Saturday, 14 December 2013

Danger! Danger! High Water!

On Thursday I attended Harwell’s Effective Emergency Planning and Salvage training day.  I have never been on disaster recovery training and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  There was a relatively small group of us and the majority already had disaster plans but they were in need of an update.

Our sodden exercise

The lecture was sprinkled liberally with case studies of institutions which had done well and not so well with disaster recovery and had plans to a different degree.  A frightening number of incidents tend to happen outside of working hours or when the plan author is not at work.  This obviously flags up many problems of possibly a person totally unrelated to your library or archive having to dispense the plan and organise the salvage operation.  Instructions need to be clear, concise and up to date. 

There are many snagging areas, which would not have occurred to me:

  1. It is useful to have a line included in the plan concerning how much expenditure there can be without authorisation being required.  This authorisation can take a long time to clear and, when you are dealing with material lying in foul water, time is of the essence.  
  2. Also important are the contact details for the emergency team (who have pre-agreed to function as such) as well as any suppliers that you might have to call on (day or night).  
  3. Another aspect that I hadn’t considered was the necessity for a PR person to whom all press requests go.  This ensures that an agreed and coherent message is delivered to the public and enables business continuity to be upheld.  Social media can also play a part, even if this is run by a separate department.  In Queensland, the National Library of Australia staff ran social media and Gmail accounts for 5 weeks from their homes to maintain business continuity with the result that they never fully closed when their building and material were severely damaged by flood waters.
  4. The fire at the National Library of Wales highlighted the importance of having a 'clear desk' policy so that material can be identified by its location.  If there is a build-up of material on desks without a clear trace of where it has come from then it makes the salvage and assessment process far harder.

The plans that have worked the best in practice are ones that have a clear structure, priority listings of material, contact details and a calm and collected Emergency Response Team identified.  This team can be difficult to gather in a small institution where staff may be absent for any reason and deputising necessary.  At the National Theatre, we have a small archive team and may have to call on extra resources in the event of a widespread disaster.  Apparently reciprocal relationships with other archives as well as potential assessment areas (youth hostels, village halls etc.) are common for small institutions that do not have a lot of space to dry out or store damaged items.

Airing some valuable books

At the end of the day we were given a crate of sodden items ranging from LPs to books to photographs to microfilm to documents to CDs to negatives.  The box had been flooded.  It was up to us to decide what we could handle ‘in house’ and what we would send away to be frozen at Harwell’s to be dealt with at a later date.  It was tricky to make quick decisions about materials, especially when you tend to get caught up in badly damaged items, which would be better frozen than attempted to be dried in house.

I learned so much that I can’t possibly detail it all here but I will definitely be starting to have a look at our disaster plan since it will definitely be out of date (so many staff and supplier changes).  I will also have to start working with other departments and getting their input for potentially diverting phone lines, finding stop cocks, drafting press releases etc.  If I involve the departments on whom we would rely in a disaster then they will have a vested interest in the plan and be more knowledgeable and quick off the mark if ever the unfortunate were to happen.  I know it is a lot of work to carry out for something that might never happen but, really, how much can you afford to lose if you don’t write one?

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Getting an Inkling about Digital Preservation

I'm aware that there has been somewhat of radio silence here for the past few months and I apologise.  It has been a very busy season for the archive (I am aware that there is never really a quiet period) but a 50th anniversary with an incredibly visionary digital department and artistic director resulted in us being rushed off our feet.  But all in a wonderfully productive way.  It was almost impossible to escape the National in press coverage and I was very fortunate to get a ticket for the 50th Gala featuring the likes of Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Benedict Cumberbatch, James Corden, Derek Jacobi and Michael Gambon.  It was a once in a lifetime event (and I didn't have to pay!).

But I have managed to escape to Malta

On the comedown for the big 5-0, we have been working on clearing out the basement and getting things in a bit more of an order.  It's a laborious task but I am finding out a lot more about what the archive is about.  Last week, I went to a Digital Preservation Coalition training day: 'Getting Started in Digital Preservation'.  It was by far the best conference day I have attended and I would highly recommend it to anyone thinking about making a digital preservation plan or looking at risk assessments.

