Friday, 5 August 2011

Tales of an accidental archivist

Thing 10 covers routes into the profession - traineeships, master’s degrees and accreditation. I’m a (accidentally) trained Archivist rather than Librarian, but the route was identical, so I figure it’s worth sharing. I may catalogue archives rather than books, but when I'm not doing this I work with extensive book collections. I care and repair books, make them accessible, I teach using them, and create exhibitions and web resources from the collections. When work for small respository, you need to be able to turn your hand to anything!

Like many in the library sector, I’m an English Literature graduate. My secondary school was... best forgotten, and I did not reach anything near my potential. Leaving, thank heavens, finally, in 1999, I managed to get a place at Anglia Polytechnic University. Founded by, and since 2005, named after John Ruskin, it was a highly liberal, nurturing and creative environment, in which I finally flourished. I left after three years with a first class honours degree and an AHRC scholarship to study a Masters in Modernism, at Queen Mary, University of London. I accepted this without much thought to a long-term career plan, and had a wonderful year of complete financial and intellectual freedom in the capital. On graduation, a friend at Cardiff University urged me to move there to take up a PhD in Critical Theory, which was a discipline I had dabbled with under Jacqueline Rose while at Queen Mary. I applied unsuccessfully for an AHRC scholarship, and again, without thought to long-term goals, moved to Cardiff anyway and began a PhD. I had a succession of dreadful bar and supermarket jobs to support myself while I studied, before successfully obtaining an evening and weekend library assistant job in the University’s Arts and Social Studies Library. This was August 2003 – and I’m still here!

I loved everything about the library. I loved the work and I loved the people, who were almost without exception, at every level, kind, thoughtful and intelligent. I loved working with the students, and I loved the changing seasons of the academic year – the lull of summer, the giddy new students in autumn, the tears and tempers around essay submission dates and the hum of tension during exam revision. After 18 months I made the decision to withdraw from my PhD, for a whole host of reasons, but a major factor was the feeling that I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I put all my efforts into a library career. 

In 2005 I moved into a post which had become vacant, working afternoons rather than evenings and weekends. This gave me more hours and experience of working in peak time, very different to evenings and weekends. I’m glad I had the experience of working these ‘insightful’ shifts however – many daytime staff don’t appreciate how much harder the work is in terms of customer service. All the problem customers would come out of the woodwork after hours, hoping to take advantage of a largely untrained, unsupervised skeleton staff. 

I took advantage of my free mornings to work on a distance learning Library and Information Studies MSc offered by Aberystwyth University. I was one module in, but then suddenly everything changed at work. I had taken part in a 6 week ‘job-swap’ scheme, and had been paired with the University’s Archives Assistant, Gemma. She had only been in post for a few months, and was finding the work unsuitable. She came to work on the issue desk, and loved its chaotic bustle. I went to work in the archives, and loved the scholarly quiet and the variety of work there was to do. Special Collections and Archives had only been founded six months previously, and there was plenty of work on offer. After the six weeks were up I felt like I’d had ten different jobs (in a good way), and was sad about leaving them unfinished. Fortunately, Gemma felt the same way, and we were permitted to continue our ‘swap’ for the foreseeable future. I will never forget my gratitude to senior management for their flexible attitude toward what was quite an unorthodox set up. Gemma was on a higher grade than me, and full-time rather than part-time, so we didn’t make it easy for anyone. 

I contacted Aberystwyth and asked to move from the LIS degree to a degree in Archives Administration. I couldn’t transfer any credit, but having abandoned half a PhD, losing 20 credits didn’t feel like the end of the world. The transfer was done with a minimum of fuss, and I found myself training to be an archivist. 

In 2006, Gemma obtained a library post at the Welsh Assembly. Her Archives Assistant post became vacant, and I applied for it successfully. Now I was full-time and working at a higher grade, I was almost there! The next bit is pretty boring, it basically involves me spending two years doing coursework every weekend and working very hard at my new job. 

In 2008, I completed my archives qualification to Postgraduate Diploma level, since I had already completed a dissertation at Master’s level. I had also ran out of academic steam (and money) by this point. I started being allowed to take part in more professional activities – cataloguing, researching and organising exhibitions, project management. 

In 2009 I took a route within my organisation known as re-grading, where you fill out a questionnaire describing your typical work. This in entered onto an HR computer programme and ‘scored’ to tell you what you should be being paid. (This is also checked by a panel of real people, I should point out.) A ‘questionnaire’ makes it sound easy – this was a 50 page document in which I ultimately wrote 10,000 words. On what I do at work. It took me around six months to complete it satisfactorily, but it was worth it. In 2010 my role was re-graded up two grades. This was in line with what the ARA recommends should be a newly-qualified archivist’s salary, and my job title was changed from Archives Assistant to Assistant Archivist – which means nothing to anyone but me!
Lately I’ve been putting things together for Registration (Chartership for Archivists), and I’m maybe halfway there. It’s been a long and rather random journey between 2003 and now, but I hope this gives new professionals hope that you never know what opportunities may be around the corner!


  1. Lovely post - thank you for sharing your story! :)

  2. I agree, really nice to hear your story. Really encouraging. Becky