Tag Archives: Matt

Meet the Staff: Archivist (Cataloguing) Matt Tantony

My name’s Matt, and I’m an archivist. You may remember my blog posts and tweets from 2013-14. I’m thrilled to say that I’ve rejoined the BPMA after fifteen months away. I’ve been here since early September and there’s so much to do!

Matt Tantony, our new (old) archivist.

Matt Tantony, our new (old) archivist.

My work as an archivist is really varied. You can sometimes see me helping researchers in our Search Room as the archivist on duty, and I’ll once again be bringing you posts on this blog to show you new discoveries and curiosities from our collections. Behind the scenes, I spend every Monday helping my colleagues with the giant task of preparing to move the Archive to The Postal Museum. But my main focus is on cataloguing: I’ll be aiming to catalogue hundreds of records from the Archive over the coming months.

My first cataloguing assignment was the overseas mail letter books. This somewhat mysterious POST class (number 48, to be precise), hasn’t fully been publicly available until now. Several people have worked on it before me, including my illustrious predecessor Anna.

What are the letter books? Well, they’re official records containing copies of correspondence, mostly sent from the Secretary to the Post Office to various recipients including postal agents, other countries’ postal administrations, and shipping companies involved in overseas mail. The date range is vast: from the early 18th century to the 1950s. Many of the letter books deal with postal arrangements for then-British colonies and territories, from the large (Canada) to the small (the Turks Islands). Fortunately, most of the volumes have helpful indexes:

Snapshots of indexes from mid-19th century letter books (POST 48 various).

Snapshots of indexes from mid-19th century letter books (POST 48 various).

As you might expect, the subject matter is minutely detailed and often financial or logistical in nature. A packet ship inspection here, a surcharge on parcels there. Newfangled developments in telegraphy in one letter, a shipping contract renegotiation in the next. But amidst the day-to-day technicalities of international post, you inevitably find world events, such as this Post Office letter about the sinking of the Titanic:

Extract from a draft June 1912 letter about the 763 parcels lost aboard the Titanic (POST 48/366).

Extract from a draft June 1912 letter about the 763 parcels lost aboard the Titanic (POST 48/366).

The mails went between nations – or at least attempted to – in the face of sea disasters, technology shifts, political intrigues, and wars, both civil and international. For example, here’s a 1774 letter from Post Office Secretary Anthony Todd, firing none other than Benjamin Franklin from the job of Britain’s Deputy Postmaster in America:

Copy of a letter, dated 31 January 1774, dismissing Benjamin Franklin (POST 48/4).

Copy of a letter, dated 31 January 1774, dismissing Benjamin Franklin (POST 48/4).

Of course, the American War of Independence began the following year. Later in the very same book are rather friendlier letters from Todd to Franklin, who was now the United States Postmaster General.

The overseas mail letter books are a tricky resource to use (and to catalogue!). The range of subjects is huge, and you may need to cross-reference with other bits of the Archive to get a clear picture of what’s being discussed. There’s also 350 years of changing handwriting to negotiate, and multiple languages including French and Arabic. But they have lots of value and interest as a staggeringly detailed picture of global communication, and they’ll be joining our online catalogue soon.

Catch you in a few weeks with my next discoveries in the Archive!

– Matt Tantony, Archivist (Cataloguing)

Under the Bonnet of the BPMA’s Online Catalogue

Here at the BPMA we’re making major changes to the way our online catalogue looks – and works. There will be more details soon, but today I’ll show you three of our planned improvements:

1. Streamlined Catalogue Data

Matt's been working with two different versions of our catalogue database at once, to help get it ready for its new-look relaunch.

Matt’s been working with two different versions of our catalogue database at once, to help get it ready for its new-look relaunch.

Since February I’ve been fine-tuning the data and structure of the entire BPMA catalogue. I’ve refined old catalogue entries to bring them into line with our current descriptive standards. I’ve rearranged fields to free up space for exciting new content. And I’ve reformatted the way the date is written for every single record in the catalogue. That’s over 120,000 records. I had to use lots of computer tricks to make all these changes in just a few weeks, rather than editing the records one by one. A career in archives can be a really good test of your IT skills!

2. Enhanced Thumbnail Images

We're enlarging all our catalogue thumbnail images by up to 400% to bring you a better experience when using our online catalogue.

We’re enlarging all our catalogue thumbnail images by up to 400% to bring you a better experience when using our online catalogue.

About 25,000 entries in the catalogue have thumbnails: small photos or scans showing you what the object or record looks like. In 2014 there are more high-resolution computer screens and faster Internet speeds than even a few years ago. We want our online catalogue to have larger, brighter thumbnails than we’ve used until now. Web visitors will be able to see our collections in even more detail.

I’ve been hunting down every digital image of the BPMA’s collections, converting them into new thumbnails at a higher resolution and an increased size.  Wherever possible, our new images will be 700 pixels wide on their shorter side. In the past six weeks I’ve created thumbnails for 22,000 objects and records. Only a few thousand left to go!

3. Improved Online Experience

A sneak preview of the new browser panel from our online catalogue (layout subject to change). Each line is a link to a different level of the hierarchy.

A sneak preview of the new browser panel from our online catalogue (layout subject to change). Each line is a link to a different level of the hierarchy.

We’re currently finalising the new online catalogue interface. It’ll offer new ways to navigate our collections, including user tagging, and sorting search results by different criteria. You should also be able to browse the entire Archive by its hierarchy (example shown above), which will show how any one record relates to all the others. There’ll be all-new guidance pages for first-time users, which I’m writing this week.

This is my final blog post here, as I’m leaving the BPMA at the end of May. It’s a privilege to have been part of the BPMA’s amazing work.

–  Matt Tantony, Archivist (Catalogue Systems)

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).

