Tag Archives: archivists

Cataloguing archives, in four very easy steps

If you’ve browsed our archive catalogue, you may have found it rather different to, say, one you’ve used in a library. In this blog post, I’m going to explain a little of how archivists worldwide create catalogues.

What’s unusual about archive catalogues is that they aren’t flat lists. Instead, they have multiple levels. If you look at our POST 22 catalogue, for example, you’ll see that it’s arranged like a tree with branches at different levels. This hierarchy is part of the General International Standard Archival Description, to which many archivists work worldwide. A typical archive catalogue has four main levels. In descending order, they are: FONDS – SERIES – FILE – ITEM. Here’s how they work.

Matt describes the archive as a whole (the fonds).

Matt describes the archive as a whole (the fonds).

In this picture, my trolley holds an imaginary archive that I’ve just received. There are many boxes containing hundreds of records. Reading them all would take weeks. It would, however, be helpful for researchers (and staff) to get a general overview of the entire archive: how much of it there is; who created it and when; the kinds of information within it. My catalogue, therefore, would start with a single description of the archive as a whole. UK archivists often call this whole unit the fonds (a French word that means accumulation, related to the English ‘fund’).

Matt describes a grouping of related records (a series) within the fonds.

Matt describes a grouping of related records (a series) within the fonds.

One level down, I’d divide the fonds into groupings of related records. In the picture above, I’ve chosen one box as the first grouping. I would try to provide useful distinctions for researchers, but also to preserve the existing arrangement of records within the fonds. Some archive services classify records by the departments or offices that produced them, others employ functional distinctions. However it’s done, the entire fonds gets subdivided into multiple groupings, which archivists call series. Like with the fonds, my catalogue would include descriptions of each series’ extent, scope and content. At the BPMA, series are called POST classes; many are divided into sub-series.

Matt describes a single set of papers (a file) within the series.

Matt describes a single set of papers (a file) within the series.

On the lowest levels, I’d describe every individual record within each series. In the picture above, for example, I’ve picked out from my imaginary series a single folder of photographs to describe. These are the file-level descriptions. In archivist-speak, a file is a discrete group of documents that were kept, created or used for a specific purpose.

Matt describes a single photograph (an item) within the file.

Matt describes a single photograph (an item) within the file.

It’s possible to go one level further down and catalogue each separate item within a file. These are called item-level descriptions. It’s not always necessary to do this, but it can be done. In the picture above, I’ve started describing the individual photographs that form the file. We could also identify a single book, document or image as an item because they can’t be subdivided any further.

What I’ve done, ultimately, is to describe the whole archive several times over. At each descending level, I’ve described smaller and smaller bits of the archive, in increasing detail. The resulting catalogue has a tree structure. It lets researchers zoom in on the parts of the archive they’re interested in, without losing track of those parts’ evidential and informational relationships to the whole. Think of it like a collapsible map of the archive, telling you its physical and intellectual geography.

This diagram shows how catalogue descriptions at different levels fit together to form the tree. Numbers of series, files and items always vary in practice.

This diagram shows how catalogue descriptions at different levels fit together to form the tree. Numbers of series, files and items always vary in practice.

What I’ve discussed here is an ideal-world scenario. Archives often aren’t neat or easily divisible, and may actually be collections of material from different sources. There’s also the possibility of future deposits. But working towards a shared international standard, as archivists do, means that we can all contribute to a project over time. It also means catalogues can be shared online with other archive services in the UK and abroad.

There’s a whole lot more to cataloguing than this. But I hope that this introduction begins to explain why we do what we do, and how it works. If you have any questions about archival work, I’ll happily try to answer them.

– Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

192,000 postmen’s inside legs, and other measurements in the Archive

In last month’s cataloguing update I wrote about the London sub-post office record books I’d discovered in the Archive. Since then I’ve been cataloguing records from the area of our collections devoted to the sorting and circulation of inland mail (POST 17 in the catalogue). I’ve added nearly 130 files to the catalogue this month, and edited existing descriptions for hundreds more. The records cover subjects like mail sorting machinery, the development of postcodes, and all kinds of technical details – some of them slightly odd. Here are some of my favourites.

