Tag Archives: search room

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

That’s a wrap: stock take 2014

A few weeks ago Assistant Archivist Penny talked about rehousing some of the photographic collection and before that Archivist Helen introduced this year’s stocktake. In this post Gavin McGuffie, Archive Catalogue & Project Manager, and Archivist Louise Todd wraps up this year’s stocktake.

A considerable amount of work goes on behind the scenes before files are made available to researchers. Some of this work can only be done when The Search Room is closed because of the amount of space required in order to carry it out.  We took advantage of our annual two week stock taking closure in order to carry out an audit of files created during the 1970s and 1980s.

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Sorting through files.

The audit involved checking to make sure that no files were missing and listing them so that they can be retrieved and appraised.  It went very well with almost 700 boxes being sorted, much more than we had initially anticipated!

Why these tasks can only be done during stock take…

Why these tasks can only be done during stock take…

In addition to the audit another small team of staff used the weeks to get appraised files into a final arrangement for their cataloguing. This involved removing more than 5,000 files from a number of different places (in the yearly boxes for 2nd review appraisal mentioned above, amongst 2nd review files appraised before 2008, within a couple of large series of registered files POST 121 and POST 122) and arranging them in their original reference number (so, for instance, gathering all the Marketing Department Design files together, those with the code MKD/CJ). This produced 438 acid free boxes of POST 154 – the series which represents the files created by the Marketing Department, 387 boxes of POST 157 – files created by the Postal Operations Department and 47 boxes of POST 160 – files created by the Secretary’s Office. This leaves them in a state in which they can be catalogued far more easily and also makes them considerably easier to locate since they are now stored together.

PSQG Survey of Visitors to British Archives

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the findings of the survey of distance users which we participated in earlier this year. I also promised to provide more information about the forthcoming PSQG (Public Sector Quality Group) Survey of Visitors to British Archives.

The PSQG Survey of Visitors to British Archives is carried out approximately every 18 months. It provides a detailed insight into the views of users about our service provision and the value of archives generally. It also provides a base to benchmark against other similar services, as the survey is carried out on a national basis.

The BPMA will be participating in the survey from 29 October-10 November inclusive. During this time all visitors to our Search Room will be asked to complete a survey. Participation is completely voluntary but all responses help us assess where we are doing well, and how we can continue to improve the services we offer to you. All responses are anonymous and a box will be provided to enable completed surveys to be returned discretely.

The last PSQG Survey of Visitors to British Archives was conducted in March 2011 and responses were generally very positive. At that time 100% of users rated our overall service as very good or good.

Areas highlighted for improvement in 2011 included the website, visitor facilities, catalogues and guides, onsite computer facilities, copy services, and pre visit information. Since then we have launched a new website which has received very positive feedback. The new website includes more detailed information to assist users with preparing for their visits, as well as a number of completely new pages. We have also introduced public wifi access in our Search Room, and have upgraded our public computer terminals. We have invested in a new book scanner which produces high quality images which can be saved, avoiding the need to scan the material again. In July 2011 our appointment records went online with www.ancestry.co.uk, improving access to the collection and enabling users to confirm their ancestor’s employment with the Post Office before visiting. We have also continued our programme of cataloguing both the archive and museum collections.

BPMA Archive Search Room - Areas for improvement

BPMA Archive Search Room – Areas for improvement

Visitor facilities are an area where we always have slightly lower scores. We are aware that many of our users would like more refreshment facilities. Unfortunately in our current location we simply do not have sufficient space or footfall to accommodate these facilities. However we have taken this feedback on board and hope to incorporate improved refreshment facilities in our new centre.

Having worked hard over the past 18 months to respond to your feedback last time round, we are now keen to know if you like the changes we have made, and what else you would like to see improved. If you do visit our Search Room during the survey period (29 October-10 November) please do take the time to complete one of our surveys. If you are unable to visit during this period, but have any feedback please do feel free to use the feedback option on our website.

Helen Dafter – Archivist

Our Archives are open again

The Royal Mail Archive Search Room is now open to visitors again after two weeks of stock taking. During this time members of staff have been carrying out an audit of archive files created during the 1970s and 1980s, which are currently waiting to be appraised.

Checking files

Checking files

This involves:

  • Checking files to make sure that none are missing;
  • Sorting files into reference number order to make them easier to find;
  • Re-boxing files (the old boxes have a nasty habit of splitting and spilling their contents);
  • Listing files so that they can be retrieved and appraised.

This can only be done during Stock Take when the Search Room is closed because of the amount of space required.

Sorting files in to order

Sorting files in to order

The task went extremely well (even if it was physically exhausting – no need to go to the gym!).  By the end of Stock Take, it was estimated that about 380 boxes or 4800 files were audited, almost twice the number originally anticipated.

