How I Started – Nick Richbell

Growing up I wanted to be a zookeeper, a lawyer, or a movie star. The problem was that I was not very good at science, debating or acting (I’m still not). Around the time of choosing A-level subjects I told my French teacher, Miss Porter, that I just wanted to travel and to not study any more. She was horrified and was able to convince me to rethink this drastic decision. Miss Porter succeeded (thankfully), and I eventually ended up studying French and Spanish at the University of Westminster. I was going to be an interpreter for the United Nations. That didn’t happen. After graduating I became the Customer Service Manager at easyCar.com. One of the great things about this job was that I got to work with people from all over the world AND was able to speak in French and Spanish everyday. I spent several years working in customer service/HR-type roles.

How did this lead me to become an archivist? I’m sorry to say that there was no sudden “aha” moment. I didn’t have a prophetic dream. I didn’t wake up one morning thinking “today I am going to train to become an archivist”. I was simply fed up with managing large numbers of people in a thankless and dead end job. A friend actually suggested this line of work and I haven’t really looked back since. The reason why I say “really” will be explained.

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Nick Richbell, Head of Special Collections and Archives, University of Waterloo

So, at the age of 33, I went back to school – McGill University’s School of Information Studies in Montreal to be exact. (I met my future husband in North Carolina in 2003 and I subsequently moved to Canada in 2005 so that we could be together. Canada was the country of choice: both of us coming from countries that were not big on same-sex relationships at that time).

This was the point when I knew I wanted to become an archivist. I enjoyed school even though we all complained about the program (that’s for another blog post). During my last semester I was able to hold a practicum placement at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC). With the amalgamation of several Montreal hospitals, the MUHC was in the early stages of setting up an archives and program to manage its historical records and artifacts. It was a real honor and privilege to be chosen to work on this project. It was even better when, after graduating in 2011, I was employed part-time by MUHC as their Archivist and Collections Manager. I was able to continue the work I had started. I loved every part of choosing shelving for the stacks, processing papers of famous plastic surgeons, to measuring statues of Queen Victoria.

I also held a part-time job as Project Archivist at the McGill University Archives (MUA) at the same time as the MUHC. I had previously held a work-study position at the MUA whilst studying at McGill and was asked back when they experienced a series of floods. I oversaw the disaster recovery effort which meant I sat in the stacks for 8 hours a day whilst dry wall was ripped out and replaced. This may sound dull but (thankfully) this is not the kind of work you want to do in an archives considering the fact that water is not a friend to the archival record.

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University of Waterloo Special Collections and Archives

A job posting caught my eye in 2012 – Archive Analyst at Canadian Pacific Railway (CP). I knew about CP’s history thanks to the Canadian Citizenship test I took in 2011 and applied even thought this was a contract position lasting only 4 months. Sometimes you have to take risks, right? Just like the risk I took in going back to school to become an archivist. CP hired me and I went from managing an upgrade of the archives database to becoming the first professional Corporate Archivist on staff for many years. The archives was primarily concerned with working with internal clients; however, we also welcomed questions from outside researchers. I simply loved this work. Words do not adequately express the joy of being able to see and touch William Van Horne’s letter books from 1882! CP’s photographic collection of over 500,000 images was simply stunning. You only have to open a book on Canadian history to see images from CP (or even the Canadian passport for the image of the Last Spike).

However, the job at CP was precarious and the writing was on the wall for my role. I saw the role of Head, Special Collections & Archives at the University of Waterloo Library (UW) and mentioned it to my husband. “Apply”, he said, “You never know what could happen!” I did apply and a year and a half later I am writing this blog from my desk at UW. I love my job, my team, our collections, and UW. There is never a dull moment. There’s always something to do.

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Special Collections and Archives, University of Waterloo

Earlier on I wrote that I really haven’t looked back on making the decision to become an archivist. I did look back for a time. I was working part-time positions and in precarious situations. Between 2011 and 2014 I applied for approximately 400 jobs in the archives and library world. I was on the verge of giving up and returning to customer service work. I didn’t give up and I am so happy I didn’t. I’ll save my thoughts on job hunting for archivists for another blog post!

If you want to connect with me, I can be reached at nick.richbell@uwaterloo.ca

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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