Friday, 20 September 2013

Creating Order From Chaos

Did you know that before you as a researcher can use new collections here at Hull History Centre our archivists have to get busy behind the scenes sorting these collections?
When collections come to us they often arrive in a state of chaos and it is our job to make them easy to use. Before we can do that we need to make sense of them ourselves. This is because part of the archivist’s work is to determine if the creator of a collection kept it in any kind of order, and if such an order is present we must seek to preserve it and reflect this in our catalogue. 

By doing so we can tell something about the way an organisation or individual managed their records and through this see their ways of working. Now, in some cases this job is easy as collections are neatly packaged up and labelled prior to being brought to us. However, more often we find that we have our work cut out.

Me amongst a pile of boxes during the sorting process
A case in point is the papers of socialist barrister John Platts-Mills. Now, when we started this collection we thought ‘a barrister has to have a logical brain to be good at his job so his papers should be in good order’…little did we know!

What we initially thought would be a 6 week project turned out to be a 2 and half month slog. When we opened the boxes to complete a first list of the material in the collection we found a bomb site. The remains of correspondence files were loose in boxes, bundles of papers were kept together in plastic shopping bags, and multiple part files were scattered throughout the collection.

Before we could begin to preserve Platts-Mills’ original order we had to work out what that order might have been. In such cases our work takes on the role of the detective looking for clues.

As we worked through the boxes it became apparent that our barrister had used a system of subject based filing to order his professional papers. We could tell by the file names he had used and the common themes observable in bundle of gathered papers. It also became apparent that he had made a distinction between his legal case work and his personal files which seemed to bear the prefix of ‘p’ or ‘personal’ before the subject title. Thus we could begin to determine a structure for the collection.

Sorting the correspondence
The next challenge was to tackle the loose correspondence. Whilst most of it appeared to be in unbound clumps ordered by year some of it was grouped into subjects and cases. Here we had to make a decision, order the correspondence chronologically by year but in doing so loose the evidence of the second filing system, or did we take another approach. We opted for the latter. We decided that it was best to re-integrate the grouped correspondence into the main subject files where possible and that any remaining homeless correspondence would be kept together in its existing groupings and we would create subject files to reflect Platts-Mills’ own ordering system.

With this intellectual chaos sorted we could now turn our attentions to the physical chaos. This task involved reuniting separated parts of files, re-integrating loose items into subject files, sorting correspondence into chronological files and repackaging into archival folders. After this was accomplished our last task was to put the folders into the order determined in our catalogue. As you can see from the photos this was the fun part and we might have made a box fort or two in the process!

The collection is now catalogued, see the source guide or search our online catalogue

Claire Weatherall
Project Archivist

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