Checking files

Checking files

Valuable shelf space has been freed up, some missing files have been found, and files will now be easier to retrieve.  We have identified files that are ready to be catalogued and which will be made available to the public at the earliest opportunity.  The audit will also speed up the appraisal process for these files, many of which will become part of The Royal Mail Archive in the future.

All in all, a job well done!

Louise Todd – Archivist

In a future blog archivist Helen Dafter will write about another stock taking task, improving our Philatelic Library. Find out more about the Royal Mail Archive on our website.

Stocktaking at the archive

Regular visitors to the BPMA’s search room will notice that we have been closed for ‘stock take’ since the start of last week and won’t be reopening until next Monday, 24th January.

Why does the BPMA close for stock take and what happens during this period? Stock take gives BPMA staff both the time and almost as importantly the space to concentrate on large sorting or repackaging tasks that would be very difficult to progress otherwise. Up until this year stock take has taken place for two weeks in December; this year we’ve moved it to January but we’re always open to suggestions as to the most sensible time to hold it and haven’t decided for certain when to schedule it into 2012.

Re-housing film stills and checking duplicate posters

Re-housing film stills and checking duplicate posters.

It involves almost all the archivists among the BPMA’s staff, both in the archive and records management and cataloguing teams (about ten staff in all), working on a number of projects.

What tasks have we been doing? This year’s stock take has concentrated on three main activities: the sorting of Second Review registered files from the 1970s and 1980s into an order that reflects the alpha-numeric code on them prior to cataloguing this material; the repackaging of POST 118 film stills into appropriate preservation housing; listing the contents of boxes from the old National Postal Museum library to fill gaps in the BPMA Library and identify duplicates and redundant material. We have also been sorting and identifying duplicate posters, weeding ‘portfolio’ files (files of secondary non-archive information on various subjects held in the search room), taking photographs of large plans using a rostrum camera and a couple of activities involving our philatelic material.

Photographing a large rolled building plan using a rostrum camera.

Photographing a large rolled building plan using a rostrum camera.

One major benefit of many of these activities is that they will create some badly needed space in our very full repository. They should also speed up the process by which we can make archival material available to the public. So far the activities have been going well though as expected they are taking plenty of time and will generally not be complete at the end of the two weeks.

To anyone who has had to postpone a visit to the search room thank you for your patience and we hope you’ll appreciate the importance of this work.

The BPMA Search Room has new opening times in 2011. In response to a survey carried out in 2010 we will be increasing our Saturday openings to one a month. In order to staff our Saturday openings adequately we will be closed on the Mondays following our Saturday openings. Our next Saturday opening will be 12th February. Full details of our new opening hours  can be found our website.

The National Philatelic Society Library at the BPMA

by Mike Bramwell, Hon NPS Librarian

National Philatelic Society LibraryObservant visitors to the Search Room at the British Postal Museum & Archive will have noticed that the classification labels on the books round the walls change from numerical to alphabetic in the corner of the room near the microfiche viewers.  This is where books from the BPMA Library meet items from the NPS Library.  In the Search Room are four bays holding our general and specialised stamp catalogues and our books on Great Britain and Commonwealth philately.  Work has been going on to reduce the inevitable duplication of the stock belonging to the two libraries held in the Search Room.  There is also a bay where we keep over 150 current volumes of philatelic journals in both English and a range of foreign languages.  These items can be used by all visitors to the BPMA, although only NPS members can borrow them.

National Philatelic Society LibraryIn fact the whole of the NPS Library occupies nearly a quarter of a mile of shelving in two sites, each with two locations.  The two libraries are complementary to each other, although both have substantial holdings of books and journals on British philately. 

Behind the scenes, in another room in the Mount Pleasant complex we have the remainder of our books, which total more than 7500 and runs of English language journals going back some 20 years shelved in rolling stacks. 

National Philatelic Society LibraryThe remainder of our material, which is in fact by far the larger part, is stored in our out of town depository near Wokingham.  The older journals, both English and foreign language, are kept in what was the Coach House of farm specialising in Race horses.  Our material relating to philatelic exhibitions together with extensive holdings of auction catalogues from the major British auction houses and bureau material, i.e. the descriptive leaflets produced by stamp issuing countries which describe new stamps in detail are kept in a barn in the same site.

The library is staffed by volunteers between 11am and 3pm on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and we will be pleased to talk to visitors to Freeling House, although that will sometimes require a phone call to the ‘stack room’.

Should we change our opening hours?

Recently the Archives team has been discussing the opening hours of our Search Room, with a view to opening one Saturday a month next year. Our current opening hours are 10.00am-5.00pm Monday to Friday, with late opening to 7.00pm on Thursdays. We are also open occasional Saturdays – usually 6 to 7 times a year.