And our hotel had a little free library!
The day was focussed at beginners in this sector and was well organised, starting with a rounded overview and then moving into case studies and exercises for your own institution. I found the case studies really helpful as they showed how people in similar situations had tackled problems similar to my own.  I could relate to their issues and it was cheering to hear that there are many people in the same boat and wanting to learn from each other.  Institutions can be so large and ungainly that trying to impose a records management structure on them can be like the proverbial square peg, round hole.  So it was good to hear how professionals have addressed this issue and brought colleagues over to their way of thinking.

The training day made us think about our own collection by using exercises built around our own digital series and this is an unusual aspect of conference days.  It made me realise that we have a lot of work to do but at least we pretty much already have the skills required and now I know that there are people out there with the same issues and a whole DPC to help us face them!

Sunday, 20 October 2013

An Archive Day in Hull

This week I went on a jolly to Hull for the annual training day of the Film, Sound and Photography special section of the ARA.  The National Theatre Archive have not attended this section before but I felt that our collections were exactly the sort of thing that this section focuses on.

Humber Bridge from the train

With the sun shining stunningly over Hull, we all piled into the beautiful Hull History Centre for a day entitled 'Archivally Sound'.  The focus was on oral history; its creation, uses and preservation concerns.  we heard from various speakers, who are all working on local oral history projects and using them to open up collections as well as to instigate the creation of more oral histories.  There are many uses of oral histories that had not occurred to me such as dialect studies and actor training.

There are concerns surrounding oral histories such as bias, mis-remembering, relationship between interviewer and interviewee and this is why there has been a dip in the practice.  In history, oral tradition was strong but with the improvement of literacy and film, there has been a decrease in its use.  Where oral history is special is in its ability to portray the process of history - what someone has chosen to remember of forget demonstrates how we make sense of history.

Hull History Centre
The rest of the day was focused on the vast variety of media that we all hold in our archives and how we go about digitising.  Max Communications were sponsoring the event and we had some good discussions surrounding digitisation and HLF's policy of funded digitisation projects placing the material in creative commons.  Archives are stuck in the middle when the material is not under their own copyright and it is difficult to see how this will be resolved.  Access cannot exist without preservation and now access is fundamental for funding applications.  But that preservation and access can only occur with the agreement of the copyright holder.

All in all it was a great opportunity to meet others in the profession with similar collections and discuss topical issues.  Meanwhile, back at the National, we have launched our Google Cultural Institute Exhibit on Greek Theatre and our free 50 Years of the National Theatre app - feel free to explore!

Thursday, 26 September 2013

A Grand Week of Activities

I've been pretty busy this week and I'm going to write a round-up post of various events that have filled my week!


Firstly, I attended the TEDx Albertopolis at the Royal Albert Hall.  This was an afternoon of firsts - my first TED and my first trip to the Albert Hall.  Neither disappointed.

Royal Albert Hall
 Many speakers presented on a wide variety of topics, all of which were closely or loosely related to the geographical area, the Albertopolis.  I won't go into details of each but I'll mention a few highlights:

  • Julia Lohmann, the head of the department of seaweed at the V&A, commented that every day we make nature into artifice and that we must ensure that the artifice is worthy of the nature from which it came.  An interesting point when you consider that she makes art out of kale
  • David Braben, a computer science and Raspberry Pi man, pointed out that there are rules in every piece of art, even in the structure of the Albert Hall.  It is these rules that make the world beautiful.  This got me thinking about the rules that archivists have when they catalogue a collection and, in a way, by cataloguing it and lending it some coherence and structure, we give it a sort of beauty
  • Hannah Redler, the head of media space at the Science Museum, talked about the focus of the museum on creativity in the interpretation of science.  They don't want to preach at visitors but facilitate their understanding.  I went to the Science Museum lates last night in fact and there was so much creativity that you almost forgot where you were.  I particularly enjoyed Punk Science, a comedy duo dedicated to making you think in new ways about science

I thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon, especially because the talks were short and to the point and on a variety of subjects to suit everyone.  I was rather drained afterwards but I certainly had a lot to think about and I'd recommend future TEDxs to people.

Jenkinson Lecture

Paul Conway from the School of Information at the University of Michigan gave the annual Jenkinson Lecture at UCL on Wednesday.  The title of the lecture was 'Traces and Transformations: A Case for the Archival Nature of Digital Surrogates'.  

