Tag Archives: Catalogue

New online catalogue released

I’m pleased to announce the launch of the beta version of our new online catalogue. With over a year’s development behind it, and with more to come over the next year, we’re happy to open the new catalogue for use. You can try it by visiting http://bpma.orangeleaf.org.

New description.

New description.

A beta version is not a finished product, but it is at a stage where we want our users to have the opportunity to try it out and to let us know what they think about it. What works and what doesn’t work? What do you really like? What would you change? How can it be improved? These are questions only our users can really answer. We’ve done user-testing amongst our staff and our volunteers, and we’ll be asking visitors to our search room to try it out and tell us what they think – but we’d like your thoughts on how it works both as a research tool and as a way to find out more about our collections.

So let’s outline the key features:

  • New search engine – already tried in a number of archive, museum and gallery catalogues. It returns results based on relevancy, but can also be sorted by title, date and level.
  • Bigger images – over 22,000 images are available and we’ve increased their size so that they’re easier to see. Searches can also be restricted to show only those records which contain images.
New image.

New image.

Old image.

Old image.

  • Faceted categories – the catalogue automatically indexes terms within the records to create categories for results. We can also add specific terms and keywords for indexing purposes.
  • Tags – users can contribute their own keywords to records. We will review these regularly and may add them to the keyword lists in the catalogue.
  • Better tools for navigating archive records – a hierarchical tree which can be navigated at ease, opening up the archive so that viewers can easily see how it is organised.
New hierarchy.

New hierarchy.

Old hierarchy.

Old hierarchy.

There is still work to be done on the beta catalogue before it can replace our existing catalogue. Images for some records are missing, and the advanced search tools need further work to make them function fully. We also need to develop the supporting pages that show how the catalogue works and those which highlight aspects of the collection.

There may also be other problems that our testing has yet to uncover, which is where your use of the catalogue can help us. You can report any problems you may find, or suggest improvements to the way it works and looks. Any comments, suggestions or issues about the beta catalogue can be sent to me at catalogue@postalheritage.org.uk.

We will be running the new beta catalogue alongside the current catalogue, allowing users to try both and provide feedback. We will be retiring the old catalogue in July. Over the course of July, we’ll be renewing the links in our website that take viewers to our old catalogue so that they’ll be taken to the new one instead. Please bear with us while this work is undertaken.

The launch of the beta catalogue is only the first phase of a larger development of the catalogue. The next phase will see the testing of document ordering facilities, meaning researchers will be able to request material to the search room in advance of their visit. We’ll also be looking at ways for users to order and receive digitised documents directly from the catalogue. Alongside these major developments we’ll look to enrich the ways in which records are viewed. In particular, we’ll look at how many objects and documents from the collection are related to specific locations (including plans, photographs, objects and other documents) and test ways of placing them on maps. We’ll also test the delivery of ultra-high resolution images of the best items from our collections and ways of delivering the models of objects created by our 3D scanning project.

-Martin Devereux, Head of Digital

Time to take stock – Curatorial Stocktake 2014

Each year the curatorial team at the BPMA block out time in our diaries to focus on auditing our collections and collections management activities. This year we undertook what we call our ‘stocktake’ over two weeks in January.

The cornerstone of stocktake is our audit, which takes three forms:

  • The ‘random’ audit – this is auditing 25 objects which are selected through the use of random number generators from nearly 20,000 catalogue records
  • A detailed audit of one particular group of objects within our collection
  • An oral history audit

Undertaking these audits ensures that our collections management procedures, such as location and movement control, are properly implemented throughout the rest of the year.

Our vehicle collection at our store in Essex.

Some of the larger objects at our store in Essex.

For the random audit, two members of staff have to go to each location recorded on the catalogue record, and check that the object is as in situ, and as described. These objects can be in any of our storage sites, or out on loan. The objects this year ranged from umbrellas to handstamps. Despite one location discrepancy, all objects were located, and our collections management system CALM was updated with improved descriptions.

Lamp Boxes

For the detailed collections audit, this year was the turn of the lamp boxes – in previous years we have audited our silverware, medals, and weapons.

