I remember the first time I said I wanted to be an archivist. I was 17, it was summer term and my college had us in-betweeners doing long lessons for our A level subjects in preparation for the horror of another Exam Year. I was doing French, with a bored French assistant, about Careers and The Future. Asked what we wanted to do, I – history nerd that I was – said, “Je voudrais être historienne ou archiviste.”
I didn’t really mean it. I didn’t know how to become an archivist. It just sounded quite a logical thing to do with a history degree, and I did know I wanted to do that. No one had ever given me a careers talk about archives. I’d certainly never visited one. But I did know – I’d read enough history to know – that you have to go back to primary sources in the end. I did know they were called archives. I knew just enough to be interested.
I did nothing about this ambition for eight years. I wanted to be a historian, really. I did a history degree. I fought for masters funding, and did a history MA. I fought for PhD funding, and did that too. I handed in my thesis on September 11, 2001, which was a truly terrible life milestone.
Then I had to do something else, but I didn’t know what. The obvious thing was academia, but over the years I’d lost faith in it as my career of choice. I found the experience of reading and writing alone for three years horribly isolating, and academic debate increasingly arid. I didn’t recognise it at the time, but I was absolutely burned out. Luckily, no one happened along with patronage into a research fellowship or some other ‘ideal’ career path. I did part-time teaching, but it wasn’t nearly enough to live on, so I found admin jobs, and tried to think what came next.
The best part of my PhD, by miles, had been engaging with archives. I’d spent about two years of my studies in archives: the (then) Public Record Office, Lambeth Palace Library, British Library, Hatfield House, University libraries in Birmingham and Cambridge, Churchill Archives Centre, and others I’ve blurred at this distance. What a fascinating world. I finally looked up how to become an archivist. That wouldn’t work – no one was going to fund me to do yet another postgraduate qualification. So I decided to join the civil service. As you do…
Some of the first civil service jobs I spotted were at the Public Record Office and the Historical Manuscripts Commission. They needed people who understood the role of archives, but weren’t necessarily archivists. Training and development were promised – these were specialist roles without a single obvious qualification. When HMC offered me a position, I was thrilled. I was starting in a generic role, Curatorial Officer, but most of my job was editorial work on the National Register of Archives indexes. Knowing a lot about institutional structures in British history was immediately relevant, and I could finally see where my studies had an instant impact, in ensuring that information about UK archives got online.
I was trained in wider duties, too. Within a year, I’d taken over lead for the sales monitoring service, learning the markets and identifying archive material at risk. I used my history skills to support advice to grant awarding bodies, reviewing the relative significance of proposed projects and purchases. That led to wider learning: the grant bodies needed to know whether these archive-owning institutions were effective, well-run, the right institutions to back. So I began a real training in archives administration. With Chris Kitching and Norman James, I had a crash course in archive buildings and service management; with Dick Sargent, the key international standards for archive description, and how they support data sharing.
As HMC became part of The National Archives, broader horizons opened up. My past research at that institution meant I could just about survive public service duties, but I still have immense respect for those colleagues who can confidently navigate enquirers around our 100 miles of records. I still wanted to learn more, to put my specialist training into broad professional context. I’m immensely grateful that TNA is able to fund some staff to undertake relevant professional qualifications; I don’t think there was another way I could have gained my diploma than with employer support.
Over the next few years I studied by distance learning supported by my Aberystwyth cohort: we organised meetings between study schools to visit each other’s premises, finding out about archives in different contexts. The practical training I’d had proved excellent: I had a wide experience of archives which no-one else in my cohort had, giving me a head start on several modules. Distance learning is tough, but it’s also great to be able to use your knowledge immediately in the day job. I gained confidence that I knew what I was doing: I started inspecting services against the TNA Standard. Sometimes the oddities of my non-typical archives job could be frustrating; it took months before I could find a viable cataloguing project, for example. But I made it, eventually.
Once qualified, I’ve never lost the will to keep learning. I’ve been part of delivering Registration Scheme for six years, helping new professionals to plan their own development. People come into archives through so many routes, especially those in distance learning, who are often on second or third careers. Bringing those skills into the sector is essential. I also feel strongly that we shouldn’t be too generic about skills an archivist has or needs. Different roles need very different skills, from customer care to digital preservation, from diplomatic to budget management to community engagement to planning. We develop those in post, and by identifying ongoing learning needs.
In the years since I got started I’ve read a bit about alt-academia, which is a euphemism for ‘people with PhDs who didn’t get university jobs’. There’s some feeling that it’s a sad end for these people. I disagree. Some of us like the practical world, love seeing impact as core, and relish using our academic knowledge as a springboard to wider development. Being a historian is quite different to being an archivist; the skills for one are not the skills for the other, and there are different qualifications for good reason. Archives should be more than a profession of history enthusiasts, and that’s of course a subject for wide discussion now. But knowing your way around relevant institutional and legal histories is not such a bad starting point to begin learning what you actually do need to become an archivist.
I’d never say this is an ideal career path, but it was a fascinating way to begin.