How I Started – Caroline Williams

It was the sight of a C16 pin fastening together sheets of handwritten paper (churchwardens’ accounts in Secretary hand as it turned out) that did it for me. The thought that these pages had been fixed in their current state by some unknown Tudor hand had a visceral effect: I wanted to know more about how and why these people had made these records. I came across them because my school holidays included the task of searching for the family trees of people who had written to my father (the vicar) asking for information from the parish registers kept in the church vestry. This was fascinating and well paid – although the vestry was freezing. It was very much in my interest that Dad refused to deposit ‘his’ parish records in the Somerset Record Office – for him they belonged with the people, in the parish.

St Andrews Stogursey, Somerset. The vestry is the cream rectangular structure attached to the north east wall. © Copyright Michael Garlick and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

St Andrews Stogursey, Somerset. The vestry is the cream rectangular structure attached to the north east wall. © Copyright Michael Garlick and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

So I knew quite early on that I wanted a career in archives. I did history at King’s College London before going on the postgraduate archive programme at UCL in 1974. The course included record office management, records management and finding aids and a range of options from palaeography and diplomatic to computers and accounting. Much of the teaching was done by PRO staff then based in Chancery Lane: the tradition of involving practitioners in teaching archivists has always been a feature of archival education. However the PRO was rather different from the county archives services we expected to end up in and didn’t then recognise the Diploma in Archive Administration as a requirement for professional positions there.

As for a career path, I didn’t give it a thought – though a fellow student at UCL had her plan worked out up to retirement to a croft in Scotland. Being unimaginative I assumed I would go into a local authority record office which I duly did. Essex Record Office was a brilliant place to start: it had been set up by FG Emmison (who still lurked threateningly) and I assumed that all archives would have the excellent systems I encountered there, from accessioning, cataloguing and indexing to search room procedures. My first two jobs were cataloguing 26 tin trunks of the records of the Strutt family of Terling Place and putting on an exhibition at Audley End House on the Historic Houses of Essex. It felt quite a stretch at the time.

Essex Record Office - archival exhibition (and photograph) 1970s style

Essex Record Office – archival exhibition (and photograph) 1970s style

My two next jobs were at Lancashire Record Office and Cheshire Record Office, interrupted by a family/career break between the two. After four years at Essex it had seemed time to get more involved in the management and policy side of recordkeeping. In Lancashire I found the then lack of indexes daunting after Essex: but the archivist said ‘Oh we don’t need indexes Caroline, people can just ask me…’ – fine until he went on holiday. I eventually became deputy county archivist under Ken Hall – feeling very apprehensive, but decided to feel the fear and do it anyway. After four years in Lancashire I moved to North Wales and started working part-time in Cheshire Record Office. Having decided to give up work for a few years while the children were young I was soon crawling up the wall with boredom (sorry kids), although I did take on teaching evening classes in local history and palaeography. The flexibility that Cheshire offered was a life-saver. Here I got involved in records management, developed office policies and guidelines, got the office’s first Charter Mark and published the Cheshire Record Office Guide (1991).

Giving a paper to the ICA/SAE in Amsterdam 2005

Giving a paper to the ICA/SAE in Amsterdam 2005

While I was at Cheshire Elizabeth Danbury asked me to teach archive administration on the Liverpool postgraduate programme alongside County Archivist Ian Dunn. I will never forget the feeling of exhilaration after taking that first class in 1987 on the development of archival theory – though for the students my exposition of respect des fonds, provenienzprinzip and registraturprinzip was no doubt eminently forgettable. What excited me was the nature of the relationship between theory and practice, and what struck me was how averse we were, as a profession, to thinking theoretically. Things have changed massively since then. In 1987 you could list all the books written on archives in a student bibliography and Michael Cook was practically the only person in the UK writing about practice and theory. Today archives, records, information and data generate a huge literature – the issue now is identifying what a book list must include.

University of Liverpool Political Pressure and the Archival Record conference 2004

University of Liverpool Political Pressure and the Archival Record conference 2004

I joined the University of Liverpool in 1996 as Lecturer in Archives Administration and left in 2007: a really productive eleven years. We started LUCAS (Liverpool University Centre for Archive Studies), ran conferences, updated existing, and started new programmes, like the undergraduate level distance learning Records and Information Management programme with TNA for government information/records managers. I joined the ICA’s Section on Archival Education: this involved a lot of travelling – Australia, Argentina, China, and Japan being the furthest afield – undertaking a range of projects. I was expected to research and publish: writing articles, chapters and a text book (Managing Archives: Foundations, Principles and Practice) helped me gain new skills. Whether undertaking research into the theory and application of appraisal, or data flows in the archival domain – or whatever – the outcomes were always new insights, ideas and ways of doing things.

University of Liverpool archive students’ graduation day 2005

University of Liverpool archive students’ graduation day 2005

Research was the focus of my next job, as head of a new Research and Collections department at TNA. This meant catching the 5.17am train on a Monday and staying in London all week, but it was worth it. TNA was seeking someone ‘to lead the relationship between TNA and its academic users, to drive our research strategy and to influence what information and records are collected in the twenty first century’ and I recruited some really talented people to take this forward. It was fascinating to observe the dynamic between TNA and government departments and for the first time I fully appreciated the challenges of managing information in all its forms. We established relationships with universities and funding councils, securing substantial funding; developed national collection policies and provided expert knowledge for the capture of government information. Sadly I was restructured out in 2009 during the financial crisis (my only experience of redundancy – it was weird) but more important is that TNA still proactively pursues the research and collections agenda – and with many of the staff I recruited.

The National Archives Research and Collections team 2010

The National Archives Research and Collections team 2010

So what to do when you are made redundant and not in the first flush of youth? For me it was important to remain involved (and preferably working) in recordkeeping. In 2010 I set up as a consultant and have worked with various clients on many projects. I worked for JISC on the development of business intelligence systems and information maturity models in universities; for the Duke of Westminster on information risk and records management in his rural estates; for ARA in the development of a competency framework for CPD, and surveying and reporting on volunteering, conservation and disability issues; for universities teaching as well as writing learning materials; and various archival projects from researching online cataloguing to identifying materials for the writing of an institutional history. This has been a really satisfying period in my career – being free to work from home, put out the washing or do a spot of retail therapy as the mood takes me.

Being asked to be President of ARA in 2011 came out of the blue. It was a huge honour and gave me the opportunity (until I stood down this year) of observing ARA’s growth from many angles: from community archives and volunteering awards to the Don’t Risk It and Explore Your Archives campaigns, and visiting parliament as part of the All Party Group on Archives and History. And (not just because I am writing this blog) observing the work of the proactive section for New Professionals is a further demonstration that the profession is in a healthy state.

As President at ARA Conference 2012

As President at ARA Conference 2012

Caroline Williams

October 2015


One comment

  1. Pingback: ‘How I Started’, Part 1: learning from the Archives & Records Association (UK)’s Section for New Professionals e-magazine – Learning About Archives

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