Paul focussed on Google Books, since this is related to his research at King's in London.  97% of the books in the HathiTrust Digital Library (the 12th largest research library in the States) are from Google Books and, from that statistic alone, we can gauge the importance of his research.  He is looking into the errors in the scanning of these books and how these are corrected.  The main thing that stood out for me was the high number of pages, which show errors but are re-scanned and submitted to the HathiTrust without the HathiTrust knowing what changes have been made to the ebook version.  It becomes impossible to know which version scan you are looking at and you may not be able to return to a scan that you had looked at.

Paul argued that new archival thinking is required.  Surrogates should be considered as a separate entity with new and transformative value over and above the original.  The integrity of these must, therefore, be protected.  I have never thought about this idea before but completely see where he is coming from.  I imagine, though, that it all comes down to money and whether institutions can afford the funds and man power required to keep all versions of digitised works.

CreativeWorks London: Working with Archives

This conference was held at the National Archives in Kew and this was my first trip to the TNA!

The National Archives

CreativeWorks London are a knowledge exchange hub funded by the AHRC and they focus on the connectivity and collaboration between research bases and business.  This was a useful conference to find out what various archives are up to but also to see how they are engaging with practitioners to create new work.

I'll discuss a couple that really stood out to me.  Kate Wheeler of the National Archives told us an interesting idea that was passed to her from an archivist at the BBC - that archives are about eavesdropping on history and providing an insight into something that you might not have been meant to know.  When she worked in media, she used archival material from the BBC about Enid Blyton to advertise a new Blyton programme.  The main star could not promote the programme so they turned to creative use of the archive to show the public the letters between the BBC and Blyton, telling her that her stories were not suitable for television(!).  This otherwise unknown snippet left the public with a taste for the hidden and the programme got the highest number of views for any drama on BBC4.  This shows that archives should capitalise on their less mainstream contents.

Kissley Leonor, the Creative Industries Marketing Manager from the British Library told us about how the library attracts creatives to their collections and encourages them to use these materials, which are now out of copyright, as inspiration to make new work.  They then advocate the Business and IP Centre, which can offer valuable help when setting up a business and marketing yourself.  The BL is offering the full package here.

Again the Singing Hypnotist came up, I feel like I'm stalking him. I spoke about him here and have seen him several times since, in shows, in audiences, at work etc.  He will be returning to the NT Studio in october to continue work on a new piece so I will pin him down and have a chat about his creative use of archives!

All in all I feel like I have learned a lot this week and am full of ideas for how the NT Archive can grow and engage creative users...I just need to get the catalogue working first!

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Shakespeare and his Porcupine

Last week I had the chance to visit Stratford-upon-Avon for the APAC (Association of Performing Arts Collections) meeting.  I have never been to Stratford before and was interested to experience a rather Shakespeare-heavy day full of Tudor buildings, plays and records from way before the National existed.

We started off at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, bypassing the queues of tourists waiting in the rain to nip in the library entrance (a much appreciated perk of the job) and had a tour of the library and archive.  Here we were shown many treasures including the parish register for Shakespeare's birth and death as well as the absolutely massive book of signatures from the American donors, who provided money to rebuild the burnt down Shakespeare Memorial Theatre.  A particularly beautiful book was a version of 'As You Like It' with set and costume designs by Salvador Dali - it was as spectacular as it was bizarre.  Two very interesting items were books written in the seventeenth century, one of which documented animals, real and fictitious.  Among tips such as the benefits of feeding your dragon lettuce, there is an entry for the porcupine.  The 'fretful porpentine' of Hamlet Act 1 Scene 5 has often been used as evidence that Shakespeare did not write his works since how could he possibly have encountered a porcupine or travelled to all of the places he mentions?  There was also an early atlas with lengthy descriptions of various countries, among them Illyria, the setting for 'Twelfth Night'.  Shakespeare may well have been using 'facts' from books such as these.

We then moved to the Shakespeare Institute, a research library attached to the University of Birmingham.  This is an unusual library since it is, at once, a special collection but at the same time a research library.  They have decided that for every ebook they buy, they will buy a hard copy for the collection so that they maintain the expansion of the special collection.  The Institute also collect versions of the Shakespeare plays and the most bizarre one was a graphic novel by Nicki Greenberg!

