How I Started – Margherita Orlando

Information professionals recount their early career experiences.

This time:Margherita Orlando, Assistant Archivist at the Bank of England Archive

 

Discovering archives: from an academic perspective

I discovered archives whilst researching for my BA and MA qualifications in Classics, theatre history and performance studies. I became fascinated with primary sources and I found the factual investigation of original documents more stimulating than some of the speculative and theoretical academic work.

I completed my MA in theatre and performance history in September 2008 and because I had enjoyed working with archives I applied for an internship at the Victoria & Albert Museum, in the Theatre & Performance Collections, which I had visited several times as a researcher.

At that point, my interest was in some measure still academically-oriented. As well as learning about collections management, I was also keen to use and develop my subject knowledge of theatre history.

The Theatre and Performance department hold museum, library and archive collections and employ curators, librarians and archivists, as well as using specific software systems for each type of collection. This was a great opportunity for me to learn about the differences between the three professions. I realised that archives was my preferred area, even though I still worked on collections management operations covering library and museum material, which proved invaluable experience.

I spent almost one year at the V&A, having been offered a paid position at the end of my internship. In September 2009 I applied for the position of Archive Assistant at the National Theatre, which is a traineeship. My intention was to focus more specifically on archive work, with a view to applying for the Archives and Records Management course.

I believe that the success of my application was due in some measure to my background in theatre and performance history, as well as to the experience of collections management gathered at the V&A, but as the year progressed I felt more and more strongly that I had a genuine commitment to archival work, regardless of the specific subject area of the performing arts.

 

The UCL course: broadening my skills

I enrolled on the UCL MA Course, starting in September 2010. My performing arts background was questioned during the admission interview, but I persuaded them of my commitment to archive work by describing the tasks and skills I had experience of, which apply broadly to the profession.

During the course I went on a number of visits to different archives and covered the theory of archive and recordkeeping work, which contributed to shift the emphasis away from subject specialism.

I also developed an interest in legislation and its impact on archives. Whilst at the V&A, I had become aware of the influence of the Freedom of Information Act on the management of collections in the public sector; I also did work in connection with Copyright.

As part of the MA, I focussed on legislation regulating access to public sector information, in particular the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and Environmental Information Regulations 2004. My dissertation compared key legal texts and procedures for access to public records, in the context of the European Union. Reading a number the legal texts was challenging but enabled me to develop a new skill.

By choosing legislation as a specific focus of the course I ensured that I was not confining my archive work to the world of the performing arts, and that I was branching out into other areas that are relevant to the profession.

In addition, I made sure I took any opportunity to broaden my experience whilst on the course and I requested to carry out my 2-weeks cataloguing placement in a local authority archive, as different as possible from the heritage and theatre repositories I was familiar with.

 

Post qualification

After graduating from the course in November 2012, I was keen to work in an archive that was not connected with the performing arts. However, my first post-qualification appointment was back at the National Theatre on a one-year cataloguing project, which gave me a chance to gain some more cataloguing and conservation experience.

To make sure I kept up to date with developments in the broader field of information management and because I wanted to get involved with the work of the ARA, I joined the Executive Committee of the Section for Records Management (SRM) in January 2013.

The SRM covers legislation and information governance and I thought this would be a chance for me to do some work in connection with this area, following up on my dissertation. Being a member of the Committee, I kept up to date with the latest news in information legislation, for example the European Union proposals for a new Data Protection Regulation.

As I was coming to the end of my cataloguing post, I was determined not to apply for another position in a performing arts archive and I was offered the position of Assistant Archivist at the Bank of England.

Even though I did not have experience of archives in the finance sector, I was able to demonstrate that I had substantial experience in cataloguing and collections management, focussing on the tasks and functions I had undertaken in my previous jobs, rather than on the subject of the collections I had worked with.

My specific interest in legislation and access to public sector information was also of use, since my post at the Bank was created as a result of the change from the 30 to the 20 year transfer rule for public records, and to address the additional cataloguing resulting from this change.

My current job combines traditional archive skills such as cataloguing and conservation with the chance for me to work in the area of access and legislation and it is a great opportunity for me to broaden my skills as an archivist.

 

Conclusion

Moving across subject areas in the archive profession has been a substantial challenge in my career so far. Before my current job, I was worried that I would be ‘pigeonholed’ to performing arts collections and that I would not be able to expand my skills.

In my experience, the key in achieving this sideways shift was in focussing on the tasks that I had undertaken and skills that I had learned, which apply to any collections regardless of the subject matter.

The UCL course was also instrumental as it made me reflect upon key aspects of the theory and practice of the profession, again moving away from a more narrow subject-oriented focus. Joining the ARA SRM gave me a chance to keep the scope of my work broad even when I was working on a traditional cataloguing project in a performing arts archive.

I really felt that as an archivist I ought to get as broad a range of experience as possible, to take advantage of the marvellous opportunity the profession offers to branch out across subjects, and because the more varied my experience is the more I can give back in my job.

 

Margherita Orlando, Assistant Archivist, Bank of England Archive

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