Monday, 29 October 2012

A trip to the V&A...for work, of course


For a few days last week I was at the SIMBAS (International Association of Libraries and Museums of the Performing Arts) conference hosted at the beautiful V&A museum in leafy South Kensington.  It is certainly a time of firsts: first time at the V&A; first time in South Ken (and, as my Mum commented, it gives me something to aspire to); and my first time at an international performing arts library, archive and museum event.

The lovely V&A on a less than lovely London morning

The conference was truly international with delegates from as far flung as Canada and Japan and most places in between.  As a chap from the National Arts Centre in Ottawa commented, our institutions are in very different settings, cultures and locations but the problems we face are all very similar and actually hinge more on from where funding comes than the language they speak or in which country they happen to be.  There were papers delivered by representatives at a vast range of institutions and, at times, the gap between state funded bodies and private funded ones was clear to see.

Even though this was only a day and a half conference, there was way too much interesting stuff to write about here but I just wanted to touch on some things that I found appealing and themes that came across.

Kenneth Schlesinger, the Theatre Library Association President, and Barry Houlihan, from the NUI Galway Archive, touched on the cross-disciplinary aspects of theatre archives.  Not only are archives, libraries and museums converging (as the Syracuse University course run by Prof. Lavender studies) but the users of theatre records are coming from an ever-broadening background.  Theatre scholars are perceiving theatre performance history in broader social and cross-cultural context and using collections in ways that were not envisaged years before.  This is another reason for careful thought being given to ensuring non-bias in cataloguing material - you never know who is going to want to access it and for what reason.  A poster designed by Dr. Amy Staniforth from Aberystwyth complimented this: she had interviewed staff as they used the archive catalogue and she studied how they went about their research in an effort to understand their usage and how to improve the service.  We need to comprehend how each researcher works in order to ensure that the service we provide meets their needs - communication is key and this can often be an issue with the ever increasing access to collections being online and often hundreds of miles away from the archivist themselves.

I have no relevant photographs so am just including pretty pictures of London

One of the projects that was pretty exciting was the new 100 Plays 1945-2010 app being designed by the V&A.  This app is not focused on the best 100 or top 100 plays but rather on plays that have affected theatre in post-war Britain and have made their mark.  There will be essays on each play, production photographs, interviews, cast, press reviews and comments.  This is meant to appeal to all kinds of users from school children studying plays to directors and producers looking for ideas.  The focus was on broadening the appeal of the V&A and encouraging communication between people who would not otherwise engage with the V&A’s collections.  The app will be £7.99 when it is released and it will be interesting to see how it is received and who will be willing to fork out that amount to read about plays on a mobile application.  

Some other thoughts:
  • Barry Houlihan also mentioned that he has the support of the president of the university, an engineer, since he views an archive as ‘the laboratory for the humanities’ - what a lovely thought!  If only more people in positions of authority had such a view.
  • we should not digitise for digitisation’s sake - there needs to be a purpose and eventual use for these images.
  • Flickr can be used to release images and it is interesting to follow where these images are reposted and what happens to them - can this be used to gain extra meta-data?  Nena Couch from Ohio State University has experimented with this and had interesting ideas about 
The lovely new King's Cross

An overarching message, and something that is not new but is of note for a new member of this community, is the necessity for the performing arts information professional to be part of the theatre, to know the workings of the technicians, the role of the designers, the importance of various recordings etc.  The theatre archive is part of the machine well-oiled by communication and understanding of the various departments.  I think that this is more true in the performing arts archives than in the other settings in which I have worked, primarily academic, since theatre archivists have to understand where the material has come from and how it effects and fits with other records from the same production etc.

In short, this conference has really opened my eyes to the issues facing all information professionals in this field and made me appreciate the work being done and fascinating projects being undertaken.*

Please stay tuned for a post on NT Live and another on the Hollywood Costume Exhibition at the V&A.

