This is the first in a series of posts by Paige Wilson and Imogen Bird, students on the MA Modern History. Imogen and Paige reflect on their experience of a placement in Special Collections.

As part of a MA module, we took a placement enhancing the catalogue of the WW2 Domestic Front series in the Liddle Collection. This series focuses on the domestic front in Britain throughout the war. Most of the files are about the lives of women, but there is also material from children, and a male conscientious objector so the collection is very varied. It includes documents relating to typical home front associations like rations and evacuation but contains interesting records on entertainment and recreation. Enhancing the catalogue of the series has showcased its richness and variety.

To start the process of cataloguing, we began to look through the contents of each file. We took notes as we went through and wrote down key dates, subjects, noteworthy people, places and sensitivity issues. We also recorded noteworthy aspects including the forms of the documents like education records, ration books or identity cards. This seemed in theory a smart plan, but we had to be less specific and broaden our descriptions of what the folders contained as the catalogue is meant to be concise yet informative. We switched from lengthy descriptions to using keywords. Once we finished going through all 22 domestic front files, we moved onto cataloguing.

Advertisements in school magazine for Edward VI school, Edgbaston.
Pages from ‘Twixt rail and road’ the school magazine of Edward’s Grammar School for Girls, Camp Hill, Winter 1942. Liddle/WW2/DF/002. Image credit Leeds University Library.

The catalogue already contained descriptions of the files, but we planned to enrich them by adding detail and more specificity. We also enhanced the files by adding subject, place, and persons which were not very specific in the original catalogue. Adding these index terms to the new catalogue, allows the files to be searched by keyword and plotted on maps and other resources that enhance archive usability and visibility. This is where our prior notetaking came in very useful. In the Dorothy Harris file, the record of her 1934 tour of Germany was well described but required tags of the locations mentioned including Berlin and Dresden. It also needed subject tags such as travel, and organisation tags like Thomas Cook.

As we began to work on the catalogue, we realised the collection had an abundance of sensitive material. This was not highlighted in the old catalogue. We had a hard time describing what we would classify as sensitive as perceptions have changed since the 1930s and 1940s, but we decided to be cautious. We concluded that we should put a sensitive mark on subjects that anyone could be affected by. For example, we included wartime disasters, derogatory terms used to describe marginalised groups, and any traumatic experiences of children. The Dorothy Harris file included references to marginalised groups in Nazi Germany which needed to be flagged to make people aware before viewing the file.

We then moved onto the next process of our cataloguing. We were privileged enough to work with a recent introduction to archival cataloguing the Faceted Application of Subject Terminology (FAST) for short. This is a subject schema from library cataloguing. We used FAST to link the domestic front archives to other collections and to the World War One section of the Liddle Collection through keyword terms. The files can be retrieved by keyword searches which do not need to be too specific. We will be blogging about this in a future post.