I’m Matt Tantony, and I joined the BPMA as Project Archivist in February this year. Since then, I’ve been spending almost every day underground in our repository, delving into boxes to uncover records that may have been unseen for years. Most archives have backlogs of material that, due to time constraints, is uncatalogued. In my year-long post I’ll be roaming The Royal Mail Archive, cataloguing the unseen records one section at a time.
Each section’s cataloguing backlog lies in alluringly blank boxes in the repository. Every time I open a new box, I have no idea what I’ll find inside. It could be bound volumes, photographs, or a mountain of papers. It could even be computer data! My first task is to identify what each individual record actually is, when and where it originated, and what it can tell us. It’s rather like archaeology, although there’s usually documentation from the original transfer to the Archive to help me.
This randomly-selected box from the backlog contains over a dozen letter sorting manuals from different eras:
A month later, I’ve surveyed every box, and I’ve generated a vast database containing several hundred records’ details. Next, I puzzle out how to combine the newly-catalogued records and the existing ones into an easily navigable order in the catalogue. Archivists are trained to work to a single international standard that groups related records together into a kind of tree structure, often based on the structure of the organisation that produced them. I give each record a unique finding number, which is what our visitors use to request items for consultation in the Search Room.
I also need to repackage the records. We use specialist packaging materials, including those ever-present acid-free folders tied up with tape, to prolong the lifespan of archives. After my database is uploaded to our collections software, my colleagues and I spend several coffee-fuelled days proof-reading every word, before it’s published to the online catalogue for everyone to use. Then it’s onto the next section of the Archive and the process starts again!
The BPMA is working to tackle its cataloguing backlog, bringing thousands of records into the light, and making even more of our nation’s postal history available to everyone. I’ll be blogging here every few weeks, to keep you updated on my progress and to share the records I’ve uncovered.