* I haven’t had space to touch on the 3D modelling of objects at the V&A or UK Web Archive or the Virtual Shakespeare Theatre Archive etc. etc.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The New Life

Since my last post, a lot has changed for me: country, job and flat!  It has been a busy and stressful month or so but I am pleased to say that I am settling in well to my new role as the National Theatre Archive Assistant in London.

The NT runs an annual post for those wishing to pursue the Masters in Archives and Records Management and I can truthfully say, after a week and a half in the job, that it is a thorough and hands-on approach to the archive world!

Royal National Theatre
The National Theatre on the South Bank

The NT Archive is an institutional archive for all productions and administrative materials of the theatre, which was founded in 1963.  Our most commonly consulted materials are production recordings, press reviews, programmes, production and rehearsal photographs, technical materials, prompt scripts and costume bibles.  There are also architectural materials, the odd prop (including very exciting (and a bit freaky) puppets from 'His Dark Materials' (2004)) and theatre posters etc.  It really is a very diverse collection and I am beginning to see the variety of researchers that the archive attracts: from Cumberbatch fans wanting to watch 'Frankenstein' (2011) since the NT Archive is the only place in the world with the recording, to researchers studying the changing shape of the actress at the National Theatre from 1963 to the modern day.

As a completely non-theatre buff, it is a steep learning curve but the incredibly welcoming staff and bustling building make for a wonderful work environment.  Theatre archives are pretty different to the academic archives of my previous experience, not least since LC is pretty much irrelevant, most of the popular material is digitised and the researchers are a lot more diverse.  I am getting to grips with CALM for once (and am pretty pleased since most job descriptions want experience of it) and taking on a lot of the administrative roles of an archive.

I now live near Richmond Park...of the famous Fenton video

But the past few weeks haven't just been about the job.  I have also moved to London for the first time and that has been a massive shock to the system.  I believed that when I went to the US I would see a culture shock and, to an extent, I did, but it was nothing compared to the shock of returning.  London can be a rather anonymous and uncrackable city - I suppose that it will just take time to get to terms with the different methods of communication and forging relationships.  I had just gotten used to rocking up to BBQs or campfires where you barely knew a soul and introducing yourself and your Scottish accent carrying you through conversations until you had made some new friends...I am not sure how well that would fly in London.  I could always give it a go on the train commute in the morning...at least I might clear enough of the carriage to get myself a seat...


A wrap-up post that got a bit lost in the move...

*I only just found this draft and thought that I might as well post it...though about 6 weeks late*

This time last year I was putting the finishing touches to my packing and, to be honest, freaking out about moving 4,500 miles away from my comfort zone to attend Library School at Syarcuse.  I can now, one year, one degree, one job and countless unhealthy meals later, declare that this was the best decision I have ever made.

Don't get me wrong, there have been tough times and I maintain that you should never underestimate the amount of red tape that can surround an international student but I have learned how to overcome these problems and thrive in a foreign city.  I have to admit, the accent has been a massive help in breaking the ice and being remembered by people and I am a bit apprehensive about returning to the UK where I will be back to being 'normal.'

The whole Library School experience was pretty different over here with the focus on libraries of the future and technology.  In every library I have visited and at the conferences which I have attended I have been shocked by the positivity among information professionals.  Even in my local library, there is a hustle and bustle that I do not experience in my branch at home. 

Really, the best professional preparation I have received has been through my work. I have had a position in the Syracuse University Archives all year, originally as a graduate assistant and now as the graduate intern.  The staff have really taken me under their wing and always gone the extra mile to explain what was going on in the department and in the wider library so that I could understand how this sort of institution works over here.  (They have also been very forthcoming with hints and tips about what I should see, eat and do while in the States).

I will, truthfully, be very sad to leave Syracuse, I settled in more than I thought possible and I send a huge thank you to everyone who has helped make this year so successful - I can't express what it has meant to me.

My leaving camp fire...a very American end to a delightfully American year