Tag Archives: research

Meet the staff: Day in the life of an Archive Assistant

In this morning’s blog Penny McMahon highlights the different jobs and functions that she does as an Archives/Records Assistant.  

Logging

The day starts at 9am, I normally log the visitors and requisition forms from the day before. The visitors are logged to keep track of the different interests our users have, to spot any trends and make changes to the services we offer accordingly. The requisitions are also logged –‘requisitions’ is the term we use to describe fetching original archival items from the repository. This information is recorded so that when deciding on which material to digitise or pin point items that need preservation treatment, we can select the most frequently used items. The information is also gathered in case the item goes missing-we can look up the date it was last retrieved and who the last person to look at it was.

Donations

At 10am the search room opens to the public and our friendly postman arrives with the mail. As well as bringing us letter enquiries we also receive donations from the public and Royal Mail through the post. Giving these donations unique references to identify them and putting a basic description in our catalogue database is essential to keeping track of these. The thought donators take to send these items in is appreciated. However, it is useful to have as much background information as possible about an item and prefer it when people call us before going to the expense of posting an item to us. You can view the museum collection policies on this page on our website.

Me carrying out research for an enquirer.

Me carrying out research for an enquirer.

Visitors

By 11am we normally have several researchers in the search room. The exciting thing about working in the search room team is the variety of interests that researchers have. We don’t know who is going to walk through the door.  Family historians are a significant portion of the archives users; this is because the General Post Office was one of the biggest employers in Great Britain and these employee records can be hugely insightful. As family historians normally use the archive once or twice and the records they are interested in are so specific, they require quite a lot of help to guide them through the archives. I find family historians are some of the most rewarding users to help, I think because of their personal connection to the records.

The BPMA also attracts a number of academic researchers, including PhD students that use our archives to gather insight into the social history of Great Britain. As the Post Office is a national and international network, the records in the archives document the social and technological changes across the centuries. The BPMA has a number of partnerships with different universities supporting these students. These students know the collections and catalogue well and require little help, but they get through the records fast, so we spend a lot of time retrieving records from the repository for them.

Remote Enquiries

The info mailbox receives around 160 email enquiries a month; we also receive enquiries by phone and by letter. Some of these are straightforward and can be answered in minutes. For example, often authors want to know how much it would cost to send a letter in a different era (World War I is particularly popular just now), or how long it would take for the letter to arrive. Some require a lot more work and often we rely on the specialist knowledge of our Philatelic and Museum Curators to point us in the right direction. These enquiries we do throughout the day whenever we are not directly helping an onsite visitor or carrying out other projects, such as research or cataloguing projects.

Retrieved archive items.

Retrieved archive items.

Lunch

Normally lasts around an hour and I am spoilt for choice with all the delicious markets around Freeling House.

Museum Visitors

Towards the end of the day we normally have a few visitors who, when they visit us, expect to see a national museum. Sadly at the moment the archive search room only has 4 display cases and although the Mail Rail photographic exhibition currently on display is very interesting, it is impossible to exhibit in such a small space the breadth of the museum, philatelic and archive collections. Luckily The Postal Museum will have much more room to better display the collections.

Tours

Our public behind the scenes archive tours normally kick off at around 3pm. I really enjoy the opportunity these tours give to show off the variety of our collection from the beautifully written 17th century account books to a first edition Ulysses to original telegram artwork by designers such Rex Whistler. The interaction that the different members of the public have with the items is always different, meaning that every tour is different. Public tours can be booked online, we also organise ad hoc tours to groups.

Set-up for a tour.

Set-up for a tour.

At the end of the day…

I need to put away all the original archival material that I have been using to answer enquiries and the archival material that visitors have been using. If the search room has been quiet and the enquiries are finished this is normally a good time to update our reference library with any new books or journals that have come in.

The search room closes at 5pm and I head home soon after to have a glass of wine.

-Penny McMahon, Archivist/Records Assistant

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)

Distance users survey 2012

Back in April this year we participated in a national survey of distance users of British Archives. We have been taking part in the PSQG (Public Services Quality Group of the Archives and Records Association [UK and Ireland]) Survey of Visitors to British Archives for a number of years now, but this is the first time that a comparable survey had been conducted of distance users.