It was very interesting finally to find out how all of the Shakespeare institutions interlink - Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Shakespeare Institute, Royal Shakespeare Company, Open Air Theatre Regent's Park and The Globe.  Even though all of these places are Shakespeare focussed, they are still busy with the same sorts of activities as we are - oral histories, anniversaries, outreach, internal requests etc.  It reinforced my belief that archiving as a profession prepares you for work in any institution where you can then learn about that history.  The amount of people who think that you need to be a theatre boffin to have my job is amazing - sure, knowledge of the shows is incredibly valuable, but if you don't know how to catalogue or answer enquiries, then, really, what role do you have?!

A note from the archive...

The National Theatre Archive is insanely busy at the moment with the anniversary looming in October.  Take a look at the 50th Anniversary website and know that the Archive has been involved in almost every project on there, in particular the exhibitions, timeline app, Gala and all documentaries.  I'm incredibly lucky to be part of the National at this exciting point and I am learning A LOT.

Monday, 29 July 2013

A lot has changed...

It has been a while since I have written and that is down to mere business and laziness.  A lot has changed since my last post and there is a bit too much to write here but I'll try!

I'm just back from an excellent break in Sweden
Firstly, I have a new position.  I am now the Archive Manager of the National Theatre and, as such, have taken on a lot more responsibility and projects.  I must say that I was becoming rather frustrated in my position as Archive Assistant since I was not being stretched nor did I feel like I was working to my full capacity.  The new position of Archive Manager has been created to support the Archive through the 50th anniversary of the NT and ensure that the HLF funded projects are delivered on time.  There are many other facets of my position, such as physical audit of the archive, building better relationships with each department within the NT, delivering content for the various digital projects and cleaning our CALM data for, firstly, CALMView and then a tailor-made online catalogue.

There is much to be done and it is quite overwhelming at the moment but I am thoroughly enjoying being more involved in the decision making and have a closer working relationship with the main building.  There is a lot to be done in my year and a lot to plan for where the Archive can go but I am enthusiastic about the road ahead, not only for my personal development but also for the NT Archive as a whole.

A few weeks ago I attended a conference day at the White Cube Gallery on the use of archives by artists.  This was an interesting day from the point of view of the mix of presenters.  Around half were archivists, who got up and spoke about their collections, how they opened them to the public and how they dealt with sometimes tricky artists' materials.  One interesting tale came from Glasgow where an artist in the 70s had given out his recording equipment to whoever walked through the door and invited them to take it away and film whatever they wanted.  What resulted was a fascinating archive of recordings but with no inkling of who recorded them and what they feature.  They have been kept due to their inherent use for cultural studies but they have no direct link to the institution in which they are housed...interesting one.

The other half of the speakers were artists, who discussed how they used archives or created their own ones.  A point that I had not considered was that the archive has no imperative to display and so there is a fresh canvas for artists to work from.  It was a bit hard for me to follow everything since there were a lot of allusions to other artists etc. but a few main points shone through:

  • an archive is 'the present through the ages'
  • we cannot underestimate the importance of the archive in the institution's current activities
  • archives need to embrace their professional setting so that there are no archivists 'in limbo'
  • 'Transparency and a willingness to share information gives rise to trust, and trust is known to be the basic condition that keeps any network alive.' (Claudia Fontes, 2000) - this really hit home in terms of the NT where I am working towards building trust between the Archive and other departments

Morton's Tower at Lambeth Palace

Today I went to a new professionals meeting at the beautiful Lambeth Palace Library.  Among some interesting talks about the library and their holdings, one of their cataloguers spoke to us about the 'Returned Books' collection.  Around 1,400 books have found their way back to the library after having been stolen during the 1970s by a member of staff.  They had no idea how many books had been stolen since the damage suffered during the war resulted in an unknown quantity of losses (it's good to know that not everyone else knows what's lurking in their basements).  This was an interesting afternoon but I am less and less drawn to old books as I work more and more in born digital archives and with teams from digital and commercial departments.  I am beginning to sense my future lies in digital content and data visualisation rather than cataloguing and conserving special collections but we will see.

Some gems from Lambeth

So, apologies for the pause, I will endeavour to keep more up to date.  I have a lot of projects going on and I will post about them when they come to fruition.  No-one told me how tiring being a manager can be...but it's a rewarding tiredness and I wouldn't have it any other way!