POST 17/482 is a 1969 engineer’s study entitled Measurements of Postmen. The aim was to improve sorting office machinery ergonomics by finding out the average size of a British postman. The heights, arm lengths, and outside and inside leg measurements of thousands of postmen were collected and studied – there were 192,000 measurements for the legs! Getting all those postmen to proffer their legs for the engineer would have been an impossible (and traumatic) challenge. Instead, he studied all the sizes of uniforms ordered that year, to everyone’s benefit and, one suspects, relief.

Matt contemplates the awesome 1969 undertaking to collect and study 192,000 postmen’s inside leg measurements.

Matt contemplates the awesome 1969 undertaking to collect and study 192,000 postmen’s inside leg measurements.

On the subject of measurements, I spent several days cataloguing three large sets of engineering standard drawings from the 1970s and 1980s (POST 17/533-535). The drawings – over 450 in total – cover all aspects of automated mail sorting and circulation: conveyor belts, facing tables, coding desks, chutes, signage, even Morris delivery vans.

Two excerpts from a set of engineering standard drawings: a view of a retractable parcel chute (left) and an operational diagram of a packet storage hopper (right). (POST 17/533)

Two excerpts from a set of engineering standard drawings: a view of a retractable parcel chute (left) and an operational diagram of a packet storage hopper (right). (POST 17/533)

These standards contain the official dimensions of equipment to be manufactured for Royal Mail, including explanations of the jobs they were intended to do. In the case of postal vehicles, the standards go as far as specifying the turning circles of each model. Combined with the reports, brochures and technical specifications found elsewhere in POST 17, there’s a vast amount of information here for anyone interested in recent postal mechanisation developments.

There are also records dating back to the very early days of postal mechanisation. One of my favourite discoveries was a little book that was used between 1907 and 1930 to record staff suggestions for improving the mail handling process.

Several entries in the inventions and suggestions index. (POST 17/523)]

Several entries in the inventions and suggestions index. (POST 17/523)]

Sometimes staff put forward inventions, and the notes include technical sketches, such as the entry above for a time-saving rolling date stamp. The entries sometimes record whether the suggestions were taken forward. Some are appealingly optimistic, such as the 1909 idea of asking the public to tie their Christmas cards into bundles of ten or more before posting them. Other innovations seem like second nature today. The example below is a 1924 suggestion: envelopes with transparent address windows.*

Envelopes with windows, suggested in 1924. (POST 17/523)

Envelopes with windows, suggested in 1924. (POST 17/523)

I hope my unscientific little selection of examples from a single theme shows the incredible variety of material you can consult in our Search Room. Some of the files I catalogued this month, including records from the creation of the postcode system, can’t be opened for another few years. This is due to the 20-year rule governing public records. But cataloguing them now ensures they’ll be ready and waiting in their archive boxes when the time comes to open them.

As for the Measurements of Postmen, studying 192,000 orders for trousers found the average postman’s inside leg measurement in 1969 to be 30.2 inches. The average British postman was determined to be two inches shorter than his American equivalent.

Cumulative relative frequency of postmen’s leg measurements, 1969. (POST 17/482)

Cumulative relative frequency of postmen’s leg measurements, 1969. (POST 17/482)

All these files and more will be published to our online catalogue in the coming months.

– Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

* Sadly this wasn’t an original idea, according to Wikipedia Americus F. Callahan of Chicago, Illinois, in the United States, received the first patent for a windowed envelope on 10 June 1902.

Stock-take 2013

Our more regular users may have noticed that we have been closed for two weeks during May for our annual stock-take; an important housekeeping exercise that allows us to focus on tasks we find difficult to fit in during the normal course of the year.

I may speak only for myself in describing stock-take as an almost therapeutic experience (‘housekeeping’ may not be everyone’s cup of tea), but carrying out audits, weeding out duplicate material, and boxing and listing uncatalogued material are all necessary tasks, requiring a methodical approach and producing gratifying results.

Auditing Second Review files.

Auditing Second Review files.

Archives Assistant, Penny McMahon, assisting with the Second Review audit and reboxing.

Archives Assistant, Penny McMahon, assisting with the Second Review audit and reboxing.

