How I Started – Nancy Charley

If I am honest, I spent the first 40+ years of my life in ignorance concerning archives and archivists. I first heard of being an archivist whilst participating in a Solo Performance Course – perhaps not the most conventional way! I’d been writing poetry for a few years and had an idea to create a spoken word show. I thought it would be good to have some extra pointers, so enrolled for a course at Conway Hall in London. For six weeks I turned up on a Saturday morning and was inspired to breathe life into my poetic words. It was challenging and fun and my show, Patricia’s Box, was born.

Chatting with the others on the course I discovered that one participant was an archivist at Reuters. She sparked my interest. I was searching for employment after raising my family, having no job history  but an active and capable mind. My first degree had been in Medical Science. I felt too many years had passed with too many scientific developments for me to use the degree directly. Could archiving be a possibility?

The Internet provided me with more information – the route into Archives was through an MA, which, living in Kent, I could undertake at UCL. Bur first I needed some experience. Fortunately two places close to my home agreed to take me. The archives at the Powell-Cotton Museum, Quex House, Birchington responded positively to my enquiry and I am very grateful to Hazel Basford, Archivist, and Christopher Date, Research Associate, for the time they took with a potential archivist. They set me a project of sorting and listing a ‘trip package’ – Major Powell-Cotton had been an inveterate explorer and also a meticulous recorder. They also introduced me to many different aspects of running a small archive.

The Special Collections and Cartoon Archive at the University of Kent also offered me a placement. I divided my time there between checking the records of the Modern Poetry and Prose catalogue, and sorting various projects in the Cartoon Archive helped by all the staff there under the leadership of Nick Hiley. I developed muscles as I carried boxes of original cartoon drawings on large boards. The National Theatre Archives also provided me with a 2-week placement.

Armed with this voluntary experience I arrived for my interview at UCL. During the interview it was suggested that I should obtain some records management experience and was offered the chance to do this at King’s College, London. I jumped at the chance on hearing that I had been accepted for the course.

Archivist 012

Me standing in front of a Maharashtra Snakes and Ladders Game c.1800

 The UCL course was both interesting and hard work, a good grounding in both theoretical and practical aspects of archives and records management. I made it harder for myself by moving house during that time and I am grateful to family and friends who kept me almost sane by providing accommodation for 6 weeks whilst I was homeless – just as an exam and essay deadlines loomed.

Looking back after 15 months in employment, the difficulties have faded. I became the first archivist at the Royal Asiatic Society in October 2014. This is a great collection to work on – the archives sit alongside books, manuscripts, artworks, photographs and maps whose care I share with the Librarian. The Royal Asiatic Society’s Collections were established with the founding of the Society in 1823. Many early members were generous benefactors, and throughout the Society’s history additions have been made to the Collections. Today, the Collections provide an important resource for anyone wishing to study and gain further understanding of Asian cultures and history.

As their first archivist I have had the task of assessing the archives held here – opening boxes and making lists were a large feature of my year of employment. It has been a great privilege to re-discover some of the treasures and begin to put some order into archives that have been boxed and neglected.

Staunton map 001

Map of the China Coast donated by Sir George Staunton in 1825, possibly the first of its kind to come to England – one of the treasures re-discovered.

It is a long-term prospect to get them all organised and has demanded all my newly-learnt archival skills! I have begun to catalogue onto Archives Hub and also begun to put a records management system in place so that current records will not be lost for the future. One of the joys of the position has been the possibility of blogging and tweeting about the Collections which has increased awareness of our holdings internationally and has resulted in enquiries from researchers.

And archives continue to be acquired – not only through the institutional records of the RAS – but in 2015 funding was raised to acquire the personal papers of  Thomas Manning (1772-1840), one of the first British sinologists.


Portrait of Thomas Manning c.1805 by J.M. Davis.

Having spent time in Canton he attempted to reach the interior of China via Tibet. He failed but met the young Dalai Lama in Lhasa – Manning’s pencil sketches of the Dalai Lama being one of the delights of the collection.

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One of the documents from Thomas Manning archive – he was detained in France by the Napoleonic administration.

Has archiving fulfilled my needs in employment? Yes! The members of staff at the RAS are a joy to work with and I get to meet researchers from round the world, either in the Reading Room or virtually via email and social media. I am trusted to organise my own work, which I enjoy, and there is always a variety of tasks that will make a significant difference to the knowledge and availability of the collections. It is a delight to be able to be part of raising the awareness of the wonderful possessions of the RAS. And there is a wealth of material which can also inspire my own creativity.

















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

  2. Hazel Stanforth

    Nancy, is that you from Byker days? It kind of looks like you on the photo. I’m interested to hear you are in Kent. Get in touch if you would like to ( and if it’s really you!!!)

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