Narrow stacks in Lambeth

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Carpets and must be the Cinema Museum

As my first Groupon purchase, we went for a jolly to the Cinema Museum in Kennington.  I was envisaging a mini-BFI but I was a tad mistaken.  What greeted us was a run-down workhouse, giant Charlie Chaplin outline, more photographs than you could shake a projectionist's overall at and a charming Aberdonian, whose collection makes up the Cinema Museum.  Whatever aspect of cinema you can think of you will find here from usherette uniforms to seating to unused rolls of carpet.  There are over a million photographic images, films, trailers, projectors, fragrance used to cover the smell of smoke and a library of dedicated film and cinema publications.

Carpet swatches
What was most impressive, however, was the wealth of knowledge that lied with Roland, the owner/curator/archivist/enthusiast.  The 90 minute tour can easily spiral out of control with the multitude of corridors, rooms of towering boxes, cans and cans of film and walls covered in memorabilia.  But it is a rare thing to find someone as knowledgeable and enthusiastic about his collection.  He has been in the industry for decades and has had a love of 'pictures' since he was a boy...and you can tell.  

My inner professional came out and I probed about the collections further.  The Museum has archives and a library but nothing has been catalogued as such and I just wonder what is in there that is unique and could be of incredible benefit to researchers in this area.  Due to lack of funds there is little opportunity to accommodate researchers and the majority get re-routed to the BFI.  The volunteer staff do hold many events and the Museum is working hard to bring in money but if they are to purchase their premises, as appears to be necessary, (some £2-5 million) they will need a small miracle.

None of this '12' and 'PG' - my personal favourite is 'H'

I find this sort of situation incredibly frustrating.  The heritage sector is perpetually strapped for cash and yet is the one that preserves our history and allows us to learn from our shared past to create a successful and informed future.  Sometimes we are all in too much of a hurry in our lives to consider the bigger picture (no pun intended) and how our money might be better spent.  What will happen to this collection in the long term?  It is fairly likely that the items will be split up and sold to separate collectors, such as universities and small museums...but what about Roland's expertise, the glue that holds the collection together?  Something needs to happen now to ensure that collections like this are preserved for the future generations, who won't know anything about projection screens, metal tickets or continuous showings from opening to closing.

So, I would highly recommend a visit and a nosy (and a donation).  If you have any spare time and want a bit of a challenge in the old cataloging realm then volunteering here would be a fantastic help to them.  It is a mine of information and it would be kind of cool to say that you had worked in the same workhouse as Charlie Chaplin!

Charlie Chaplin by twm1340, on Flickr

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  twm1340 

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Forgetting to Remember

Last night I attended the annual Jenkinson lecture at UCL, which was delivered by Simmons College's Professor Jeannette Bastian.  Her title was 'Forgetting to Remember: Archivists and the Memory Imperative.'  Now I had no idea what this talk was going to be about and I vaguely entertained the notion of a discussion on oral history or the function of an archive.  But, what Professor Bastian discussed was a much more detailed and niche concept of memory studies and how collective memory can be archived for generations to come.

elephant ears. by brittanyhock, on Flickr
Are we like elephants?

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  brittanyhock 

An important distinction should be made between history and memory.  Archivists traditionally chase after history i.e. knowledge of the past.  The archivist is interested in the record of what actually happened in order to make a linear account of past events.  Memory, however, is a more 'rounded' concept and is the residue left by the past.  This residue can be material for promoting integrated knowledge, social identity and the formation of group consciousness.

The whole concept of memory study revolves around the recording of every aspect of a culture: commemorations, memorials, rituals, food, oral history, events etc.  These are not traditionally recorded in an archive since they are not texts.  But it is high time that archivists embraced the variety of formats in order to protect these fragile memories.

Elephant Sunset by Brendon Cremer, on Flickr
I just read a book called 'The Elephant Keeper' -
isn't is weird how things all fall together
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  Brendon Cremer 

Archives have always been related to memory as the mantra of the Library and Archives Canada, which 'serves as the continuing memory of the Government of Canada and its institutions' shows.  Archivists are known as the keepers of memories and have a prominent role in decisions concerning what should be kept (remembered) and what should be allowed to be lost (forgotten).  Archives, therefore, could be considered as the triggers of memory rather the memories themselves.  Professor Bastian made an excellent comment when she stated that memory can act as a lens through which archives can be viewed.

