How I started – Erin Lee – Archivist, The National Theatre

In this blog post Erin Lee, Archivist Erin Lee tells us about her interest in the profession and what experiences led to her current role as the Archivist of the National theatre.

It all started in a pew in my college library as I revised for finals around 5 years ago. I was busy reading my notes on Greek archaeology and Latin didactic poetry when I overheard the library staff having discussions about book lists, cataloguing standards and e-journals and I was quite intrigued: there was more to this librarian lark that I had thought! At the time, I was a typical Oxford fourth year student: panicking about the fact that I was about to leave the comfort of the university bubble for the big bad world of corporates. I was toying with the idea of doing a law conversion with my Classics degree but was’nt sold on it so I started looking up librarianship as a career and was interested to learn that not only did you require an MSc but you were also advised to undertake a traineeship before doing the Masters.


After a fair bit more research I decided that this was the career path for me and I undertook a few voluntary positions in libraries and archives around Oxford as well as visiting as many as would have me. I was then lucky enough to secure the position of Graduate Trainee Librarian at St John’s College, Cambridge for 2010-2011. This position is basically what it says on the tin and provides you with a year of training in all aspects of librarianship. St John’s has a Working Library as well as an Old Library and a Biographical Office so my work spanned all three areas providing me with experience of cataloguing modern books, exhibiting ancient manuscripts and conducting research for those interested in past ‘Johnians’ (those who have studied or worked at St John’s). This was a very varied post and benefited from being one of around 7 such positions in Cambridge. All of the trainees would meet up to visit each other’s libraries as well as various other libraries in and around Cambridge. We also ran our own website called CaTaLoG (, which featured write-ups of our visits as well as advice for others who wished to enter the profession.

St John’s College Library
St John’s College Library

As part of my time in Cambridge I began to enter the world of networking, which I found less intimidating than I had expected. I helped to run two online learning programmes, Cam 23 2.0 and CPD 23. Both of these focused on introducing fellow professionals around the world to technological advances that could be used in their jobs and encourage them to give them a try and blog about their experiences. We worked with the likes of Flickr, screencasting, Twitter, personal branding and Prezi. This was really the start of my professional Blog, which I have continued to this day These were invaluable programmes for my next move and really useful for getting to know people near and far in the profession.


Towards the end of my traineeship, I decided that I wanted to take advantage of a scholarship I had heard of when I was at Oxford. The St Andrews Society for the State of New York offers two scholarships each year for Scottish students, who have either studied their undergraduate degree in Scotland or at Oxford or Cambridge to study a postgraduate degree for one year in New York state. I applied and, after the hardest interview I have ever had, which included lots of questions like ‘Why do we need libraries when we have Google?’ was offered one of these scholarships. I then secured a place at Syracuse University’s iSchool in upstate New York to study for an MS in Library and Information Science and made my way to the big US of A for 2011-2012.


Graduation picture taken at Syracuse University
Graduation picture taken at Syracuse University

I absolutely loved my year in the States. It was a totally different experience studying a vocational degree as an international student (I was one of around 4 Europeans in my whole year) at a university in America. I very quickly had to forget the one-on-one tutorials of my time at Oxford and get the confidence to speak out in classes of around 50. Librarianship in America is, I believe, a much more revered job and every library I worked with or visited was very willing to embrace change whether that be e-books or 3D printing. It was refreshing to be among people of similar thinking and there was great enthusiasm among fellow students and tutors.


I worked as the Graduate Student Archive Assistant for my full year, finishing off with a full time internship over my final summer. I absolutely loved working in the university archive and it was this that switched my thinking from libraries to archives. Syracuse holds the international repository for the Pan Am 103/Lockerbie Air Disaster and it was a humbling experience to work with material from this catastrophe. This was the first time I felt the power of archives and the international importance they could hold. Much of my time at the SU Archives focused on cataloguing small collections from box list through to EAD finding aid and this experience has helped me tremendously in my work at my current institution. We also got to catalogue the university mascot, Otto the Orange as seen below!

Otto the Orange
Otto the Orange

Upon returning from the States I started the dreaded job hunt. I landed the position of Archive Assistant at the National Theatre, which is a one-year training position for those interested in pursuing a career in archives. It was an incredibly steep learning curve, not just because I hadn’t worked in archives in the UK before but also because I didn’t have the first clue about theatre! I started seeing as much theatre as I could and really immersed myself in the work of the NT. After around 9 months I became Archive Manager, a new position created to support the archive through the NT 50th anniversary. What an exciting and fast-paced time that was! The archive contributed to an app ‘National Theatre: 50 years on stage’ and was involved in assisting to stage the NT 50th Gala with snippets from productions from over the past 50 years performed by past and current company and broadcast live on the BBC.

National Theatre Building
National Theatre Building


I have now stepped up to be Archivist and am embracing the many challenges that this position holds: records management, large donations, HLF funded projects, oral history programme, volunteer programme, digital asset management system, copyright and licensing…the list goes on. It is a constant learning curve and a lot to take on so early in my career but I am very fortunate to have a wonderful professional network and very supportive colleagues. I have just enrolled on the ARA registration scheme and I am Secretary of the Association of Performing Arts Collections, both of which are helping me to get to know others in the profession and keep abreast of current issues. Some of you might know me as one of the heads of the Archive Trainees UK group, which I really enjoy as I feel connected to those coming into the profession and hope that we can organise events that will help them find out which direction they would like to go in or what sorts of positions they would love to hold.

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