Tag Archives: cataloguing

A Project Archivist Farewell

I’ve just completed my final task as Project Archivist: appraising and cataloguing a vast deposit of records on the Army Postal Service (APS). The files focus mainly on the Royal Engineers Postal Section (REPS) and its successors, and date from before the First World War to the 1970s. I’ve catalogued nearly 500 files, volumes, photographic collections and plans.

Matt presents a small selection of the Army Postal Service files he's been cataloguing.

Matt presents a small selection of the Army Postal Service files he’s been cataloguing.

There have been challenges along the way. I’ve had to battle an onslaught of Armed Forces vocabulary:  being able to tell a sitrep from a sapper was essential, and woe betide an archivist who confused the DAPS with a WOLO.* My geographical knowledge has also been tested: the deposit included files on British and Allied Forces’ postal arrangements in India, North Africa, the Middle East and Far East, with many locations identified by their old colonial names. The most unexpected item was a manual from an Army post office in Kiribati!

The deposit’s greatest strength is its rich insight into the APS during the Second World War and its aftermath. Virtually every theatre of operations is covered. There are Directorate-level files on postal arrangements during the Siege of Malta (POST 47/1034), the Battle of Madagascar (POST 47/871), the Dunkirk evacuation (POST 47/925) and the D-Day preparations (POST 47/747), to name just four. The handover of postal and telecommunications services to the government of newly-independent India is also documented.

Public confidence in the APS was vitally important during the War. This letter concerns one of many press visits to postal facilities organised by the Armed Forces and the Post Office. [Extract from POST 47/1028.]

Public confidence in the APS was vitally important during the War. This letter concerns one of many press visits to postal facilities organised by the Armed Forces and the Post Office. [Extract from POST 47/1028.]

The files also hold lots of personal stories about the careers of REPS officers. POST 47/780, for example, partly records a falling-out between the APS staff at HQ First Army and Allied Force HQ during the Tunisian Campaign and the interception of ‘artistic’ postcards that were being received by First Army soldiers. And if you ever wanted to know how many bugles were held by the Post Office Cadets at the Home Postal Centre in Nottingham in 1947, POST 47/942 will tell you.**

A list of band parts on loan to the Post Office Cadets in 1947, attached to a letter concerning a shortage of bugles. [Extract from POST 47/942.]

A list of band parts on loan to the Post Office Cadets in 1947, attached to a letter concerning a shortage of bugles. [Extract from POST 47/942.]

The APS files have been catalogued in POST 47 and 56. The deposit also contained large amounts of non-postal material on the REPS more generally. These have been catalogued as a separate ‘REPS collection’. All these files will appear on our online catalogue in the coming months.

This is the end of my year-long, grant-funded Project Archivist post. I’ve catalogued over 1,500 files from all over the Archive in that time. But I’m not leaving the BPMA! Instead, I’m regenerating into a new incarnation as a catalogue systems archivist. I’ll be doing lots of data-processing work and beta-testing our shiny new online catalogue before it launches later this year. Watch out for an update from me on this blog in the Spring.

– Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

* Sitrep = situation report; sapper = the Royal Engineers’ equivalent to a private; DAPS = Director Army Postal Service; WOLO = War Office Liaison Officer.

** Two (one substandard).

It’s a Project Archivist Christmas

As 2013 comes to a close, I’ve repackaged and catalogued over 1,000 files from the Archive. In this blog post, I’ll share a few of the methods I used to get this historic material processed and available for researchers as quickly as possible.

Project Archivist Matt reflects

Project Archivist Matt reflects on a year’s work.

As I wrote in my introductory post, most if not all archive services have backlogs of material that hasn’t been catalogued due to lack of time or staff. My main role as Project Archivist is to reduce the BPMA’s backlog, one section of the Archive at a time. So far I’ve eliminated four backlogs:

  • Organisation, circulation and sorting of inland mails (POST 17).
  • Post Office counter operations and services (POST 22).
  • Establishment records (POST 59).
  • Public Relations Department, predecessors and successors (POST 108).

Each backlog was composed of hundreds of individual files, ranging from administrative papers to technical plans to visual material like posters and photographs. The files had come into the Archive from many different sources over the past few decades. My task was to repackage and catalogue the files, and find places for them in the BPMA’s existing catalogue structure. I also needed to remove redundant files to free up much-needed repository space. And I wanted to make my descriptions reasonably detailed, to help people search for files in our online catalogue.

The working method I devised, therefore, was based around fast, detailed processing on a file-by-file basis. I had the opportunity to evaluate and refine the method after each backlog was finished. I also familiarised myself with More Product Less Process (MPLP) theory after recommendations from professional colleagues. While I didn’t completely embrace the MPLP approach, I adopted some of its ideas to increase efficiency.

I’m not going to hurl technical details at you, but here are some of the techniques I used to process over 1,000 wildly differing files alongside the other work I do at the BPMA.

1. Get to know the territory: Before starting, I visually inspected the entire backlog to get a rough idea of its extent and anything requiring special conservation treatment. I also collated any existing box lists and accession records, did background research, and compiled a glossary of terms used in file names.

2. Establish basic standards: I adopted a minimum standard of description and repackaging, which could be enhanced if a file warranted it. Any file containing a contents list or executive summary had it copied pretty much verbatim into the catalogue description, while files in stable ring binders were generally not repackaged.

3. Multi-task: I combined appraisal (i.e. deciding if we needed to keep the file), repackaging, physical arrangement and catalogue description into a single integrated process, performed on one file at a time. Intellectual arrangement of files into a catalogue structure was only done after all files had been processed.