I have to admit that I felt quite out of my depth during the lecture since this is something on which I have only lightly touched but it was really interesting to see how it relates to my limited experiences, in my brief career thus far.  When I was in Syracuse I worked on a grant application for the conservation of the Karen community from Burma.  I wrote a documentation strategy for an oral history project and this is the sort of community archive that Professor Bastian was talking about.  But she would take it further, creating a living archive.  She showed us the John Cage archive, which the NYPL has recently published online and it is doing a great job of including works, which have been created using John Cage's music as inspiration   Anyone can upload content and it is truly an example of an archive being at the centre of the creative loop.  Similarly, in theatre archives I have come across students using the archive to create new work.  The University of Bristol Theatre Collections have a couple of students each year working on new creations from the archive.

Babar and Family by TattyBones, on Flickr
My favourite elephants

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  TattyBones 

Community archives don't come without their issues, though.  The community is a record creating entity but it is also the memory frame which contextualises what it records (if you can get your mind round that then you're a better person than me).  Communities have shared pasts and so collective memory is something that requires a lot of work to record - you cannot merely interview one person and get the oral history of a whole community.  This post does not do Professor Bastian's lecture justice but I really found it an interesting concept and I hope that more archivists sit up and take notice and adopt the 'creative will and imagination' that she calls for.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Where are we going?

I'm aware that I haven't written a post in a while and, frankly, it's because I am just plodding along at work and nothing of massive import has gripped me.  And I'm very busy living the London life i.e. spending two thirds of my free time having fun and the remaining third embracing the public transport system (for reference, carrying 15 balloons on the tube at 7.30am raises few smiles).

This week, though, I attended an APAC (Association for Performing Arts Collections) annual study day.  We were looking at early printed theatrical ephemera, which is not a genre of which the National has much, but it was interesting all the same.  Martin Andrews of Reading University spent the morning divulging the history of printing to us and the tables groaning with copper plates, inscribed stones, tools and wooden engravings were a fantastic way to get a hands on grasp of the techniques, which I learned about during my masters.  He took us through engraving, intaglio, relief, planographic and more in the hope that knowledge of the printing techniques would help us (as theatre archivists and museum curators) identify and date early printed materials.

Totally unrelated but everyone should go to the
London Transport Museum to see the
Underground poster exhibition!
The afternoon was taken up with members of the group presenting on their own theatrical ephemera, what they have and how they use it.  Julie Anne Lambert of the John Johnson Collection at the Bodleian brought up a very interesting point.  Aside from the ephemera, she was discussing the new catalogue which uses OCR to search the documents as well as the metadata provided by the cataloguers.  She states that this has eliminated the humdrum of research and freed up time for the focus on interpretation of data.  I had never considered that the methods of cataloguing and presenting the information on the internet could quite so dramatically affect the research process.  Pretty much gone are the days of researchers being the first to look at certain collections or having to go through hand written catalogue cards.  Obviously not everything is catalogued and there are many collections where more research hours are required but as we progress, so does technology and there is no reason why research methods must stand still.

Finding out that the destination sign on buses is actually a
large roller blind really made my day

We are at a very interesting point in technological advancements in archival presentation and cataloguing and information management is ever evolving, which got me thinking about my career...

This 'ever evolving' concept has brought to my attention the cross-disciplinary nature of the information profession.  I do enjoy archiving and my time at Syracuse University Archives was wonderful but I am beginning to wonder where else I could go.  At the risk of sounding like a broken record, my degree was all about the 'skills involved' and so was my Masters in Library and Information Science from Syracuse University.  I had tea with a lady yesterday who really opened my mind to the idea of the bigger picture.  Careers are not about one fixed, traditional path but they are about using each and every experience, good and bad, to mould your own path to the job that will ultimately satisfy you.  The skills involved in an archive job are valuable to almost every other profession and there is nothing to stop me using them in a profession, which is more stable than archiving.  I am keen to get a permanent job next since I am pretty tired of the transience of my life recently but this is not really feasible as an archivist.  SO, what can I do with a Classics degree and an MLIS - frankly, I think that the world is my oyster and this is a liberating concept.  I'm by no means pigeon holed and, as long as I give my all to everything I do, there is no reason why I can't furrow my very own unique career path.  Watch this space.

Furrows by libraryman, on Flickr
Furrows...which one is mine?