It was a successful stock-take, with a number of tasks being completed. These included the much needed creation of more space in our repository by reorganising shelves, and the auditing of ‘second-review’ material (we are gradually undertaking a process whereby records that have not been archived, and which are more than 25 years old, undergo an appraisal of their historical value and retention needs). In addition, a number of boxes of miscellaneous material were appraised (always an interesting foraging exercise), photographic negatives of GPO/PostOffice/Royal Mail posters were digitised for our online catalogue, and a large number of records from our Museum Store at Debden were relocated to the Royal Mail Archive at Freeling House.

Ultimately, our stock-take work is aimed at making our archive collections more accessible to the public by accounting for records, getting them in order, and then on to our catalogue. These processes are all the more important in light of our move to Calthorpe House, planned for 2015.

POST 110/3084, c.1980s - Poster scanned for archive catalogue

POST 110/3084, c.1980s – Poster scanned for archive catalogue

POST 110/2746, c.1989 - Poster scanned for archive catalogue

POST 110/2746, c.1989 – Poster scanned for archive catalogue

POST 110/2813, c.1946 - Poster scanned for archive catalogue.

POST 110/2813, c.1946 – Poster scanned for archive catalogue.

Stock-take is beneficial not only to the efficient functioning of our archives, but also to staff, in providing a break from normal routine and ongoing projects. It also allows staff to work with unfamiliar areas of the collections, and to re-engage with the grass roots of the archives, the records themselves! Indeed, being an archivist doesn’t necessarily mean that you spend your time poring over old records since much of the process of maintaining an archive is also administrative.

One of the major benefits I derive from stock-take is acquainting myself with areas of our archives with which I have little contact (being a primarily cataloguing archivist, I tend to work on specific collections). The most entertaining find I came across was a 1998 Royal Mail good practice guide on ‘Dealing with Dog Attacks’!, covering ‘ultrasonic dog deterrent devices’ (‘not to be directed at humans’) and listing goats and geese as animals to potentially ‘ferocious’ animals! Obviously less amusing when you acknowledge that it was a serious guide for a genuine threat to postmen (626 of whom suffered serious dog bites in 1997 alone).

Staff guide on dealing with dog attacks, 1998.

Staff guide on dealing with dog attacks, 1998.

Given that there are always records to be appraised, sorted and catalogued, and a long list of preparations we need to make for our move to our new home in 2015/16, there will be plenty of work to get our teeth stuck into in next year’s stock-take, and I gladly hand the baton over to the next willing coordinator!

– Anna Flood, Archivist (Cataloguing)

The Post Office in Pictures and the BPMA Photography Collection

BPMA’s Digital Content Development Manager Martin Devereux gave a talk in June as part of our photography exhibition The Post Office in Pictures. This talk is now available to download for free as a podcast.

The talk looks at the foundation of the General Post Office Photograph Library in the 1930s, its subsequent development and re-establishment when the Post Office became a statutory corporation in 1969, through to its closure in the 1990s. The Photograph Library’s contents are now part of BPMA’s archive collection (aka the Royal Mail Archive), and in recent years Martin and other members of BPMA staff have been working to make the photographs more accessible.

Cow of Knockcloghrim - A photographer working for The Post Office Magazine in the 1930s tried to make this photo of the village post office more exciting by posing a cow which was grazing nearby in the foreground. Unfortunately the cow kept moving out of shot, hence this rather unimpressive result.

Cow of Knockcloghrim – A photographer working for The Post Office Magazine in the 1930s tried to make this photo of the village post office more exciting by posing a cow which was grazing nearby in the foreground. Unfortunately the cow kept moving out of shot, hence this rather unimpressive result.

You can find the photos dotted about our website, available to browse on our online catalogue, and uploaded to social network sites such as Flickr and History Pin. The photos have also found new lives as greetings cards and print-on-demand products, and been used in several of BPMA’s recent exhibitions including Designs on Delivery, Empire Mail and, of course, The Post Office in Pictures.

In his talk Martin Devereux discusses some of his favourite images from The Post Office in Pictures exhibition and the wider collection, and tells some of the stories behind them.

Noel Edmonds promoting television licensing via a helicopter.

Noel Edmonds promoting television licensing via a helicopter.

Download The Post Office in Pictures and the BPMA Photography Collection podcast for free from www.postalheritage.org.uk/podcast.