Newly-catalogued oddities in WW1 postal censorship

During the First World War, the GPO handled mail sent to and from prisoners of war. These included captured soldiers and civilians who had been in the wrong place at the outbreak of hostilities. Before mail reached its recipient, it would be examined by censors on both sides of the conflict.

I’ve just catalogued a set of nearly 40 GPO files from the First World War all about the censorship of mail for POWs. Many of the files deal with really specific problems. Here are two of my favourites:

BREAD DESTRUCTION OUTRAGE:

GPO transcript of a complaint from the Bedford Bread Fund (POST 56/243).

GPO transcript of a complaint from the Bedford Bread Fund (POST 56/243).

POST 56/243 (1916) concerns a series of complaints from the fabulously-named Bedford Bread Fund, a charity that sent parcels of bread to British POWs in German camps. The loaves were being sawn in half by the British censors to inspect them for concealed messages, leaving them entirely inedible by the time they arrived. The file also documents the censors’ trials of loaf-prodding by bone knitting needle. While less invasive, the needles alas broke off inside the loaves.

PENMANSHIP CRITIQUE EFFRONTERY:

The GPO's reply to a complaint about comments on censored mail (POST 56/212).

The GPO’s reply to a complaint about comments on censored mail (POST 56/212).

POST 56/212 (1915) contains complaints forwarded by a countess from her POW husband. A concern was that mail was arriving at the camp with pencilled comments from censors, asking the prisoners to persuade their families to write shorter letters, and to write more neatly. Censors, he said, had no right to express this kind of stylistic criticism. As you can see from the GPO reply (above), the comments were apparently left by the German censors who, after all, had a job to do too.

I love these two files. They seem absurd, and yet they’re perfectly logical and justified under the circumstances. Other favourite cases include an intercepted parcel of construction textbooks sent to a French POW, and a query about whether letters to Russian POWs could be written in the Russian alphabet.

Sorting mail for the troops at the Home Depot, Christmas 1916 (POST 56/6).

Sorting mail for the troops at the Home Depot, Christmas 1916 (POST 56/6).

The censorship records are part of a collection of around 500 files that I’m cataloguing. The files document the Army Postal Service from the 1900s to the 1970s, including both World Wars, and are genuinely global in scope. Much of the material originated from the Royal Engineers Postal Section, a forerunner of today’s Royal Logistic Corps that drew many of its men from GPO staff. All these files will appear on the Archive catalogue in the next few months.

– Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

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)

Asking the Archive staff…

Matt ponders the results of the informal Archive staff survey.

Matt ponders the results of the informal Archive staff survey.

What types of places have archives? As part of #mattsfriday, I decided to run an informal survey of some of my colleagues in the Archive, Search Room and Conservation teams.

I got together with participating colleagues to compile a little list of all the different places where we’d worked with archives before we joined the BPMA. The survey covered both paid employment and work experience/volunteering. The end result was a list of 48 different institutions or organisations with archives! This, of course, doesn’t take into account our previous employment in non-archival jobs. The chart below divides the results up by category:

Institutions where participating BPMA staff have previously worked with archives. The key denotes the pie chart segments in clockwise order.

Institutions where participating BPMA staff have previously worked with archives. The key denotes the pie chart segments in clockwise order.

As you can see, there’s a huge diversity of previous experience being brought to the BPMA’s work! Staff members have worked for local authority archive services in England, Scotland and Wales. Some of us have worked for museums, galleries, and other cultural sites. There were also many universities and other higher education institutions with archives in the list: some of these were research collections managed by universities, others were the historic records of the institutions themselves. Some of us have worked for businesses, including the archives of at least two high street retail giants. Among our number we also have staff who have worked for national and specialist institutions including a film archive, the British Library, and The National Archives at Kew. Finally, the ‘Other’ category included Royal archives, a church organisation, and the private collections of a Duke.

This brief, informal survey also showed just how many different kinds of places keep archives – and employ archivists and conservators to look after them. This includes institutions in the public and private sectors, and large and small organisations. A career in archives really can take you almost anywhere. Of course, there are other careers in the heritage sector, just as the BPMA has other areas – curatorial, philatelic, etc. – in its collections. As we plan to move to our New Centre, it’s also helpful to think about how we’ve got to where we are.

– Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

Coming this Friday: #mattsfriday Twitter Takeover!

Matt presents the hashtag for the #mattsfriday Twitter Takeover.

Matt presents the hashtag for the #mattsfriday Twitter Takeover.

This Friday, 15 November, I’m taking over the British Postal Museum & Archive’s Twitter feed! If you’ve enjoyed any of my previous blog posts, now you’ve got a whole Friday to interact with an Archivist.

I shall be posting live tweets throughout the day, from approximately 07:45 to 17:00 GMT. Hopefully, it’ll give you a glimpse of all the different bits and pieces that form a typical Friday for a BPMA archivist. Although, as many archivists will tell you, one of the joys of the profession is that there’s no such thing as a “typical” day! I’ll also be posting photographs of what I’m getting up to behind the scenes. My fabulous flipchart may be getting involved too.

Follow our Twitter feed (@postalheritage) to catch my updates on Friday. I’ll be using the hashtag #mattsfriday for all my content.

But really, we’d love for you to join in on the day! Questions and comments are very welcome. Just tweet @postalheritage using the hashtag #mattsfriday and I’ll try to answer. Of course, the Archive is only one part of the BPMA’s work. I can’t advise on museum objects or philatelic issues, but if you’ve got questions about archives, or what archivists do, or perhaps even how to get into archives as a profession, please do send me a tweet!

This is a relatively new experiment by the BPMA in engaging with our online visitors around the world. Depending on how it goes, #mattsfriday might become a regular feature.

See you on Friday!
-Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)