Wednesday 23 November 2016

The Nature of the Job II: Structuring the archive of Yorkshire Wildlife Trust

In my last blog about my project cataloguing the archive of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, I wrote about how I got started with the survey of this archive. In this instalment, I'll be writing about my experiences in developing a structure for the archive, why it's important and how it'll translate to our online catalogue, Borthcat

Trying my hand at some slip listing for the Skipwith Common files.
From the very beginning of the project, I was aware of how vital it was for the structure of the archive to be right. The organisation was (and still is) a complex one and I want the structure of the archive to convey a sense of the wider scheme of the Trust's business, allowing users to contextualise, through their interrelationship, the individual records they look for. Of course this applies to all archives, but particularly so in this project for a number of reasons. Firstly, the archive is still very a much a living repository of information - it is actively consulted by YWT staff as part of ongoing legal and campaign work and there are regular accruals of new material. This means that the records themselves are not necessarily going to be in our physical custody and in turn means that the intellectual control we have over these records needs to be robust. Secondly, aside from the additional deposits of archival material already received, the Trust continues to dynamically develop and so the structure needs to make allowances for future growth. Thirdly, (and perhaps a little intimidatingly for me!) at the time of writing, no other Wildlife Trust in the UK has deposited archival material in such quantities in a public repository so it is hoped that this project will provide a model for any future Trusts in arranging their archives.

The beginnings of a structure!
So while the latter makes Yorkshire Wildlife Trust unique in both the scope of its archival material and its public availability, it also means that there aren't any parallel organisations for me to reference in structuring this archive. So I was relying on a number of sources in developing the scheme - first and foremost my own research into the records themselves, then the excellent published history in Tim Sands' book 'Wildlife in Trust: A hundred years of nature conservation' and then on the living memory of the organisation in the shape of members and trustees, some of whom form part of the board monitoring and supporting this project.

Using survey notes to identify links between files.
Here, minutes copied and sent to Executive Committee
As an organisation, YWT has changed over its 70 year life, shifting from an amateur conservation body in 1946 to a professional campaigning organisation. Alongside this have come numerous administrative changes, all impacting on how records were accumulated by the organisation. Luckily, these changes have been well documented (for the most part) and so I was able to get a good understanding of the provenance of the archive. These records of change were a useful point of reference for me in developing my structure, as were the numerous references to now obsolete filing systems - often filed by the initials of the person generating the correspondence, with date and document references, and then by an increasingly complex system of alphanumeric codes. I used these to give me an understanding of how committees, departments and individuals interacted with one another, as well as documenting the links between the centralised functions of the Trust and the vital operational work carried out all over Yorkshire by volunteer committees.

I started working on the structure of the archive at the same time as surveying the records. I've worked iteratively, and initially worked on the overarching structure of the archive. I'm now on the fourth (and hopefully final!) version which incorporates 7 subfonds covering the foundation of the Trust, its governance, administration, liaison work, conservation records and campaigns. The seventh subfonds, and the one I'll focus on here, is the one covering the sites associated with the Trust. The majority of the material in the archive relates to the sites that the Trust has owned, managed and advised on and each site has anywhere between 1 and 70 files including environmental records, management records and research into each site.
I decided to move away from slip listing and started to use a piece of
mind mapping software. Above: working copy of Skipwith Common version 3!

I started the process using the files of Skipwith Common, which is no longer a Trust reserve, but which was one of the first sites whose records I surveyed. My first, uncertain, attempt at a structure split the files into three subsubsubfonds (!) but I felt that this structure was too generic to really reflect with accuracy the unique and complex nature of the ecology and management of each site. This became increasingly apparent as I tried to apply this structure to more sites. I decided to go back to the drawing board and began to work on a different structure, which even as I started it, felt much better in tune with the nature of the records. A good lesson in going with your gut feeling, even as a new professional!

This overall structure will well reflect the types of records that are present in the archive as well as the symbiotic relationship between the ecology of each site and its stewardship. Further, although loosely based on the same framework, the records of each site will have their own individual structures according to the records that are deposited. 

Sneak peek at how the records for Askham Bog will look on our online catalogue

But how will it look online? This structure looks lovely and clear on paper (at least to me!) but will appear very differently through our online catalogue. Above you can see a sneak peek of the entry for Askham Bog as it currently stands, although before it's published there will be more information added and probably a different iteration of AtoM too! I'll be adding the descriptions of each file very soon and I'll be blogging about that process in the next instalment of this series. For now, I'll continue to add files to my skeletal framework and to refine the structure, adding new levels as more information comes to light. It's really exciting to see it finally taking shape and emerging from my sea of drafts!

Lydia Dean
Project Archivist

You can follow updates on this project via Twitter, Facebook and this blog. Please do get in touch with any questions or comments and I'll be happy to help! 

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