For the purposes of this survey, and our involvement in it, distance users were identified as those contacting us via email or post. On this occasion the survey did not extend to those contacting us by telephone, via our website or social media. These are areas we are keen to receive feedback on, but the nature and methodology of this particular survey was not suited to these audiences.

Firstly we would like to thank the 19 people who took the time to respond to our rather detailed survey (a 31% response rate). All input is gratefully appreciated. We are also very pleased that the overall level of satisfaction with our services was very good or good across all areas (quality of content, clarity of response, promptness of response, charges for goods and services, and the archive’s website). However we never take a high level of satisfaction for granted and we are always looking for ways to improve our services. Feedback is vital to ensure we continue to develop our services to meet our users current and future needs, both in our present location and as we continue to work towards our new centre.

Main reason for contacting archive chart

Although this particular survey has now closed we are always keen to receive feedback on our services, both on site and remotely. In November we will shortly be participating in the PSQG Survey of Visitors to British Archives, and during this time we will be asking all visitors to our Search Room to complete a survey (watch this space for further information). We also routinely ask email enquirers to provide feedback via a Survey Monkey link, and provide feedback forms on site and in response to letter enquiries. Feedback can also be provided via our website Feedback Form.

Helen Dafter – Archivist

Mail Rail Conservation Project Update

Some of you may remember from previous blogs, beginning with coverage of the retrieval of two of the trains from the Post Office Underground Railway tunnels below Mount Pleasant, that the BPMA are currently working on an exciting project to restore our three ‘Mail Rail’ train carriages.

We are pleased to report that conservation work on the first of the Mail Rail trains held by the BPMA is now almost complete. The whole train has been be closely inspected, cleaned where relevant and treated with a special wax to prevent any further deterioration.

Train prior to the majority of the conservation work taking place showing lots of the surface grease.

Train prior to the majority of the conservation work taking place showing lots of the surface grease.

A special conservation approved Renaissance Wax has been applied to all surfaces to protect them and prevent future corrosion.

A special conservation approved Renaissance Wax has been applied to all surfaces to protect them and prevent future corrosion.

A similar programme will now be commenced on the 1980s train. Like the 1930 train this will be worked on from one end to the other with much of the surface grime and grease being removed to allow the vehicle to be displayed safely. The surfaces however will not be restored to an as new condition and the trains will continue to reflect their working history.

The Post Office Railway was renamed Mail Rail in 1987 and some of the trains were branded accordingly such as the 1980 train held by the BPMA.

The Post Office Railway was renamed Mail Rail in 1987 and some of the trains were branded accordingly such as the 1980 train held by the BPMA.

The next challenge is to consider how we tackle the final train in the Store, the original 1927 rail car. This rail car is much smaller than the others and raises some interesting questions. Up until now we have very much been conserving, rather than restoring the trains. However with this train it has been heavily restored in the past with some original features removed. There is also a question as to the correct colour this train should be painted. Presently it is green but in early use it was probably a grey colour. In order to decide what level of work to do on the train we must first undertake some further research.

The 1927 four-wheeled car is now going to be given a full assessment and research undertaken to help determine the best course of action with this and whether to undertake a full restoration or simply conserve what is there.

The 1927 four-wheeled car is now going to be given a full assessment and research undertaken to help determine the best course of action with this and whether to undertake a full restoration or simply conserve what is there.

This is where the benefit of the BPMA holding the Royal Mail Archive alongside the museum collection becomes invaluable. Over the coming weeks we will be using documents in the Archive to try and gather as much information about these trains as possible. Once we have been through the research we can consider what approach to take, whether to restore the trains to something like it was in the past, or to simply conserve what we now have, much as we have done with the other two trains.

The Post Office Railway train has motive units at each end and were connected by a central main body that would have carried the mail.

The Post Office Railway train has motive units at each end and were connected by a central main body that would have carried the mail.

Once this research phase is complete we shall have a much clearer ideas of the best approach to take and will understand better the time-scales.

We would like to thank supporters of this project, Arts Council England through the PRISM Fund, the AiM Pilgrim Trust Conservation Scheme, and a number of individuals who help to make this work possible.

