Category Archives: Behind the Scenes

Looking at the the work that goes on in Birmingham Archives & Heritage and the people that do it.

Archives in the balance

Weighing scales, somewhat less sophisticated than the ones used in the Wolfson Centre. [MS 2628/4/4/2]

 Astute users of the Wolfson Centre may have noticed that we weigh items in the Wolfson Centre before serving them and when we receive them back at the desk.  I have been asked many times if that’s because we think people are inveterate thieves.  Of course we do – there will always be that one person who will nick anything.  But that’s not the only reason, there is also the fact that digital scales are cool.  What often surprises researchers though is that we don’t just weigh items to check that nothing has been taken out, but also to check that nothing has been put back in!  Why is this?  Well, I shall tell you, dear reader:

Theory lesson

Foremost early 20th century archival theorist, Sir Hilary Jenkinson wrote that the role of the archivist is the ‘physical and moral defence’ of archives.  So what have scales got to do with this?  Well firstly, we’re dealing with the physical defence by making sure that none of the material goes missing.  But perhaps more crucially, we’re charged with the moral defence of the material.  Now, we all know the archives are evidence of a transaction (you knew that, right?) but what makes them so important and useful to historians is their ‘impartiality’ and ‘authenticity’, i.e. the fact that we know the records haven’t been messed with and are the same today as they were when the transaction occurred.

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Meet the team at Archives & Collections

The Iron Room has been going for just over 4 years now and, following a conversation with one of our Archivists late last year, we realised that we have probably never properly introduced ourselves! There have been many changes to the department over the last 12 months so we thought we would wait until the dust settles and then write about the faces you are likely to see in the department…..

RC GB for blog

Rachel and Geoff at the desk in the Heritage Research Area

Our staff work both sides of the ‘counter’ in the Heritage Research Area (HRA) and the Wolfson Centre – we all worked at Central Library although many of us are now in different roles.

KH PD SA for blog

Peter, Kathryn and Saley behind the counter in the Wolfson Centre

Our Archives & Collections Manager is Corinna Rayner, ably supported by the rest of the team – Paul, our Archives & Collections Coordinator (who will be a familiar face to many I’m sure!), Archivists Peter and Nicola, and Project Archivist Eleanor. Rachel, Kathryn and Saley (our newest member of the team) are our Senior Assistants and last but not least, Geoff and  Stephen, our Archives & Collections Assistants.

Eleanor, our Project Archivist

Eleanor, our Project Archivist

Corinna and Nicola processing accessions in the Wolfson Centre

Nicola and Corinna processing accessions in the Wolfson Centre

We will do our best to assist with any queries so if you do visit, please don’t be afraid to ask for help!

From boxes to trees

Tree WKH5206

Victoria Park, Handsworth, December 1895 (from the Warwickshire Photographic Survey, ref WK/H5/206)

Have you ever wondered when you look at our on-line catalogues or use our paper catalogues in the searchroom how archivists decide to arrange a collection? What do we do when we are faced with shelves and shelves of records which may have been randomly boxed together or may have been re-organised several times by the time they reach us?

Well, without going into too much detail about archival theory, there are a couple of key principles which underpin the work of archivists and which differentiates archival cataloguing from that of library cataloguing. Records derive their meaning from the context in which they were created so when arranging a collection of records, archivists aim to preserve this context. To do so, they follow the principles of provenance and original order. The principle of provenance dictates that records created or collected by an organisation, family or individual should be maintained together and not mixed with records created or collected by another organisation, family or individual. The principle of original order dictates that records should be arranged in the order in which they were created and used.

In practice, this means that for each new organisation, family or individual who deposits records in the archive, a new collection is created. However, identifying the original order can be rather more difficult because this has often been lost over time as records pass from one generation to the next, frequently being organised and re-organised before they are deposited in an archive. This is why one of the first things a cataloguing archivist does is to spend time researching the organisation, family or individual and analysing the records to try to work out how the records would have been created and kept so that this can be reflected in the arrangement of the collection.  The aim is to build up a logical arrangement which maintains the context of the records and helps researchers to easily explore the collection via the catalogue.

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Celebrating minute books

Blue Celebrated

Central England Area Meeting Warkwickshire Quarterly Meeting 1695-1743, list of meetings 1718

Central England Area Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (2011/029) Warwickshire Quarterly Meeting minute book 1660s-1743, list of meetings 1718.

Minute books often have the perception of being a bit dry, but I’m a big fan of them! Why? Because they contain a wealth of detailed information about all aspects of how an organisation is run which is not necessarily visible from a public standpoint, giving a fascinating behind the scenes glimpse of what issues organisations faced, why decisions were made and how solutions were implemented. This is fortunate as the majority of the records in the Central England Area Religious Society of Friends archives are minute books so I’m going to be working with them in some depth during the Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers cataloguing project.

