Behind the ever-developing theories and methods for working with archives, there are two central tenets that archivists can pretty much agree on: access and preservation.
This cataloguing project is targeted primarily at access, but as the rain fell and the river levels rose in York over the weekend, our attention switched back to preservation as we checked the basement in one of our strongrooms for flood water coming through the floor.
Water has always been a threat to records in York. The York civic records were once kept in St William’s chapel on Ouse Bridge (not the current bridge, or the one before, but the one before that), but by the late nineteenth century had ended up in the Guildhall. A strongroom was provided for them, but unfortunately it was in the basement by the river. In the introduction to his catalogue of 1909, deputy town clerk William Giles wrote:
“They had been there but a very short time when the flood occurred which inundated the basement of the building and saturated the greater portion of the records, doing considerable damage to them.”
However, he noted that the damage actually went back much further than that particular flood as:
“Some…were gradually mouldering away…and it was but a question of time when they would have fallen to pieces and [been] lost altogether.”
But good things can come from bad; if it hadn’t been for the 1892 flood Giles might never have spotted the poor condition of the records, secured expert advice and conservation and then written his list so that the City of York knew what it had and had a duty to protect. His catalogue only covers a part of the collection, but was written (in his spare time!) because preservation and access were important to him.
Whilst parchment and paper can be surprisingly robust, it’s still amazing the events records have endured, and that anything has come down to us at all! From wars and plagues, to fires and floods, what we survives today is what people before us preserved (accidentally or on purpose), and what archive repositories make accessible in the present, add to, and then pass on to the future.
Happily, we didn’t get flooded this weekend, but even if we had found a few puddles, the historical records will be fine as they are stored away from the basement (which is chiefly used for temporary storage of non-archival material). However, it is obviously not an ideal situation! So, work is underway on the Gateway to History project, a major bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund asking for around £1.5 million to help bring access and preservation at the archives up to 21st century standards. You can find out how it is going on the website, or sign up for occasional project newsletters by mailing firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Please add me to your mailing list”.