Eighteenth Century Record Keeping…..

QS/1 is the series of Sessions Order Books, an official record of much of the business of the Quarter Sessions. QS/1/20 is the book for the years 1759-1776 and is packed full of interesting bits and pieces of information. Tucked away on the bottom of page 343, written for Easter Sessions 1768, is an innocuous comment that could easily be skimmed over, but which caught the attention of one of our volunteers:

“Ordered that the arms and old military stores now in the chamber of the chapel be removed from there to a more convenient place and that the gunpowder now in the chamber adjoining to the Record Room in the castle be forthwith removed from thence and that there be never anymore put there for the futureā€.

While I’m glad that some clear-headed folks decided to start implementing some sensible record keeping procedures in 1768, (because, thankfully, we still have the Quarter Sessions records to enjoy) I have to ask who on earth thought putting gunpowder next to the records room was a good idea in the first place! We’ll never know of course, but from a twenty-first century perspective it illustrates a few interesting points about attitudes to records.

At some point, after all, people either weren’t too bothered that these records might get lost in a calamity, or at least didn’t place storing them safely as too high a priority, and yet later on attitudes changed and the records were regarded as meriting much safer storage. There were probably plenty of possibilities for these records to become destroyed or damaged in their history, yet they survive, really, because ultimately they’ve been deemed to have some value. The value placed on these records has been variable at times as this example neatly illustrates, but they have at least been kept, despite everything that’s happened around them down the centuries. There’s an interesting point to be made here, too. It’s an irony known among archive and conservation professionals that often rare books and manuscripts have been given, historically what was then effectively regarded as being scrap paper for the end papers of the binding. Occasionally such documents as these are now regarded as being of enormous historic value in their own right, simply because of their comparative rarity, yet to our ancestors, they were scrap, and expendable. In other words, both the records deemed worthy of keeping and those deemed scrap have turned out to have a value to society in the end.

There’s all sorts of side debates we could fall into here about the records of our own time, and what exactly constitutes a historic document or a document likely to become regarded as having a historic or heritage value, and to a large extent there are often no easy answers for some material. The judgements we make today might be ones our descendants regard as invalid, of course, and it may come to pass that in centuries to come archivists and archive users place a vast historic value on records that we today currently don’t. That’s the way of the world, I suppose, but one thing we can be glad about is that although our society will doubtless not preserve everything our descendants would wish it had done, at least those records we do decide to keep should be kept, in theory, a lot more safely than the Sessions bundles were up until 1768!


Cataloguing: General Approach

As I promised in my first blog post, this blog will be something of an insight into the world of a cataloguing archivist. The Quarter Sessions material being catalogued in this project comprises a vast bulk of judicial and administrative documentation, and I thought it would be interesting to demonstrate how I’m approaching the challenge of taking all this uncatalogued documentation and turning it into a catalogued, searchable resource for archive users.

The general approach I’ve taken with the material is to break down each roll into its constituent document types, and create file and then item-level descriptions for these document types. A search room user will be able to look at the Qurarter Sessions Bundles, navigate down a level to the year they’re interested in, then down another level to the session (Epiphany, Easter, Midsummer or Michaelmas) and then down a further level to the kind of document they’re after, such as the recognisances, or highways material. The level below that is the item level description, where the individual document is described.

So, why is it that I’ve chosen this particular approach? Well, there are several main reasons, some of which are more archival in nature and others which stem partly from a practicality point of view. For starters, one of the things I noticed in my first week in the job, when I took a look at the strongrooms and viewed the material I’d be cataloguing, is that for most years of Quarter Sessions bundle material, there’s an accompanying ‘loose documents’ box. These boxes have tended to contain (in the cases of those for the 1730s) documentation from throughout the decade, and for a given year, documentation for all the different sessions within that judicial year. It became clear in the first week then that cataloguing this material was also going to involve considerable sorting of documentation in order to impart, well, order to these documents.

Since I was going to be sorting these boxes of documentation out as I went anyway, it made sense as I was doing the sorting into year and session to carry on sorting into document type as well. While this sorting is often quite time-consuming (and it’s something I will be pitching for volunteers to assist with soon) it nevertheless has a large number of benefits later down the line. Currently, for those sessions bundles that are not catalogued, if a search room user needs to consult the sessions bundles, it’s necessary to issue them with a large amount of documentation to look through.

The advantage of the system I’ve begun to catalogue to is that now, instead of having to issue a bundle’s worth of documentation (which can often be composed of hundreds of documents), a search room user can be much more specific about what it is they wish to see. If, for example, their search has only brought up the discharge paper for Elizabeth Richards of Cullompton, widow, from the Michaelmas session 1735, the user needs only be issued with one document from a group of two. This has benefits for the user, in that they’re not faced with a large amount of documentation to work through, for the staff producing the material, and it’s also better from a conservation point of view, because instead of having to have every document in that bundle produced, as is unavoidable for the uncatalogued material, only one or two documents should actually need to be issued.

While, as I’ve noted above, the sorting of the documentation in order to prepare it for cataloguing in this way can be quite time-consuming, the nature of the way the documents have accumulated over the centuries here means that a considerable amount of sorting was already going to be on the cards anyway, so why not take the opportunity whilst doing so to arrange the material in a way that is as user-friendly and (document-friendly!) as possible? In this way the process of arrangement and cataloguing becomes part of the overall framework of preservation of the archival collections, rather than just an exercise in listing and describing what’s held.