Cataloguing the estate archive of the Robartes family of Lanhydrock
Cornwall Record Office (CRO) was awarded a grant under the National Cataloguing Grants Programme which enabled the record office to catalogue, clean and package the estate archive of the Robartes family of Lanhydrock.
The Robartes collection is owned by The National Trust and is on permanent deposit at the CRO and the collection contains a wealth of information about:
- the family’s extensive landholdings and tenants across Cornwall
- their political activities
- mining and other industrial and business interests
- their involvement in and contribution to the local communities in Cornwall
The Record Office developed a volunteer programme to support the project with volunteers working both at Cornwall Record Office and Lanhydrock House. A project archivist managed the work on a day-to-day basis.
Challenges and opportunities
Staff at Cornwall Record Office were aware of the popularity of the estate archive and recognised potential of the collection for wider research and use in learning activities if access to the collection was enhanced – both in terms of physical access and catalogue information.
The collection was initially divided over two locations:
- Cornwall Record Office, where the majority of the collection was held and available to researchers and accessed through limited catalogue information
- Lanhydrock House, where the collection was not available for public consultation
The challenge was to catalogue a collection which was distributed across two locations.
There was already an established relationship between staff at the Record Office and staff and volunteers at Lanhydrock House delivering learning activities in partnership and sharing research.
The project offered an opportunity to develop this relationship further by establishing an ongoing volunteer programme in relation to the Robartes collection based at Lanhydrock House. There was also an opportunity to benefit from the local knowledge and input of a team of volunteers already established at Lanhydrock House, who had already been carrying out some cataloguing work on the archives there.
As the record office staff were potentially involved in a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) project to relocate the service, timing and completion of the cataloguing project before this stage of the HLF project started was essential.
Responding to the challenges and opportunities
Employing a dedicated project archivist with experience of managing volunteers meant the project was delivered successfully across the two sites using a group of volunteers based at either the Record Office or at Lanhydrock. Some volunteers worked alongside Record Office staff cleaning, numbering and packing the records.
The project archivist was responsible for the day-to-day management of the project and cataloguing of the collection across the two sites, recruiting and supervising the group of volunteers.
Volunteers were drawn from the group who were already involved in stewarding and other activities at Lanhydrock House. This meant that volunteers were able to use their knowledge of the Lanhydrock Estate to identify plans of unknown buildings and sites.
The project archivist developed project guidelines, cataloguing templates and training materials before the volunteers began work which ensured that they understood the processes involved. Record Office staff delivered training to the project volunteers in:
- cataloguing skills and standards
- document types
- the use of computer aided library management (CALM) cataloguing software
- document preservation
The house manager at Lanhydrock helped oversee volunteers working at Lanhydrock, especially on those days when the project archivist was not working at the house.
Other points to note are:
- using a cross-referencing system to mitigate issues of renumbering documents which have been in the public domain for many years
- informing regular users of the collections about the changes
We replaced the existing catalogue on CALM with one that was compliant with multi-level General International Standard for Archival Description (ISAD (G)), which had defined series. This made the collection more accessible to researchers. New reference codes and location numbers have been allocated to the documents.
Thirty-one volunteers in total participated in the project contributing 1533.55 hours over a 53 week period. They gave, on average, three hours of their time per week to the project and worked through approximately 1,533 deeds and leases, and over 740 individual items in the rental series. Volunteers are now confident with data entry onto the computer systems and follow the guidelines for data entry with few complications.
A Visitor Services Assistant working at Lanhydrock said this project was also hugely important for:
- furthering knowledge of the Agar-Robartes family and the ways in which they worked
- enabling employees to give visitors to Lanhydrock a better understanding of the family and a real depth of knowledge of the way they lived
- providing the opportunity to further knowledge of the type of documents which might be useful in tracing one’s ancestors
During the project, the project archivist and volunteers shared information about the cataloguing work and highlights from the collection on the Records Office Facebook page, website and quarterly newsletter, on the Lanhydrock house manager’s blog and the Lanhydrock page on the National Trust website.
Promotion of the project and the National Trust Event ‘Conservation in Action’.
What went well? What didn’t go quite as well?
- preparatory work undertaken by record office staff enabled cataloguing work to start promptly once the project archivist was in post
- the House is closed to the public over the winter months, meaning that the volunteers had more time to devote to the project during this time
- historical writing proved a challenge for the volunteers at times
- the project was extended by 15 weeks to accommodate the changing working pattern of the project archivist
- many of the volunteers were of retirement age and preferred the ‘pen and paper’ approach rather than using computers
- the project has been recognised as a national exemplar within the National Trust and has been highlighted within their ‘Archives Toolkit’
- a core group of volunteers have shown interest in maintaining the programme during 2015, and further volunteers have been recruited from outside of the National Trust
- the project created a structured catalogue, tackled the complex, older and key material in line with agreed priorities, established best practice frameworks for cataloguing homogeneous series of records such as letter books
- clear guidelines may help volunteers stay on track but there is always room for interpretation, editing does need to be programmed in
Developing this work in the future
- ongoing process of editing volunteer contributions to expand the catalogue entries
- recruiting more volunteers to the project from the house stewards’ team to maintain sustainability of the project
- final exhibition to promote the collections on display in a number of venues including the Cornish Studies Library and Lanhydrock House
- developing further joint outreach and learning activities at Lanhydrock House
- using the collection further in CRO’s learning and outreach programme, delivered across the county – particularly in schools
- potentially using the framework developed during the Robartes project, models for cataloguing, involvement of volunteers and relationships between Record Office and National Trust Staff have the potential to be applied in future project work
Find out more about the collection.