Faced with 300 years’ worth of Warwickshire Quaker records to catalogue, one of the first things I’ve needed to do since starting the Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers project is understand how the Religious Society of Friends was and is structured in Birmingham and the surrounding area. Research is a crucial part of all cataloguing projects, since the job of the cataloguing archivist is to gain an understanding of the organisation/family/person and its/their records in order to create a catalogue so that researchers can access and use the records.
Working in an archive which is housed in a large public library means I have ready access to many different resources. For my research, I started with a number of general books and journals about the Quakers and Quaker history so that I had an understanding of how they started and developed over time. I spent some time on-line looking at the Quakers in Britain website, in particular Quaker Faith and Practice which outlines what the Friends believe, their structure as an organisation and the different roles which exist at different levels of meetings. The Central Area Meeting website has also proved useful to see where Meetings are currently held. Discovering what other archive collections and Local Studies books we hold relating to the Quakers in Birmingham (quite a lot!), means that I will be able to gain a broader insight into how the Quakers played an instrumental role in the development of the city.
In addition, using the National Archives website, I looked at other local authority archives which have Quaker records in their holdings to see how they have been catalogued. These, and my visits to meet the depositor of the collection, have all proved invaluable sources in providing me with some background and will be very useful to refer back to when I get down to cataloguing and describing the collection in detail.
Much of my time has also been spent familiarising myself with the different record types in the collection and trying to identify how they relate to each other, since context is all important in understanding an archive collection. Luckily for me, a box-list (literally a list of what is in each box) has already been made, so by checking each physical item against the box list I’ve been able to get an idea about the contents of the collection fairly quickly, but actually understanding how the records relate to each other is rather more complicated. While the collection itself is not huge (approximately 750 items), the internal organisation of the Religious Society of Friends over the last 300 years is complex and this is reflected in the records they produced.
There are several layers of administration with their related committees, organisations and associations; the organisation has gone through numerous boundary changes as the numbers of Quakers in the region fluctuated over time and the records themselves cover a large geographical area including Meetings that at various times have been in the counties of Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Leicestershire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire; meeting houses have opened, closed and re-opened, or merged and divided; elements of the administration have been re-named or, most recently, removed from the administrative structure.
To gain a better understanding of what records are in the collection and how they relate to each other, I was inspired by the York: A City Making History blog in which the archivist Justine WB explained how she used mind-mapping software to work out the different functions and relationships of the records within the York City archives. I used the same software (bubbl.us) to plot all of the different Meetings,and their related elements for which records appear in the box-list and having a visual overview of the collection has helped me to start planning a hierarchical structure which will become the backbone of the catalogue.
As with many of the religious archives we hold, it is likely there will be more deposits of material added to this collection in the future, so I need to think about creating a catalogue into which additional records can be slotted as easily as possible after this cataloguing project has finished. To help with this, I’ve created another two mind-maps, one which shows the current Meeting structure for the areas covered in the collection and one which shows the historic Meeting structure since most of the records in the collection were created under the latter structure. This is so I can have a quick reference to which Meetings fit/fitted where, which Meetings still/no longer exist today and under whose administration they fall/fell.
What’s next? Well, I’m continuing going through the boxes and adjusting the mind-maps as I go to ensure that they accurately reflect what is in the records. I’m also plotting another mind-map which will show all of the record groups which exist in the collection, and equipped with this more visual impression of the collection and its contents, I can start thinking about how I will arrange the records. More about this in another blog post….
Eleanor Project Archivist (Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers)