This may sound daft, but even as a small girl I used to play at being an archivist! Well, perhaps not an archivist, exactly, but definitely a librarian. I’d sit with my grandmother’s stack of books she’d got out of the library that week (this was back in my native New York City, where I grew up) and pretend to ‘check them out’ and/or accept them as returns. This was in the days when libraries had a contraption that would light up and make a strange droning noise (which I would dutifully mimic) as each book passed under the light beam.
My enduring love of books led me to do an English degree, and after graduating university I was lucky enough to land an entry-level job in publishing in New York, where I learned to be even more of a stickler for spelling, grammar and syntax than I’d been already.
In 1988 my itchy feet led me to take advantage of my British connections – my dad was born and bred in Scotland, emigrating to the States when he was in his twenties – I relocated to the UK. I found work as an assistant editor with a small independent publishing company in North London. After just over a year I moved to a job with Fodor’s Travel Guides – editing the copy that came in from the far more intrepid and fortunate ‘correspondents’ travelling the globe. As it turned out, however, Fodor’s decided to close their London office. This, combined with other forces, led to a move up north and a switch to freelance editing. For the next 20 years or so I was based in Sheffield, working freelance, raising a family and honing several skills that would prove, later, to come in useful as an archivist.In 2005 I started supplementing my editing income with work in administration and student records at Sheffield Hallam University. As a perk of this job I was given the opportunity to do a Master’s degree for free. While researching an unknown late 18th-century novelist called Harriet Ventum, I was brought into contact with archives and archivists. Suddenly here in front of me was what seemed to be the perfect job. I couldn’t imagine anything better than being the custodian of precious records and artefacts. I decided to find out how to join this amazing profession. I started the Postgraduate Diploma in Archives and Records Management (distance-learning) with the University of Dundee in January 2010.
The first module I took was about ethics, and it made a big impression on me. I’m sure I’m preaching to the converted here when I say that being an archivist is nothing short of a sacred trust. While on the course I volunteered at both Sheffield Archives and Rotherham Archives and Local Studies. At Sheffield Archives I was set to work transcribing data from a 19th-century workhouse register into a table in Word. All the staff were so helpful and happy to share their enthusiasm with me. It was wonderful. I’d go back to my university job and regale my colleagues with the ‘finds’ I had made – I still have the scraps of paper where I recorded my progress and expressed my delight in noting the unusual professions listed: horse-breakers, T.K. [Table Knife] Hafters (this was Sheffield, after all: there were a great deal of cutlers who had, sadly, fallen on hard times). My favourite was ‘Horse hairdresser’. Each of the details listed in these records was so evocative of the time and place; I loved every minute of the work. Meanwhile, at Rotherham, the chief archivist kindly agreed also to be my mentor for the PG Dip course, and she provided me with a fantastic range of tasks that helped me to gain excellent experience in cataloguing, repackaging, assessing and many other of the skills that would prove critical.
October 2011 saw lots of change: my daughter Hannah relocated to Canada with her Canadian husband, and my son Joe started his degree in History at Magdalen College Oxford (I brag about this every chance I get!). Meanwhile I had decided to move back down to London where, I was hoping, there would be more job opportunities in archives. My search took rather a long time! Luckily for me I was still doing some freelance editing, which kept me going while I continued the PG Dip course. I volunteered with various repositories, including Transport for London and Bishopsgate Institute. I also applied for several posts, gradually learning how best to present my CV and covering letters. The key, it seemed to me, was to be very detailed and specific – rather than saying, for example, ‘digitising photographs’, I would go into real detail about the process – what format I’d save the photographs in (jpg/tif, etc.), what dpi, where I’d save the resulting files. This definitely led to a greater frequency of being shortlisted for interview – if not quite being offered any posts!
In April 2012 I landed a two-day-a-week job as Archivist with the Society of the Sacred Heart, an Order of nuns first established in France in 1800. Their archives occupy two rooms and comprise books, papers, artefacts, photographs and ephemera. A teaching Order, the Society also hold the records of several current and former primary and secondary schools founded by the Order.More luck followed. In June 2012, my volunteer work at Bishopsgate led to the offer of a part-time job as Library and Archives Assistant. My two jobs complement each other brilliantly. At Sacred Heart I’m in sole charge – responsible for all aspects of the post including managing the archive budget, writing up policies and procedures (everything from Data Protection to fire safety) and the more ‘expected’ duties of cataloguing – in this case, taking the existing hand-written catalogue and putting it into an electronic format (after researching several options within my budget, I catalogue using Access, also saving the files in Excel for easier searching). I also accession new acquisitions, order preservation materials (archive-quality boxes, etc.), look after my one stalwart volunteer, answer enquiries and prepare materials for visiting researchers.
Meanwhile, at Bishopsgate, I have the benefit of excellent colleagues whose brains I can pick, a huge archive of material about London, Labour history, Humanism, Co-operation, protest and politics that gives me plenty of opportunities to practise my cataloguing, and a steady stream of researchers and enquirers who keep me on my toes. I’ve been given several different cataloguing tasks, big and small – not least the one which has kept me busiest over the past two years: cataloguing the miscellaneous papers and ephemera of Bishopsgate Institute itself, from the initial plans for the building in the late 1880s to its grand opening in November 1894 right up to the present day. I learn something new and fascinating every day – and all in a beautiful Victorian library! (By the way, as a reference library there’s no need to be a member – anyone can come in and study, explore the archives or just enjoy this surprising oasis of calm in the heart of the City of London.)
Continued training is, of course, all part of both gigs. I’ve begun the process of the ARA’s Registration Scheme, and regularly attend relevant events on preservation, digitisation and other aspects in our ever-changing professional landscape. I also attend conferences, and this year have taken on helping to organise the Catholic Archives Society conference. It’s all quite challenging but the greatest fun, and every day I’m happy to go to work, and feel very privileged to be able to be an archivist for a living.