How I Started – Dawn Sinclair

Information professionals recount their early career experiences.

This time: Dawn Sinclair, Archivist for HarperCollins

Having completed my Undergraduate degree in German and Russian, I was unsure where I wanted my future to lie. After much contemplation, I remembered a childhood ambition of working in a Library. I contacted the Glasgow Women’s Library in order to volunteer in any way I could. However, very quickly I realised that I had a passion for archives and the preservation of history. This led to my enrolment in the University of Glasgow Masters course, Information Management and Preservation. The course allowed me to learn new skills and widened my horizons when understanding the implications of long term preservation of historical material. During and after the course, I continued to volunteer and afterwards undertook an archival internship at Glasgow Print Studio. I also volunteered with the Ballast Trust which gave me a chance to work with very specific material such the plans of Caledonian Railway Association. Throughout this time, I was very lucky to meet some excellent mentors who helped me and provided me with priceless advice.

Front cover of a Collins catalogue, 1907

Front cover of a Collins catalogue, 1907
Copyright HarperCollins Publishers

After a part time position with Glasgow University Archive Service, I began my current job at HarperCollins Publishers. This role allows me to combine my love of archives and my love of literature. Being a lone archivist, looking after the vast collection can be a daunting job. However, I also feel very privileged to look after a collection which has a history spanning nearly 200 years from the foundation of William Collins & Sons in Glasgow in 1819. The archive now incorporates the various imprints that Collins created and bought and moreover now represents HarperCollins as an entity in itself.  We hold a wide range of materials from the books we publish and the editorial records, we also hold historical ephemera which the Collins family created and collected themselves.

Ensuring that the archive remains relevant and useable is one of my main responsibilities. In my opinion, this is a responsibility which must be carefully considered. As archivists, we must care for archives with a certain degree of objectivity. We have standards and procedures to follow in order to create interoperability and continuity. However we now must also have a greater awareness of the part the archivists play in how an archive is shaped and history is created. Our opinions and biases must be acknowledged and furthermore embraced. When researching my dissertation, I considered how people – collectors, owners and in particular archivists – shape the archives which they deal with. The role of the archivist is to ensure that the archive is of the future[1] and continues to grow and develop. It is not to simply remain the gatekeeper of knowledge who has no connection to the material which they care for. Recognition of their own place within the archive and the responsibility to the community, company or organisation which they help to document, allows the archivist to better engage with the material and in turn encourage the stakeholders to embrace their archive. Archives can provide people with a hub in which they can learn but moreover can be social and engage with others. Now and in the past, archives have been considered to be silent rooms, with old dusty material and strict rules of conduct. However, the archive can be a place which provides people with a sense of security that they have a place in the world and that there are others who can share in their experience. We need not simply forget the traditions and responsibilities of the past and abandon them. Instead archives should become places where people can engage with the past but moreover be given the opportunity to create their own histories now for the future.

Active engagement with archives and the organisation which they document, gives us the opportunity to understand how and why the material was created. This can come from a company ensuring their accountability and heritage or individual having a personal desire to document their own histories or being moved to act due to political, ethical or moral opinions. Through the understanding of these motivations, a deeper sense of context is gained. The importance of access to archives is paramount today, yet one must question, what is access without meaningful context? Understanding what something is, is important. However we must also understand the material in terms of who created it and what motivated this creation.

In my opinion, these are important thoughts no matter the type of archive in which you work. The day to day tasks of running an archive should be coupled with a wider reflection of our role. Working as an archivist, I feel allows me to the opportunity not only to preserve history but always be learning and thinking academically. In order to survive, archives must develop and remain relevant. Being part of the Section for New Professionals and indeed the ARA, has helped me feel part of a community in which people are willing to give advice and discuss ideas. The sharing of knowledge is how we can all move forward together.

Dawn Sinclair, Archivist for HarperCollins

[1] Jacques Derrida, ‘Archive Fever’, p16/17

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