4. Use simple, sensible numbering: The BPMA uses two numbering systems. Each file/item has a Finding Number, which is unique, fixed, and used by researchers and staff to retrieve archives for consultation. Files/items also have Reference Numbers, which structure the multi-level archival descriptions I described in this blog post. Reference Numbers aren’t seen by researchers and can be swapped around as often as needed. This is a really great way to do almost all the processing of files without having to worry about exactly where they’ll go in the catalogue.

Cataloguing database screen capture

A screen capture of Matt’s cataloguing database, showing some of the completed fields and the BPMA’s dual numbering system.

5. Wherever possible, get a computer to help: I designed a relational database in Access for all my project work. The database would automatically complete some catalogue fields, saving lots of time. It logged which files had been catalogued and which had been marked for disposal. I used it during processing to group files into rough subject categories, which were refined into catalogue sub-series at the end. Best of all, I could take all the descriptions I’d written in the database and import them into our catalogue software in one batch.

These are some of the techniques I’ve used in my work. Perhaps you might find them helpful if you’re working on a similar task. Of course, there are many other ways of working, and I’d be very interested to read your suggestions for how I could do things differently!

WW2 postal records

Christmas is all about opening boxes, but archivists get to do it every day! Here, Matt opens the first of several boxes of uncatalogued WW2 postal records.

My new project is to catalogue a large collection of British Army postal service records, dating from World War 2 to the 1980s. I’ll keep you posted.

Happy Christmas, and see you in the New Year!

– Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

Media Matters in the Archive

Last month on the BPMA blog, I wrote about how we catalogue archives. Since then I’ve primarily been working in the areas of the Archive concerned with Post Office media campaigns, PR and communications (POST 108 and POST 118). In this month’s cataloguing update I’ll tell you about some of the challenges presented by this material.

Matt contemplates the range of media types to be catalogued.

Matt contemplates the range of media types to be catalogued.

The picture above shows a sample of (mostly duplicate) archives from the boxes I’m cataloguing in the POST 108 backlog. As you can see, these archives aren’t just paper! I’m cataloguing VHS training videos, audio tapes of press interviews, and reams of promotional publications sent out to staff, business clients, and the press. There are also CD-ROMs containing digital documents. The reel you can see resulted from a 1980s Royal Mail programme to microfilm thousands of paper reports from earlier years, and I’ve got a box of nearly 60 reels to catalogue!

All these relatively new media are at odds with the traditional image of archives as being old and paper-based, but they’re archives all the same. At the moment we still have the technology to access information held on obsolete media like VHS tapes, but how will they be accessed in the future when no one is making devices that play them? In the longer term, it may be necessary to migrate audio/video/digital archives to new media. For now, though, I’m concentrating on cataloguing these hundreds of archives as rapidly as possible, ready for them to be opened in line with the 20-year rule.

A big task for me in the coming weeks is to catalogue several hundred files produced during the publication of Courier, the Royal Mail Group staff magazine that’s still published today. These files are being transferred from the POST 108 backlog to POST 118, joining related archives already on the catalogue, and the work is being ably assisted by our new volunteer Leanne, who joined us in September.

The files contain all the photographs collected during production of each monthly Courier edition in the 1970s and 1980s. The photographs don’t merely illustrate high-level business stories; they were also collected to accompany articles on local news from all over the UK. Best of all, the files include the images that were rejected for publication. Thanks to the Archive, they have escaped oblivion.

A sample of uncatalogued photographic files from the Courier archives.

A sample of uncatalogued photographic files from the Courier archives.

The immediate priority is preservation. As you can see from the image above (a handful of files from one of seven crates!), the photos were originally stored in batches inside office dividers. Some sets of prints, like the one on the bottom left, are still in their original glassine envelopes. This isn’t optimal for long-term preservation – photos can stick together over time – so I’ll need to transfer them to individual polyester pockets stored within acid-free archival folders.

There are cataloguing challenges, too. While many photographs were taken by Post Office staff, many more were simply bought from third-party agencies. It’s not always possible to determine copyright ownership, as some prints are unlabelled. My job as an archivist is helped by the slips attached to many prints, identifying their subjects and the Courier editions for which they were selected. The bottom-right print in the photograph above is an example. Unfortunately, standard practice was apparently to date images by month… but not by year! Ultimately, even after cataloguing is complete, it may be necessary to cross-reference these photographic files with the published Courier editions held in POST 92 to exploit this resource fully.

Repackaged and catalogued Courier photographs. This portrait (POST 118/14028.jpg) shows Dorothy Fothergill, appointed Director of the London Postal Region in 1971.

Repackaged and catalogued Courier photographs. This portrait (POST 118/14028.jpg) shows Dorothy Fothergill, appointed Director of the London Postal Region in 1971.

With hundreds of archives in the POST 108 backlog that need special packaging and cataloguing, there’s a mountain of work to do! Once it’s finished, though, it will enrich the picture of the Post Office’s more recent history. This is just one part of the ongoing cataloguing work being undertaken by colleagues and volunteers at the BPMA.

– Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

Introducing our new cataloguing updates

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.

Matt in the Royal Mail Archive repository.

Matt in the Royal Mail Archive repository.

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 box of letter sorting manuals.

A box of letter sorting manuals.

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!

What our visitors see: individually numbered archives, repackaged for long-term preservation.

What our visitors see: individually numbered archives, repackaged for long-term preservation.

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.