Chris Taft – Senior Curator

Join the Mail Rail Mailing List and be the first to know what’s going on underground! Contact our Fundraising & Development Officer, Claire English: claire.english@postalheritage.org.uk.

Supported using public funding by Arts Council England

Masters of the Post – Video

Economic journalist and researcher Duncan Campbell Smith discusses how he researched his book Masters of the Post – the Authorized History of the Royal Mail at The British Postal Museum & Archive.

Masters of the Post is the first complete history of the Royal Mail up to the present day. It presents the whole story of Britain’s postal service — how it was built, how it led the world for two hundred years and how it has struggled to survive in the face of mounting odds since the arrival of the internet.

Purchase your copy from our online shop.

Conducting Family History Research at the BPMA

by Richard Wade, Archives Assistant

As Royal Mail or the GPO, as it was known, was at one time the largest employer in the country, many people find they have a relative that was employed in some regard by them. Luckily, the GPO kept records of its staff which were organised centrally, and consequently the majority have survived. This means that they are a great resource for researching the lives of past family members, at least as far as their employment was concerned.

There are records of most staff from postmen and sorters to the Postmaster General, as well as the various clerks and officers in between. There are also records of telegraph staff as it would not have been possible to separate these out from those for postal staff. All of these records are held here at Freeling House.

Pensions and Gratuties records can provide important information about your ancestors career

Pensions and Gratuties records can provide important information about your ancestor's career

The most important and informative of the staff records are the pension records. We have these for the majority of staff from 1859 to 1959. You can usually find out from these the places people worked, the job they did and a brief history of their employment, including their various positions throughout their careers and the associated salaries. There will also be information about any particularly good conduct and any notable events or actions made during their careers, for example, if they went to fight with the Post Office Rifles (the Post Office’s own battalion) in the Great War, or work related achievements, such as gaining a long service award. Conversely, the records will also mention any black marks gained or anything they did they could be less proud of, such as drinking on the job. What you won’t find out from them are any personal details such as private addresses or information about their next of kin.

People received pensions at the age of 60 in the Post Office, unless they retired early for ill health. Where women were concerned, they could not work once they were married, so we have marriage gratuities for them from the year in which they got married. If people died whilst they were still employed then there would have been a death gratuity. However, the death gratuity and marriage gratuity records are often only indexes, so you may not get as much information as what you would for ordinary pension records.

We also have appointment records for the vast majority of employees, but these are nowhere near as informative as the pension records, as they generally only give the name of the employee and the date of the appointment. In some cases, the position they were appointed to is given, but even this is not guaranteed.

Another resource that can be used is our collection of minute books, which have information about certain offices, arranged either by place or by department. There are also records within the minute books of dismissals, where you may find people you can not find elsewhere.

Another option is the Establishment books, which list some of the more senior staff by department. They were produced each year, so you can trace people through the years to try and work out when they left if you do not know already. Some of the later books also contain lists of Postmasters.

Establishment books list key members of GPO staff

Establishment books list senior members of GPO staff

Finally, it is sometimes worth looking in the Post Office magazines; unfortunately, these are not indexed in any way so it is a question of just trawling through them. They mention people who had gone over and above their duty, comic and bizarre requests from customers, staff who have done particularly long service, and sometimes list staff who have retired recently. It will be especially worthwhile looking at the staff magazines if you know of an ancestor being involved in any of the sports teams, or playing in one of the Post Office bands or something similar, as these feature heavily in the magazines and will tell you about a side of a person that you wouldn’t find out about from the more formal records.

Postwomen in 1914. We have many photos which show Post Office employees in their uniforms.

Postwomen in 1914. We have many photos which show Post Office employees in their uniforms.

We also have a huge selection of photographs here, so if you wanted to find out about the type of clothing your relatives wore, or the type of places they worked in, you can do this too.

If you want to find out more about researching family history at the British Postal Museum & Archive, please see the Family History Pages of our website, which can be found in the visiting section – and while you’re there you can download our updated Family History Research Guide. If you wish to visit us and search our records, please do drop in and we’ll be happy to help.