Information professionals recount their early career experiences.
This time: Lee Pretlove, Corporate Information Specialist at TWI Ltd.
I’d like to think that the career path I’m now on chose me rather than by any design on my part. I’d grown up with a keen interest in history thanks to a diet of Usborne Illustrated and Discovery history magazines which my parents indulged me in and I kept neatly on my bedroom shelf. I always thought I’d end up as a teacher or a historical based writer and whilst reading Classics and Ancient History at university I cemented these vague life goals into the ambition of becoming a full time academic lecturing and researching in early Roman identity formation. With the PhD place being held for me, I had no way of funding it. So I went back home to find some work so I could build up some money to fund it. It was at this point that I accidently stumbled into the recordkeeping world and I’ve not looked back since.
I started off at TWI Ltd a private engineering technology organisation on a short contract working on their internal report collections held by their Information Service. I was to make sure that their paper reports were stored and organised for staff retrieval. I enjoyed organising the materials, making lists, getting the materials for and working with colleagues to make sure they got the right records. It was the first time that I realised that I could actually get paid for something that came naturally to my tidy mind. I started to look into the work through the then Society of Archivists webpages, carefully assessing the differences between Records Management and Archives but in both I could see I could my natural ability to organise ‘things’, history and my other long held interest in computing (oh the days of the Commodore 64…) could be applied to form a career.
I joined the ARA as an affiliate member and just under a year later, wanting to gain experience in the Archives Sector, I got the job as an Archives Assistant at Cambridge Record Office. I learnt to input records into CALM, help the public in the searchroom, retrieve records from the strongrooms and carry out research requests. Going into the strongrooms was like an Aladdin’s cave: a real privileged sight and not something that most people ever get to see. I really hope that Cambridgeshire Archives (as it now is) gets some funding to build an amazing facility to preserve and celebrate Cambridgeshire’s heritage collections in an environment the archives and its dedicated staff deserve.
After nearly a year at Cambridge Record Office I returned to TWI as a Report Archive Assistant on another fixed term contract and then developed the role into a Records Management Officer by early 2008, taking over the Records Centre responsibility of the Deputy Librarian in addition to the work I was doing before I left. The company was beginning to get the message from me that good information governance was not a short term contract fix and so it made the post permanent. It was also at this time that I was accepted onto the Dundee University distance learning Course on Records Management and Information Rights, having gained the relevant pre-course experience in both Archives and RM camps. I started my first module in January 2008 as I saved my pennies and funded the first year myself, so determined to get on with my new chosen career path. My employer saw the direct benefits that my newly learned skills were having upon the companies’ information assets and decided to fund the next two years.
I cannot emphasise enough how demanding distance learning is in a subject which you are immersed in on a day to day basis. You may think the reverse but after a seven hour and a bit day sometimes the last thing you want to do is spend a few more hours in the evenings and most of your weekends doing more of the same. Whilst this was going on, I was also continuing to embed Records and Information Management thinking into the business, establishing a Company Archive, run the internal Records Centre and make sure that the organisation complied with the Data Protection Act through writing policy, procedures and backing it up with training. I was also asked to get involved with the company’s Information Security Steering Group.
Looking back this was a very demanding time where I was changing from effectively being a records clerk into a records and information compliance manager and doing many of the tasks of both. It was also during this time that I learnt a lesson in the value of understanding your colleagues, your organisation, how they want to do things and how they want to access records and information. It is your colleagues that will be using the systems you plan and implement or find areas for improvement in. I had seen from previous IT roll-outs and a not very successful attempt to build a fileplan that if you impose something on somebody they will either stubbornly resist or find ways around it. If you really need to implement something that people can’t see a perceived need for, talk to them and persist until they do. Only then should you implement changes once everyone is ‘on board’.
Since then I’ve run recordkeeping projects and initiatives which have been well received and most importantly, are being used. To get ‘user engagement’ be aware of your corporate context, talk with your colleagues, understand their perspectives and they will come to see the benefit of your skills and how you can help them. Take your professional knowledge and apply it in terms they understand, come up with co-operative plans and solutions although there will be times when the decision is down to you – especially when legislation is concerned as you will be the recognised specialist in the organisation. If there’s a gap in your knowledge, seek advice from those that know. The person does not have to be a fellow recordkeeping professional as you may not get the full perspective on things.
I’m not afraid to say that I’m always learning, as our professional roles demand a wide awareness of emerging information technologies, legislation as well as adapting to different ways of working (‘Bring Your Own Device’ springs to mind) which present their own challenges. The recordkeeping profession – and by extension its professionals – is rapidly evolving. We either need to recognise these changes, accept and learn skills where professional demands have some ‘blurred lines’ with other professionals or we stay still and think of managing records and archives in the traditional, stereotypical ways. I know what I’d prefer to do! (With my ARA Conference hat on – if you want to think about this issue further, pencil the 2014 ARA Conference into your diary, or even better, submit a paper from your fresh perspective, as this will be the main conference theme. Check ARA communication channels for the call for papers or further information on 2014 conference).
Lee Pretlove, Corporate Information Specialist at TWI Ltd.
Lee has a case study on working as a lone professional in The New Professional’s Toolkit, edited by Bethan Ruddock and published by Facet Publications (May 2012).