For this blog post I’ve selected one of the earliest volumes in the collection. It’s a vellum and leather bound minute book with metalwork, containing the minutes of the Warwickshire Quarterly Meeting, and according to the spine it covers the period 1695 – 1743. The Quarterly Meeting is the highest administrative level in the records we hold (though in recent years the structure of the Society of Friends has changed) and in the early days of the Meeting, it corresponded to the Warwickshire county boundary. Above that at national level is the Yearly Meeting. Below it, at regional level is the Monthly Meeting and under that, at local level is the Preparative Meeting.

Warks QM 1695 meeting hierarchy 2

Central England Area Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (2011/029) Warwickshire Quarterly Meeting minute book 1660s-1743, list of meetings n.d. [17th century].

This hierarchy is nicely illustrated in the inside cover, where there is a list of the Monthly and Preparative Meetings within the Warwickshire Quarterly Meeting. At this time, Warwickshire had three Monthly Meetings: Brailes, Warwick and Wishaw; and fourteen Men’s Preparative Meetings: Long Compton, Brailes, Radway, Ettington, Warwick, Coventry, Stratford, Southam, Meriden, Birmingham, Baddsley Ensor, Wishaw, Henley-in-Arden and Fulford Heath. This structure, with a few more meetings, is also illustrated in the top image from 1718.

Turning to the first few pages of the minute book, it quickly becomes obvious that the minutes don’t actually start on the first page and the dates the volume covers are considerably earlier than those given on the front cover. First of all there is a list of individuals who in the early 1660s were sent to prison for variously, ‘keeping meeting’, ‘tithes’, ‘refuseing to sweare’. This is what the Quakers called Sufferings and referred to the religious persecution they suffered and of which they were careful to keep detailed records.

‘Edward corbitt & John corbitt & Thomas Walker of brales in t[he] Countie of Warwick where cast into prison for tithes th[e] 10th day of the 6th mongth 1666 & George Weyott was sent to prison upon th[e] sam acompt th[e] 7th day of th[e] 9th in th[e] yeare before mentioned’

Central England Area Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (2011/029) Warwickshire Quarterly Meeting minute book 1660s-1743.

The above entry reads:

Edward corbitt & John corbitt & Thomas Walker of brales in t[he] Countie of Warwick where cast into prison for tithes th[e] 10th day of the 6th mongth 1660 & George Weyott was sent to prison upon th[e] sam acompt th[e] 7th day of th[e] 9th in th[e] yeare before mentioned

Central England Area Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (2011/029) Warwickshire Quarterly Meeting minute book 1660s-1743, list of imprisoned Friends

Central England Area Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (2011/029) Warwickshire Quarterly Meeting minute book 1660s-1743, list of imprisoned Friends.

At this time, the Church of England was the only religion allowed so the Friends were persecuted, not only for holding meetings for worship in their houses but also because they refused to pay church tithes which financed the maintenance of churches. They also refused to swear an oath on the Bible in court, justifying it by claiming that since telling the truth was integral to their way of life, swearing to tell the truth in court was unnecessary. Over the page there is a list of people who ‘suffered 26 weekes imprisonment for meeting together in th[e] worshipe of god’

Further details about Quaker sufferings records can be found on Quaker Strongrooms, the Library of the Society of Friends blog.

It isn’t until quite a few pages further on into the volume that a note in the margin tells us that the first regular meeting was held on 18th day of the 1st month 1695/6 and this indicates that it took a while before the Warwickshire Quakers formalised their business meetings on paper.

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First steps

Going through the boxes2

Checking a box of records from the Central England Area Society of Friends records (2011/029) against the box list.

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.

Some of the books I have been reading.

Some of the books I have been reading.

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.

Mind-map showing the structure of Meetings within the Central England Area of the Society of Friends and its predecessors.

Mind-map showing the structure of Meetings within the Central England Area of the Religious Society of Friends and its predecessors.

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.

Close up of mindmap

Close up of the mind-map showing the different elements of Bull Street Preparative/Local Meeting

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. Continue reading

A lesson in good record-keeping from the Quakers

Letter from the Clerk of the Central Offices of the Society of Friends in London to the Clerks of Quarterly, Monthly and Preparative Meetings in Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting reports relating to minutes, 1904-1907, (2011/029).

Letter from the Clerk of the Central Offices of the Society of Friends in London to the Clerks of Quarterly, Monthly and Preparative Meetings in Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting reports relating to minutes, 1904-1907, (2011/029).