Here, every lamp box catalogue entry had to be checked against the corresponding objects in our store. We took all of our lamp boxes down from their shelves in the museum store so we could measure and weigh them, and examine in more detail.

Curator Emma measures the lamp boxes

Curator Emma measures a lamp box aperture

This audit highlighted that one box had been incorrectly numbered – that is two catalogue numbers had been given to the same box some years previously. We carefully checked our accessions register and earlier collections listings and consulted with our collections sub-committee before reaching this conclusion. We also identified some outstanding disposals of lamp boxes that were duplicates of items already in the collection, and in poor condition. These had been marked for disposal after a thorough collections review several years ago, but had not been progressed any further. These boxes will now be disposed of in accordance with our deaccession and disposal procedures.

Lamp boxes at our store in Essex.

Correctly labelled lamp boxes at our store in Essex.

We re-ordered the boxes so they are chronologically stored, relabelled each one with its number so it is clearly identifiable, and gave them a clean too. We have three lamp boxes on display in our Museum of the Post Office in the Community which will be audited soon on our next visit.

Oral Histories

Did you know that we also actively collect oral histories, related to the history of the mail service? We also check these as part of stocktake, donning our headphones to check they are located correctly and that no strange gremlins have corrupted the files.

Other work undertaken in stocktake included:

  • A review of approximately 100 items collected in 2010 from the now closed Twickenham delivery and sorting office, making disposal and accession decisions
  • Ensuring all collections records accurately reflected disposals of furniture undertaken in the past
  • An audit of all loans out; that is loans we make to other places, and updating of loan records and calendars
  • Preparation of the hard copy 2013 Accession Register, a requirement of SPECTRUM standard, by our UCL Museum Studies intern
  • Checking all of our removal slips to make sure that any discrepancies in locations (between where CALM says the object is, and where it actually is!) is identified and recitifed

With all of the other essential demands on our time during this fortnight – from returning loans such as the mail coach, to delivering talks and articles and facilitating filming requests – stocktake was a very busy time!

-Vyki Sparkes, Curator

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)

Discovering a Slice of London Life

After last month’s archive stocktake, I’ve returned to my ongoing cataloguing project. Today I’ll tell you about a terrific discovery I made on the repository shelves.

Matt inspects the record books in the BPMA Search Room.

Matt inspects the record books in the BPMA Search Room.

This is a set of four record books. Three are from the 1930s, while the fourth covers 1941-1956. They’re not labelled with ownership details but, after studying the contents and cross-referencing with other archives in our collections, I believe they originated from the South West (SW) London District Office, which was in Victoria Street at that time.

The books were used to keep records on the sub-post offices in the SW London District. As you may already know, there are two main kinds of post offices in Britain: crown offices directly managed by the Post Office, and sub-post offices operated by independent businesspeople under contract from the Post Office.

The books are divided into many sections, headed with each sub-post office’s address. The three 1930s volumes cover the entire District between them, while the 1940s volume is a partial continuation. Confusingly, the contents aren’t all arranged alphabetically!

Selected addresses from the record books. Clockwise from top left: 15 Gloucester Road, later number 17 (POST 22/385); 226 Wandsworth Road (POST 22/387); Victoria Station (POST 22/388); 56 Brixton Road (POST 22/386). Centre: Harrods (POST 22/385).

Selected addresses from the record books. Clockwise from top left: 15 Gloucester Road, later number 17 (POST 22/385); 226 Wandsworth Road (POST 22/387); Victoria Station (POST 22/388); 56 Brixton Road (POST 22/386). Centre: Harrods (POST 22/385).

What makes these books a treasure is the staggering amount of detail. There are notes of customer complaints, audit records, specifics of equipment installed, and particulars of disciplinary cases. Every note is dated. This is what you’d expect from the central supervision of agents carrying out work for the General Post Office. But there’s so much more.

Sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses often performed postal work alongside another business. The volumes record precise details of any interruptions in postal work. The main motivation was to monitor revenue, but the notes also reflect SW London’s changing streets. The record below is a good example:

Record of post office at 412 Brixton Road being damaged by a bomb on 16 April 1941. (POST 22/388)

Record of post office at 412 Brixton Road being damaged by a bomb on 16 April 1941. (POST 22/388)

This note states that the 412 Brixton Road office was damaged by a bomb on 16 April 1941, and reopened at new premises in the local Bon Marché store. There are also records of crimes at sub-post offices, often including dates when staff were absent to attend the ensuing identity parades and police court sessions. Take a look at the note below:

Report of a foiled break-in. (POST 22/388)

Report of a foiled break-in. (POST 22/388)

This brief report of a foiled break-in is notable for giving the full name of the lady who was living above the office! We can glimpse here the locality that the office served. Often the addresses of customers who complained are also recorded.

Finally, there’s genealogical information. Dated records were kept of sickness absence and compassionate leave taken by sub-postmasters and sub-post mistresses. Whenever an office transferred to a new sub-postmaster, the exact handover date and the departing sub-postmaster’s new home address were recorded. There are also family stories:

Note recording the date and time of the death of the Streatham Hill sub-postmaster's death. (POST 22/386)

Note recording the date and time of the death of the Streatham Hill sub-postmaster’s death. (POST 22/386)

This note records the date (and time!) of the Streatham Hill sub-postmaster’s death. His son was acting sub-postmaster for a few months, then his widow took over the business. All these records were kept for purely business reasons, but the research uses are so much wider than that.

Hopefully, similar records for other areas will be discovered. As I catalogued the record books, I wrote a searchable index of all the sub-offices listed in the notes, with their respective sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses. This will appear on our online catalogue in the coming months.

Our new website launches

Our new website is now live at www.postalheritage.org.uk. The new website, designed by Mind Unit, boasts a new, more attractive design, and improved presentation of text and images. Content from the old website has been revised, and there are a number of new webpages to discover.

Image Galleries

Many pages on the new website include galleries which offer large display of images. Look out for pages which have square images at the bottom.

Click on any square image to see that image pop-out and appear in full.

Scrolling through image galleries is easy. Move your mouse over the image to reveal the PREV and NEXT buttons. Click these buttons to see the previous or next image in the gallery.

The Collections & Catalogue section of the website boasts a number of pages featuring image galleries. Philatelists and postal historians can view unique stamp artwork and postal markings from our collection in the Stamps & Philately section.

Many of our Online Exhibitions (find these in the Exhibitions & Events section of the website) make use of image galleries too. The Designs on Delivery online exhibition displays a number of GPO posters from 1930-1960 in this way.

British Postal History

A number of articles about aspects of our collection are available in the British Postal History section (under the History & Learning heading). Written by our archivists, curators, cataloguers and expert volunteers, these articles cover topics as diverse as Stamp Design, Internal Postage & Parcel Rates, The Great Train Robbery and Uniforms.

The Uniforms article includes a separate image gallery displaying a variety of illustrations, photographs, coats and hats from our collection.

Online Catalogue

As before, you can still search our Catalogue online. With over 95,000 records available there’s bound to be something of interest. Click the Online Catalogue button on the Collections & Catalogue page to start searching.

The Collections & Catalogue section also allows you to browse a number of topic areas and view selected examples from our collections.

Share the Website

Want to share something you’ve seen on the new BPMA website? Click on the “Forward To A Friend” button (in the menu on the right) to e-mail the page to a contact, or share the page with friends on Facebook, Twitter or Buzz using the buttons at the bottom of the page.

Future Development

Web technology changes rapidly – and your expectations do too! We’d like to hear your thoughts on how we can make the BPMA website even better.

At the bottom of each page on our website you will find a link to our Site Feedback Form. This easy-to-use form allows you to send your comments to us at any time.

Finally, we’d like to thank those of you who participated in our user testing programme. We received some extremely helpful feedback which will guide the website’s future development.

