The Friends of the
National Railway Museum

South of England Group
Vice Presidents: Richard Hardy; Sir William McAlpine Bt, FRSE, FCIT, FRSA

Last Update

Talk Synopsis

25 May 2009

The NRM Search Engine
Richard Taylor
12 February 2007

It was standing room only on 12th February when Richard gave us an insight into this major project aimed at "opening up the NRM's hidden archive to all". Richard has strong family links to the York site - his grandmother's house was located on what is now the museum‘s Car Park entrance and his father worked for a time in the locomotive depot offices. He has been a member of the Friends well before he joined the Museum as Collections Access Manager in 1998.

The Archive
Richard pointed to the public duties set for the NRM in the Railway Heritage Act 1983 which, amongst others, requires them to "ensure the objects are available to persons seeking to inspect them in conjunction with study or research". This task is undertaken by the 8 staff in the library and collections service. Even with the limited access so far available, the scale of this mission is impressive with, in a typical year, over 16000 remote enquiries (by telephone, letter or e-mail), and 1500 personal visitors - there are over 10,000 formally registered holders of library readers' tickets. The audience is a mixture of "Life-long Learners" (Politically-Correct-speak for railway enthusiasts!), students, academic researchers, partnership volunteers and, of course, NRM staff. The collection is probably the largest railway-related archive in the world, as is appropriate for the world's largest railway museum, comprising 1.5 million photographs (from 1850 onwards), 750,000 engineering drawings (1820 onwards), over 20,000 books, a major collection of railway graphic and advertising literature (dating back to the 1820s), and an ever-growing collection of sound recordings, personal and business documentation. For historic reasons the latter is distributed between York, Kew, Edinburgh and various other locations - something Search Engine won‘t be able to remedy, but at least it will provide for the first time a single national enquiry point for railway history.
Richard's presentation included a taster of what is in the archive. He showed example advertising posters, official photographs taken for training, research, design, and advertising purposes, and drawings of locomotives and wagons. A recent gem acquired by the Museum is the Backhouse letter - written by a very observant 14 year old to his sisters, which includes a first-hand account of the opening ceremony of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, together with the first known child‘s sketch of a train. The latter is considered to be so accurate that it is being used to cross check other narratives of the event. The sound archive has recently benefitted from the donation of the entire railway archive of Peter Handford who generously gave copyright as well. For those who don't know, Peter is now retired after a highly successful professional career as a film sound recordist, his credits include features such as "Out of Africa" and "Murder on the Orient Express". He recorded railway sounds using the same professional equipment and, as a consequence, they really capture the full ambience of the steam railway environment. The archive includes commercial railway recordings, such as the only two records produced of the Rev. W. Audrey reading his own "Thomas The Tank Engine" stories - they were not a commercial success! The archive is forever receiving new donations - Richard showed a short extract of a colour film of steam snow ploughs in action, taken by an amateur cameraman not far from where "Snowdrift at Bleath Gill" was filmed by BTF.

The Problem
So what's the problem in making all these fascinating items available to the public? Basically, it falls into three categories:

  • Meeting rising demand
  • Poor user access and working facilities
  • and unacceptable standards of care for the archive.

Dealing with the last of these, Richard showed photographs of the various rooms at the NRM that have been pressed into service as archive stores. None were specifically designed for the purpose and the last 30 years, and specifically the last 15 "privatization" years, have required crisis management methods to cope with the flood of material coming from closing premises and businesses. Material is pushed into all sorts of corners, often uncatalogued and unsorted - the alternative would have been it ending in a skip somewhere at its original site. Inevitably these press-ganged stores are far from ideal - indeed the store under the Peter Allan building is subject to flooding from drain water, often requiring Richard and his staff to paddle through water to rescue priceless drawings from damage. The Museum has used its limited money as best it can to target material that is at greatest risk of damage - such as investing in archive-quality photographic storage cabinets. But even these, and their associated catalogues, are not ideally located for researchers. Indeed, turning to the other two issues, the old reading room could only accommodate 6 seats and that was only possible because the staff had been relocated into the library store itself - they may like books but it‘s difficult to work efficiently if you are barricaded in by them! The result is that access is insufficient to meet even current needs, let alone the growth in demand.