Before we implement any changes we would like to get some feedback on our proposal. To this end we have set up a very short survey – http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/XKHHYLN

Our archive search room

Our archive search room

If you have a view on this issue we’d be grateful if you could fill in the survey by 15th August. Visitors to the Search Room can make their views known through a hard copy survey.

Please leave a comment or e-mail info@postalheritage.org.uk if you have any questions about this proposal.

New to our online catalogue

Over 4,000 descriptions were uploaded to the online catalogue last week, bringing the total of records available for public consultation to 87,635. The latest batch of records available include:

From the Royal Mail Archive

  • POST 109 – an additional 900 records of publicity artwork and designs;
  • POST 68 – 1250 records of rules and instructions;

From the Museum collection

  • Approximately 1800 descriptions of handstamps;
  • Approximately 120 descriptions of badges and buttons;
  • And an additional 69 book titles to the Search Room library.
One of David Langdon’s cartoons on safe driving

One of David Langdon’s cartoons on safe driving (POST 109/564)

The latest records show a great variety in the collections held by the BPMA. Handstamps were items in everyday use at post offices and sorting offices across the country and our collection includes a cross-section of the types of handstamps used. From special event handstamps, such as the Littlewoods Challenge Cup 1989 Wembley handstamp (2010-0033/2) to the local penny post handstamps, such as the Aycliffe handstamp from early –mid nineteenth century (2009-0334).

Post 109 new entries include David Langdon’s series of cartoon artwork on safe driving (POST 109/564-567) and Jan Lewitt and George Him’s artwork for “x-mas” postings (POST 109/602-605).

Post 68 includes a broad range of instructions, manuals, rule books and circulars from all areas of the Post Office. This series of records will prove interesting to anyone wishing to know more about Post Office operations and services. Some of these rules also contain a surprising wealth of personal and local information, such as the instructions for the postmaster of Garn Dolbenmaen (POST 68/920) which contain details about the postmen’s walk schedule in 1880.

The Battle of Britain stamps controversy

David Gentleman, whose many British stamp designs are currently being exhibited in our Search Room, is no stranger to controversy. In 1965 he wrote to Postmaster General Tony Benn (who had announced a new policy for stamp issues in late 1964 and was seeking suggestions) and requested that the design limitations of having to include the monarch’s head on stamps be addressed. Benn, a republican, was keen to remove the monarch’s head, and saw Gentleman’s design limitations argument as an excellent – and non-political – way to achieve this objective. 

Gentleman, and his wife Rosalind Dease, had already been commissioned to design stamps commemorating the death of Winston Churchill and the 25th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain, and supplied Benn with versions of the designs without the Queen’s head. Ultimately, it was decided that the monarch’s head should remain on British stamps (you can read the full story by downloading the PDF The David Gentleman Album from our website), but this was not the end of the controversy as far as the Battle of Britain stamps were concerned.

More than a month before their release date a number of newspapers published images of the stamps, with several tabloids highlighting two of the eight stamps, which showed German aircraft. The first of the two stamps in question showed the wing-tip of a Messerschmitt fighter overshadowed by the wing-tip of a Spitfire; the other stamp showed a Dornier bomber sinking into the sea while Hawker Hurricanes flew above it. The reason for the focus on these stamps was that the German aircraft pictured featured German military emblems, the Balkenkreuz (cross) on the Messerschmitt and the swastika on the Dornier.

The six 4d Battle of Britain se tenant stamps designed by David Gentleman and Rosalind Dease. The two other stamps in this issue showed anti-aircraft artillery, and an air battle over St Pauls cathedral. They were designed by Andrew Restall, and Gentleman and Dease, respectively.

The six 4d Battle of Britain se tenant stamps designed by David Gentleman and Rosalind Dease. The two other stamps in this issue showed anti-aircraft artillery, and an air battle over St Pauls cathedral. They were designed by Andrew Restall, and Gentleman and Dease, respectively.

The inclusion of these emblems, particularly the swastika, caused great concern, with several Members of Parliament and the House of Lords speaking against the stamps. At the same time, representatives of a number of organisations, and many members of the public wrote letters to The Queen, the Prime Minister and Tony Benn, requesting that the Battle of Britain stamps be withdrawn.

A London Rabbi, writing to Benn on behalf of 775 families of his congregation, wrote “Please don’t allow swastika on our stamps. They are the 20th Century symbol of persecution, oppression, suffering and all that is evil”. The president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Mr S. Teff, also expressed his concerns in writing to Benn: “The Board has already received numerous complaints from members of the Jewish community to whom the sight of the swastika in any form is offensive in the extreme.”

A common theme amongst many of the complainants, in particular those who had served in the war, was that issuing a stamp bearing the swastika was an insult to the war dead. Others objected to the swastika appearing alongside the Queen’s head.