 

Last week, while looking through a volume of reports in one of the 158 boxes containing archives of the Central England Area Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (1662-c.2000), I came across a 1904 letter from the Clerk of the Central Offices of the Society of Friends in London to the Clerks of Quarterly, Monthly and Preparative Meetings throughout the country about the preservation of their records, a matter deemed of ‘grave importance’. In particular, the Clerk wrote that the Library and Printing Committee had concerns about the durability of ink and paper used in type-written documents. The Clerk explained that having sought the advice from Professor Silvanus P. Thompson (1851-1916), a member of the Friends and ‘a well-known scientist’ (now known for his work in the fields of physics and electrical engineering), it was recommended that Meetings should carefully consider Thompson’s opinions:

‘The purple and green inks in vogue for type-writing are usually made from aniline dyes and are not permanent but will fade after a few years. But the type-written copies made by impressions from a carbon transfer paper are more permanent, and will not fade. Quite of equal importance in my opinion, is the quality of paper. The thick spongy papers so often used in type-writing, are not durable, being often made from wood-pulp, or containing wood pulp. They will go to dust in twenty or twenty-five years. Much to be preferred is a hard-surfaced, thin paper; and if possible it should be a paper guaranteed from linen rags. Cheap papers are almost always made of material that will not last.’

While I was aware that the Quakers are scrupulous record keepers, I had not appreciated that they would also have such forethought in terms of the preservation of their records. From an archivist’s point of view, if all organisations followed the Quaker approach to record-keeping, our work would be a lot easier! Evidence of planned recordkeeping and preservation by record creators is generally unusual in the archive collections we hold and it is particularly unusual to find evidence of this from over a century ago. However, as a result of the persecution they suffered in the 17th century, over time the Quakers developed a clearly defined organisational structure from national to local level and with it they became assiduous record creators, carefully recording the details of their lives because they did not have access to the formal institutions which did this for everyone else. As a result of their careful approach to record creation, recordkeeping and preservation, Quaker records are a rich resource for researchers, and those of the Central England Area Meeting are an important source for the religious, social, economic history of Birmingham and the surrounding areas as well as for anti-slavery campaigns and international humanitarian causes which the Quakers were involved in.

 

Map showing Quaker Meetings within Warwickshire, Leicestershire and Staffordshire Quarterly Meeting, 1894. From MS 4039 (2008/087) The Lloyd Papers, roll 2, supplement to The Friend, 1894.

Map showing Quaker Meetings within Warwickshire, Leicestershire and Staffordshire Quarterly Meeting, 1894. From MS 4039 (2008/087) The Lloyd Papers, roll 2, supplement to The Friend, 1894.

 

It seems particularly poignant to have found this document when the Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers Cataloguing Project funded by a National Archives Cataloguing Grant, has just started. The project aims to catalogue the records of the Central England Area Meeting. The collection includes records of the Quarterly Meeting (the highest organisational level below the national Yearly Meeting) from 1675 onwards. It also includes records of the Warwickshire Monthly Meeting from 1662, which subsequently divides into Warwickshire North, Warwickshire South and Warwickshire Middle Meetings and the records of the local Preparative Meetings, which include among others Baddsley, Coventry, Dudley, Stourbridge, Shipston, Hartshill, Leamington, Warwick, Redditch, Walsall and the numerous Birmingham-based Meetings at Bull Street, George Road, Selly Oak, Bournville, and Moseley among others. In addition, there are records of a number of special committees established to deal with areas of particular concern such as the Anti-slavery, Education, Housing Conditions, and Peace Committees, and records of the Young Friends, the Friends Sunday School Union and the Friends Temperance Association. The records themselves mainly consist of minutes, but there are also reports, records of Sufferings, correspondence, financial records, property records, membership records, and birth and burial records.

Over the next year on the blog, I will be updating you on the project and writing about some of the fascinating records in the collection.

Eleanor Woodward, Project Archivist (Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers)

A Century of Stories

Regular readers of our blog may remember that we have had archivist Gary Collins working with us  on the archive of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in preparation for their centenary celebrations. Now that the Rep has reopened after their refurbishment this work has transformed into a great exhibition in the Rep Foyer.

REP100 004Hidden in a series of intriguing cases are several drawers housing some of the treasures of the Rep archive including a miniature stage set, programmes and early costume designs. These tell the story of the company over the last 100 years.

You can also start an audio trail which will take you around the city whilst hearing founder Barry Jackson talk.

 

REP100 006My favourite exhibit is the amazing tree sculpture which you cannot miss. It has faces of many of the people who have been part of the success of the Rep  over its life so far. It is quite fun spotting some of the more familiar faces.

Now that we share a foyer it is easy to visit the exhibition and I would recommend popping along if you are visiting us. Or if the weather is making you feel like staying in you can see a lot of online here .

If you would like to know more about the Rep and it’s archive you can hear Collections Curator Sian Roberts talking at the Library next Tuesday 12.30 – 1.30. Places are free but we recommend you reserve a space through the Box Office.

REP100 007

Kathryn Hall Events & Marketing Assistant