The Plan
Although in these days of the Internet and World Wide Web, people think automatically of computer databases as the way to store reference material, it is not that simple. Not only will it take time to scan in and catalogue the Museum's existing archive (Richard estimates 240 person-years for the photographic and drawing collections), but material continues to come to the Museum in hard-copy form. Current business documents now originate in computer form (e-mails, DTP documents, spreadsheets etc.) but there is still some 25 years of paper records still out there somewhere in the industry that will, ultimately, find its way to the Museum. So the need to keep real material (books, documents, plans, and photographs) will continue for some time. This is not to overlook the requirement that for some research there is no substitute for studying the original. To accommodate this storage requirement and give access to it, the Museum has embarked on a two phase process.
Phase One will comprise a major redevelopment of the administration and balcony area of the Great Hall. This will provide an archive public exhibition area showing some key 'Treasures from the Archive', a drop-in public reference library with informal seating, and a more formal study area for use by students and schools. Further along the gallery, there will be a reception desk for access to the research study rooms giving controlled access to anything in the archive. This "quiet space" will be divided into two so that, if necessary, one area can be used for individual study and the other for group working. It is possible that visitors will be encouraged to bring their own laptops and other electronic equipment to support their study, both increasing flexibility and reducing the Museum's costs. The entire wall of the gallery complex will be glazed over, so encouraging casual visitors to come up to see what is going on. This public-side will be backed up by new archive storage space allowing the material to be kept in proper conditions with easier access by staff. Elsewhere, the conference facilities will be expanded although the current lecture theatre will be retained.
This development will not be cheap. Current estimates put phase 1 at over £4M of which £3.83M has been found. Funding has come from central government, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, as well as the Museum and its parent body, the National Museum of Science and Industry.
The second phase will be behind-the-scenes work to increase the archive capacity so that they can accommodate the expected growth in the material, primarily covering railway, business-related documents. Although the relevant legislation requires the industry to offer material to the Museum, unless there is storage space it will have to be turned away. At present the various railway businesses are storing this archive material on their own premises, but there will soon come a time when they will be forced by rising costs to face the ultimate decision - is it taken by the Museum or does it go in the skip? Phase 2 will provide a three-storey building with enough capacity to hold 25 years of donated material. It will be located on the site of the current goods entry area off Leeman Road. As noted before, it is expected that increasingly material will be donated in electronic form, so this store should be the last such facility needed. Cost of this phase will be £2.5M and support is being sought from the industry.

The Timetable
As soon as funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund was secured, work started. Because building costs are rising at 15% p.a., it was essential to get going as fast as possible. This meant that the library and reading room were closed at very short notice. Richard is acutely aware this caused some ill-feeling. However, this allowed the staff to get on with the unenviable task of packing up 180 years worth of material, amounting to about one tonne for each year, and arranging its relocation to a variety of on-site and off-site temporary stores. The latter included calling in professional favours for free or very cheap use of space at York University Library, and the West Yorkshire Archive Service. All of this had to be done within 6 months so that the cleaned out ("trashed" would be a more accurate description) rooms can be handed over to the builders. Meanwhile the detailed planning continued with some refinements being made before the plan was finalised. Initial ideas to include another café and shop on the Great Hall balcony were omitted in favour of creating more space for the exhibition and drop in library.
The physical planning is now at an end and building work has commenced. The old staff entrance was closed in February 2007 and the administration block handed over to the builders. Much of it has already been gutted and some rebuilding, e.g. of a new staff entrance control point, has been completed. Meanwhile the long-overdue work to correct the drains is in hand. All of this demolition and building work is taking place while the rest of the Museum remains open to the public. In order to avoid visitors and exhibits being smothered in dust, extensive plastic sheeting has been suspended from the Great Hall ceiling, effectively sealing off the gallery and the area underneath.
All this work is scheduled for completion by August 2007 at which point the newly completed shell will be handed over to the Museum to be fitted out. So, yet more work for the staff to look forward to, not just in arranging the furniture, but bringing back the 180 tonnes of archive and making sure it is all readily accessible to service visitors' needs come opening day. And when will that great day be? Well if all goes to plan the public opening will take place in December 2007.
So the next time you wonder why the NRM library isn't answering your query about the design of the jackshaft pinion drive on a 1930s experimental diesel, spare a thought for all that effort going on in order to bring the NRM archive up to the world-class standard it deserves to be. Roll on December!

P.S. What's in a Name?
As you will gather from the above, the NRM Search Engine will have little to do with the Internet or computer database, other than to make use of the technology for ordinary business, just like we all do these days. So why the use of a term that has become synonymous with Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and the rest? Originally, it was just a working title, primarily aimed at attracting funding. Feedback from staff, the serious academic and volunteer users showed they couldn't care less what it's called - so long as they can get back to using the archive material. Surveying the visiting public showed that they liked the name. They recognised the link with the steam engines surrounding them, the idea of working through large quantities of museum material to get what you want, and the modern feel of the name. So it seems appropriate to stick with it as a way of enticing more visitors to dip their toes in the ocean that is railway research.

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