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  libraryman 

Monday, 21 January 2013

Kew gives cue for thought

On Friday I attended my first Archive Trainee Group meeting at Kew Gardens.  This group was formed to support those who are pre-qualification (so covers trainees, volunteers and anyone interested in embarking on a career in the archive or records management profession).
Snow on Kew Green on the way to Kew Gardens meeting

Archive Traineeship

A couple of the trainees gave talks on what their post involves, which was a good insight into the variety of jobs out there.  Elisabeth is the trainee at Kew Gardens and has a varied post with focus on reading room duties, enquiries, some cataloguing and blogging for the archive among other things.  Emily works for the Surrey History Centre as part of the Open Up Archives scheme run by the National Archives.  Her role is much more community orientated with focus on using the archives to educate and engage the community.  She has done really interesting work on the gypsy and traveller community and it was interesting to see how the archive can participate in the education of the community and break down stereotypes and misconceptions.  I was also chatting to the trainee with the Bank of England and it became apparent that the clientele of all of the archives is very different.  Her researchers have to be security checked while the National literally allows anyone to walk in and use the materials.

The beautiful National by night

I was surprised, on reflection, by how much responsibility the National Theatre give their Archive Assistant*.  I manage volunteers, accession and catalogue all materials, handle enquiries and the reading room, reprographics, digitisation, library cataloguing, outreach and all other things that the institution and general public throw at you.  This is great experience but, for the pay packet and job description, a lot to ask.  

MA in Archive Administration

Technically my post is aimed at those wanting to apply for the MA.  Andrew Flinn, the course director of the UCL Archive Management MA spoke about the different Archive and Records Management courses offered in the UK and Ireland and it was interesting to hear that, with the exception of Glasgow**, most of the masters are much of a muchness with not a lot of specialism.

As some of my readers (if there are any) might know, I completed my MS in Library and Information Science in August (I received my diploma a few months ago and was vaguely surprised - I had such an awesome time in the States that I sort of forgot what I was actually there for!).  I am now facing the issue of deciding whether I should pursue the MA in Archive Administration, since it is generally required in job descriptions or if I should try to pursue a career in this profession without it.  Now, there are obvious benefits of doing it - as one of the girls mentioned today, it is a means to an end and you can then apply for all manner of archive jobs as a ‘qualified archivist.’  On the down side, it costs around £8,000, would take at least one year of full time study (2-5 of part-time/distance), would overlap substantially with my MLIS and would not necessarily secure me a job at the other end.

I am in a quandary.

My MLIS with archive specialism, a full year of work in the Syracuse University Archive and a year as the Archive Assistant with the National Theatre will hopefully stand me a good chance of getting an archive job further up the ladder but, in this economic climate, can I chance it?  I have spoken to several professionals in archives and they all say that I should give it a shot but, with as many applicants as there are nowadays, employers are looking for any reason to chuck you at the paper sift stage.  Maybe I just need to find a way of selling myself as a cross discipline information professional and show how an international background can benefit an institution...

Kew Gardens

We were given a tour of Kew Gardens Archive and it is state of the art (the building was finished in 2010 and was specifically built for the library and archive).  One main thing that stood out was that only around 5% of the archive materials are catalogued.  There are index cards for every name mentioned in the collections but if enquiries concern plants, events, subjects etc. then there is no way of locating the material without an associated name or the knowledge of a learned member of staff.  So, even though the archive was spotless and has a fairly large staff, there are still issues with the collection.  The National Theatre Archive has its own shortfalls, but today showed me that no archive is perfect and a tidy basement is not symptomatic of an excellent and accessible resource.  I can be pretty hard on my place of work but that may be because I was exceptionally lucky in my position at Syracuse University Archives with an archive as old as the institution itself.


I should add that life in London has vastly improved now that I am a couple of months down the line and settling in.  I have mastered the public transport system but am still mystified by how every journey appears to take an hour, whether I am travelling from Newington Green to East Sheen or Streatham to East Sheen.  Bizarre.

Pre-Christmas Big Ben

The city, however, has its charm and is wangling its way into my affections.  Lindy in the Big Smoke is immense and I am dancing my wee heart out - I am even getting my head round the dreaded ‘musicality’ (though not to the extent of being comfortable with ‘solo blues’).  The prospect of having to leave when my post at the National is up in October is increasingly filling me with dread...will the fourth city in four years stick?!

* The Archive staff consists of the Archivist and the Assistant with some freelance workers and volunteers.
** Glasgow has very much gone down the digitisation route.