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.