Wilkinson Secondary Collection and Issues of Disposal

by Emma Harper, Cataloguer (Collections) 

You may have noticed that since my last blog around 850 objects from the Wilkinson Collection have been added to our online catalogue. These are the objects that I have been cataloguing in the past months; however, these are not the full extent of the collection. In the case of the Wilkinson collection we thought that the sheer size of the collection meant that it was unlikely we would catalogue every single object. Moreover, as I have stressed throughout my blogs, the collection is very diverse and contains things that were often not directly relevant to our collecting policy. For this reason we decided to catalogue what we saw as the core of the Wilkinson collection, the model letter boxes and vehicles, which could also include some of the more ‘popular’ items such as the Postman Pat objects. Which begs the question, what have we done with the rest?

This Coronation Street tea-towel was disposed of as it is not directly relevant to the collection.

This Coronation Street tea-towel was disposed of as it is not directly relevant to the collection.

Over 1000 objects have been kept at what we are calling a ‘Secondary Collection’ level. These are objects which we do not consider are the ‘core’ of the collection, things that Ian Wilkinson began to collect later on in his life, rather than those objects that were the original inspiration for the collection. These include items such as mugs, plates, books, badges, key-rings, and ephemera such as birthday and greeting cards. All of these objects have some reference to the postal world on them, even if it was sometimes a challenge to find them!

Information is still recorded about these objects, such as a description of the object (including any defining features), measurements and their present location. However, instead of cataloguing them on the database, this material is kept in the object history file and electronically on our computer system. As a result, if anyone does want to see any of the objects in the secondary collection we can initially provide them with information about the object and, if they want to, arrange for them to view the object itself. This system gives us as a museum much more flexibility. Whilst we will obviously still care for the objects to the same standard as if they were catalogued, we can be a little freer with their use. They can, and hopefully will, be used as a handling collection, and in education sessions, to give people a wider experience of museum objects without them or us worrying as much about damage or breakages.

A model letter box that has been disposed of due to it’s condition.

A model letter box that has been disposed of due to it’s condition.

As a result, the Secondary Collection not only includes those items that are less relevant but also some objects that fall into the core groups but are not in quite as good condition. Condition of an object is an important issue to consider when cataloguing objects. Some materials can deteriorate quickly and actually affect the condition of other objects as they do so. As a result, some objects, if they were severely damaged, or deteriorating and would continue to do so at a rapid pace, would not be catalogued and would instead be disposed of.

Throughout the museum sector there is a strong presumption against disposal. However, it is recognised that in some circumstances disposal is the sensible option for the benefit of the museum collection as a whole, as well as the individual object. In the past museums have often collected anything and everything without any clear idea of why or how they can benefit the museum. This has often led to problems of space and stretched resources. Nowadays, museums are much more aware of these problems and put in place measures to ensure that nothing is collected or kept that cannot be properly cared for, or might damage other objects in the collection.

The BPMA’s ‘Acquisition and Disposal’ policy states that ‘Material will not usually be acquired if identical, or significantly similar, items already exist in the Collections’ and that ‘Existing collections [eg. Wilkinson collection] will be subject to regular professional reviews to ensure they are in line with [this] current collecting policy.’

This letter box candle was disposed of as the material – wax – could be harmful to other objects in the collection.

This letter box candle was disposed of as the material – wax – could be harmful to other objects in the collection.

It is this review process that I have been carrying out as I have catalogued the Wilkinson Collection. Many of the objects in the collection were duplicated either within the Wilkinson Collection itself, or occasionally in the wider BPMA collection. When I found a duplicated object I would get both objects out of the store to compare their condition. If one was in a worse condition than the other, for example, in the case of the model letter boxes, if one was more scratched or the paint work was peeling, then I would put that object to one side to consult with the curator what the next step should be.

Once a decision had been made as to whether an object should be disposed of, all relevant information about the item is recorded: this includes a description of the object, whether copyright is known; measurements are taken and the object is photographed. All of this information is stored physically in the Wilkinson collection’s history file, and electronically on our computers, like the Secondary Collection. As you can see, the disposal process is very similar to the cataloguing one. This way, we still have a lot of the information about the object but the condition and/or material of the object is not a threat to the collection.