Why did I become an archivist? Unlike some of my colleagues, my passion for what we do and look after didn’t develop at an early age. With an interest and a degree in history, it might have been something my University could have suggested, had there been a more proactive careers advice service. But the 1970s was an age in which liberal education was an end in itself and what one did with a degree was a matter of personal effort. In my case I did my thinking after my first degree finished, back in Cambridge working part time in a bar. My roommate’s girlfriend was a college librarian and she provided me with some library experience at Caius College library. It seemed congenial and I liked the idea of organising knowledge and providing access to the books.
From that slender base I applied for jobs in London borough libraries, had a couple of interviews and offers, choose what seemed the better of the two and so in the early winter of 1974 went to work for the City of Westminster in Marylebone Library. This had been the central library of the metropolitan borough of Marylebone before 1965, and upstairs there was an archive searchroom and local history library for the Marylebone collections. A vacancy came up in December and I applied. Having assured the interviewing librarian that I could cope with the relative isolation of working in the local history and archive section, I was accepted and so arrived in archives.
No, the rest isn’t history. I am very grateful to the archivist in charge at Marylebone at the time, Richard Bowden (still a friend!) for quietly help develop my interest. In turn I did a fair bit of work identifying the parts of the collection of a Paddington photographer of the 1950s, though my catalogue entry describing a hatted and suited man leaning nonchalantly on a bulky period car as ‘a Humphrey Bogart impersonator’ didn’t survive for long as I needed to find the photograph in question and that was the only way I could remember to retrieve it. My customer service also included some odd characters the adjoining reference library would rather not have to deal with, including the organiser of the Marylebone Anti-Common Market Campaign, who would have made some of the bag ladies of her day look well dressed. Rather curiously my two colleagues made themselves scarce when she showed up, and I recall having to explain, among other things, that the little circles with lines through them on the map were the symbol for underground stations. Assuming my helpfulness was a sign of political sympathy, I was constantly badgered for my views on our membership of the Common Market. Eventually, tiring of constantly stating that I was a local government officer and my views were not relevant, I told her I was a firm supporter. She drew herself up to her full height and haughtily responded ‘Young man, are you of colonial extraction?’
One of the advantages that London services at the time offered was the conjoining of archives and local history collections; even if many of the borough library services had yet to recognise that they needed the expertise of qualified archivists as well as librarians. I held to my original aim of using my year at Westminster as a precursor to applying for a place at library school, though with a view of seeing if I could also later gain an archival qualification. It seemed to me then that being doubly qualified would help a future London-based career.
A year at the long-vanished North London Polytechnic Library School on Essex Road (a former card factory now demolished) followed in 1976. Holiday jobs provided a variety of experience, including working in a library supporting building design for people with disabilities, the Centre on Environment for the Handicapped (CEH), based in the Kings Fund Centre in Camden Town. A brief and unhappy temporary job followed working for a firm of architects and then after a month back with CEH in the summer of 1977, I saw a job for an archivist for the London Borough of Waltham Forest, responsible for the Walthamstow collection at Vestry House Museum.
This – I think – was a case of being in the right place at the right time. My predecessor had been a qualified archivist, but left after clashes with his boss, the Reference Librarian, whose library training and formative years had all taken place before the growth of local archives in England and who treated each item as one would an individual book. Everything was classified, catalogued, in some instances heat-sealed to green card, but never to be dealt with in the context of a collection. Only deeds were separately treated and these required full calendaring, duly typed out on special hole-punched half sheets produced by Moore’s Modern Methods.
The interview was interesting, with the panel of deputy borough librarian, reference librarian and museum curator falling out amongst each other in front of the candidate. But I got the job, with a brief from the deputy borough librarian to placate the reference librarian (all her contemporaries in the library services were somewhat scared of her) until her time came for retirement. If there was a sub-text not to follow my predecessor and keep a bottle of drink to hand in the desk for stressful moments, I must have missed it –though I kept my drinking to social occasions after work.
Tales of Vestry House Museum are for another place. My appointment coincided with the development of the Society of Archivists’ correspondence course, initially supported through Wolsey Hall, and when I joined the Society in 1977, I was eligible to apply for a place, with Waltham Forest meeting the costs. The original course, though designed for those already in employment in professional posts, was top-heavy with course-assessed written work, and qualifying depended on performing well in the course work, submitting a 5000 word project and passing exams. To complete it in the time the Society estimated of two years required completing one piece of work per week, quite a tall order for those in busy and relatively unsupported jobs. I was the sole member of archive/local history staff at Vestry House, and after the reference librarian did retire in 1978, the sole staff member responsible for the Leyton collections, to which we added a third from the Chingford Local History Society in 1980.
In the event, it took my move to Hackney in 1983 and a further three years to become fully qualified. The course prompted my interest in records management, and in joining the Society’s Records Management Group, I met the majority of the records management pioneers – the late Len McDonald and Carl Newton and Peter Emmerson among them. I also recall submitting a cataloguing exercise on a set of manorial records, stating that nothing survived earlier than 1677. Back came the essay from the course tutor, the delightful Freddy Stitt, then County Archivist of Staffordshire, that he had a single court register dating from the early 16th century, which he had hung on to for many years at Staffordshire as Vestry House Museum and Essex Record Office had been unable to agree to which of them should have it at the time. A congenial trip to the William Salt Library ensued to collect it, with a guided tour, including the first manorial document store, by then a wine cellar, and, as Freddy and his wife lived on the premises, lamb chops and veg accompaniment to follow.
The Society’s course was very thorough with some excellent content through the tutorial notes. There were useful regular supervision meetings with the course registrar, David Robinson, at Surrey Record Office at Richmond. What was lacking was ready contact with fellow students. There were no residential sessions. Facing the sheer volume of work, I organised a student meeting at Vestry House, meeting my student colleagues for the first time and enabling us as a group to raise issues with David Robinson and the Society’s Secretary, Rosemary Dunhill. I think at the time all found the meeting productive. It was helpful afterwards to know who to talk to amongst one’s fellow students and benefit from other’s experience.
I eventually took the exams with some course work still to do – but there was a relatively high drop-out rate from the course and it was difficult to get enough students ready at the same time to sit the exams together. After a trip to Sheffield I sat the exams with two fellow students and passed in 1986.
Do I regret my unorthodox route in to the profession? No, in that the librarianship was useful when it came to managing local history collections without a local history librarian, and despite having to live down the label of ‘bleedin’ librarian’ from one colleague, I made my choice about primary professional identity relatively early on. Both disciplines gave me a passion for what we look after, how we provide access to it, and how we promote it – and that included making proper provision for the management of the records of my employing body, even if the pressures of service position in the organisational structure and public service made my contribution less than comprehensive. And at this distance of time, it is a passion that still remains.