Withdrawing the stamps would have been very difficult for the Post Office as the Battle of Britain issue was the first set of stamps to be commissioned since Benn had changed the policy to include stamps commemorating important anniversaries. Indeed, the Battle of Britain stamps had come about partly due to lobbying from the Royal Air Forces Association and a number of Members of Parliament. The issue was also the largest issue of commemorative stamps to date.

Benn and his department took the view that the reason for the objections to the stamps was that the tabloid press articles which had highlighted the stamps featuring German aircraft, had not made clear the purpose of the stamps, and that black and white images of the stamps which appeared in various publications did not effectively convey the subtlety of the designs.

“The purpose of the stamp is to commemorate the victory over Nazism and I am sure that when the stamp is seen in colour it will be quite apparent that the swastika on the tail of the Dornier bomber is both split and half covered by water; the shattered Dornier is sinking in the English Channel and high above four RAF fighters, objective achieved, are flying back to base” wrote one official, in reply to a member of the public.

“In effect, the stamp is meant to be symbolic of the crushing of the Nazis and all that they stood for. We hope you will agree that within the limits of stamp design, it is difficult to do justice to a subject without introducing features of this kind into a series illustrating the Battle of Britain…”

Benn himself said in one letter “I feel that the stamp is a true reflection of that period in our history and…will be seen as a reminder of a great victory over the evil of Nazism. Because of this I do not propose to withdraw it.” He also argued that no objections were raised to the swastika being seen in newsreel footage of German planes, and that the RAF had displayed and flown captured Nazi aircraft on numerous occasions.

Eventually criticism died down, and despite threats to boycott the stamps sales were healthy, although the GPO arranged for adequate stocks of ordinary small size stamps to be available for those who did not wish to purchase the Battle of Britain issue.

Writing in his 2002 book Design, David Gentleman reflected “the tabloids [made] a great furore over the inclusion of a swastika and an iron cross. But without an enemy there would have been no battle and, as the stamps showed the Germans getting the worst of it anyway, the whole manufactured fuss quickly died down.”

The British Postal Museum & Archive holds many files relating to the Battle of Britain stamp issue. Details of these can be found on our online catalogue.

TV detector vans – an urban myth?

by Jenny Karlsson, PR & Communications Officer

Since they were introduced in the 1950s, a lot of controversy has surrounded TV detector vans. Many people were (and still are) convinced that they didn’t work or never even existed. A new BBC Radio 4 programme on Saturday 13th June will set out to investigate this urban myth, drawing upon files from The British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA).

An annual licence fee of 10 shillings was first introduced under the Wireless Telegraphy Act in November 1923 to cover radio sets. The first combined Radio and TV licence was introduced in 1946, costing £2 (the equivalent of £57 in 2006) and covering the monochrome-only single channel BBC television service, and the licences were initially issued and administered by the General Post Office (GPO).

As part of the Post Office campaign to track down users of unlicenced sets, the first TV detector van was constructed in 1952. The detection equipment in the van had been developed at the radio experimental laboratories of the Post Office in Dollis Hill, London. The van was then demonstrated in front of then Postmaster General, Lord De La Warr and Assistant Postmaster General Mr Gammans. In articles covering the demonstration, the Postmaster General was quoted as saying: “The equipment, which is suitable for fitting in a standard Post Office Radio Interference van, enables the majority of working television receivers on both sides of the road to be detected, and the houses containing the receivers to be located, as the vans move along the road”.

In May this year BBC Radio 4 visited the BPMA Search Room in London to conduct research and do recordings for a show about TV detector vans. The aim of the show is to expose the myths about TV detector vans, and is part of a series of programmes in which the comedian Steve Punt (famous from the sketch duo Punt & Dennis and shows like The Mary Whitehouse Experience) investigates urban myths. When the TV detector vans were introduced, many people were convinced that they were empty inside or that the equipment didn’t really work. The BBC team also went out to the BPMA’s Museum Store in Debden, Essex, to have a look at the TV detector van that is on show there. Chris Taft, BPMA Curator and Helen Dafter, BPMA Archivist were both interviewed for the programme.

The BPMA holds a range of records relating to TV licensing and detector vans, such as press cuttings, memos referring to difficulties caused by iron railings and iron girdles, and details of experimental combs, including number of TV sets detected, number of calls made and the results of these calls.

TV licensing was also promoted by poster campaigns. The earliest of these posters held in the archive is from 1951 and states: ‘Don’t be a pirate – A Television and Sound Licence costs £2 for a year’. In reference to this, the prototype detector van was known to some members of the press as “The Jolly Roger”.

Dont Be A Pirate! A Television and Sound Licence costs £2 for a year

Don't Be A Pirate! A Television and Sound Licence costs £2 for a year

Why not listen to the show and make your own mind up about TV detector vans?

BBC Radio 4: Punt Pl
Saturday 13th June 10:30am – 11.00am
The show will be available for one week after the broadcast on the BBC’s iPlayer service.