One of the things archivists love about cataloguing is the thrill of discovery: that feeling you get when you lift the lid on an untouched box, or remove the original string from a bundle of documents, knowing you’re probably the first to do so in decades – possibly even centuries. You never know what you might find!
Sometimes, though, when you’re dealing with a vast, complicated and unexplored set of records, your first feeling is not so much excitement at the prospect of unearthing hidden archival treasure but trepidation at the enormity of the task that lies ahead. You have to get to grips with the way the records fit together, unlock the detailed content held within them, then describe it all quickly, accurately and succinctly so that first-time users will be able to follow it all too. And physically sorting it all can sometimes be like herding cats!
The Winchester Bishopric collection is one such collection (ref 11M59). It’s one of the largest and most significant collections in Hampshire’s county archives and comprises the estate records of successive bishops of Winchester. At its height, the Bishopric estates comprised 60 manors spread across seven counties in southern England. The archive is correspondingly large, comprising 515 boxes and 16 metres of volumes, dating from the 13th to the 20th centuries. The records contain a wealth of place and family name information, and can tell us a huge amount about medieval agriculture, demography, labour and wages, building history, the peasant land market, as well as medieval Winchester and London. Some of the treasures of the collection are the celebrated Winchester Pipe Rolls, dating from 1209 to 1711, which detail income and expenditure across the bishops’ estates. But there are less well-known and little-used series in the collection as well, such as the court papers: nearly a thousand bundles and books which give us a vivid insight into tenants’ misdemeanours, such as dumping waste in the streets and allowing animals to roam, and which also include many lists of tenants’ names.
There’s no easy way for the uninitiated to get access to all this information unless they have a way in, and just as you need the big, laminated book to find what you need when shopping in Argos, so it’s a properly organised catalogue which provides the key to our own collections too. The Bishopric catalogue was much in need of an overhaul to make it more user-friendly and accessible, and to improve and expand the explanatory information. All of this work was carried out in 2013 thanks to a grant-funded project, and the records have now been fully opened up to researchers all over the world for the first time. It’s really gratifying to see both customers and staff using the records and finding what they need far more easily than before.
Linen wrappers which contained court papers.
An interested depositor recently remarked that cataloguing was very much ‘the engine room’ of the record office operation. I think this is a really good comparison, not least because it’s often dirty and physically tiring, and you have to roll up your sleeves to get stuck in. You don’t necessarily see it going on – you may not even be aware it’s happening at all – but it drives the service, guiding customers to the information they need, helping staff to answer enquiries, and providing the first step in all the outreach activities we undertake. That thought keeps you going as you trawl, beetle-browed through the hundreds of bundles of court papers and books to add the details to the catalogue… that, and the discoveries you make as you go – those unexpected gems which help you to touch and smell the past like nothing else, such as the long-lost quill pens, dried-out lumps of candle wax and dessicated insects.
Adrienne Allen, archivist