, and discussing them with my (very patient!) colleagues. I have been adding some of these to Twitter and Facebook as I've gone along, and I'm sure there'll be more to come as I finish the last few boxes this week.

Lydia Dean
Project Archivist

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