Hannah James – Restarting as an Archivist

I graduated in 2006 with a degree in Modern & Medieval Languages, fascinated by medieval literature, culture and history and with no idea about what I wanted to do next. Wanting to get away from big cities, I moved to Herefordshire (on the Welsh borders) and spent the next nine years in jobs ranging from community development work (including volunteer management and fundraising), basic administrative jobs to freelance PA and book-keeping. By 2014, I was very bored.

I found Careershifters on Facebook and took part in an online session, which said that your ideal job is at the intersection of what you love doing, what someone will pay you to do and what there’s a need for. With that at the back of my mind, in mid-2014 I remembered my sixth-form work experience – a week at the University of Nottingham archives. I remembered being fascinated by the strongroom and the basic conservation work I had done (on duplicate “archives”, I hasten to add).

What you enjoy aged 18 may not be the best foundations for a career in your thirties so I took a week’s leave to volunteer at Hereford Cider Museum archive. I loved it. After working on a digitisation project there I moved to Herefordshire Archive & Record Centre (HARC) in September 2015 where I’ve been volunteering ever since.

Herefordshire Archive and Record Centre

So as to combine paid work and study I researched distance learning. I enrolled at University of Dundee on the MLitt Archives & Records Administration course, attracted by the inclusion of working archivists as external tutors. I started in January 2016 with English Palaeography and Diplomatics: after all, what’s the point in being an archivist but unable to read the archives I’m caring for? It was difficult at times but the tutor, other students and my HARC mentor were really supportive.

At the study school in Dundee in April I met my fellow students, most of whom already had jobs in the sector despite not holding a postgraduate qualification. I spent the 8-hour train journey home thinking how I could do likewise. In August I started as Records Assistant at Powys County Council, Llandrindod Wells but with an exhausting 54-mile daily commute.

Determined to carry on, in October I started a new part-time job (significantly closer to home) as the first records manager in the legal arm of arm of the Angling Trust, the national governing body of angling in the UK. Working alone, I am tackling a 30-year backlog of uncatalogued legal files, having first designed and implemented a records management system. I have a year in which to catalogue 3 rooms of records, appraise and then dispose or archive and document – there won’t be much spare time. img_0785

Some of the record store rooms at Fish Legal (Angling Trust)

With the rest of my week at my disposal (allowing for MLitt study), a chance discussion with a local archivist alerted me to a potential opening back at Hereford Cider Museum. The funding for the main archivist post had ended but there is a small pot of money available for a short-term project. I was successful in getting a role as a very part-time project archivist to survey, arrange and catalogue papers from the Bulmer family relating to their family, the firm’s cider production, and apple propagation. I’m initially working in the donor’s study, separating out donations and then surveying them before they are donated and transferred to the museum archive.

Hereford Cider Museum

I am now halfway through the taught courses for my MLitt with two part-time contract jobs and a fortnightly volunteering position at HARC. Studying while working in the sector is really useful – studying the theory and seeing the reality on the ground is vital and I believe my studies and work both benefit from it. I also find the regular Skype sessions that are part of the Dundee course invaluable – they connect you and your work, volunteering and studying to a wider community of fellow students, reminding you that you’re not alone.

A career change is never easy but if you’re determined, organised and flexible, it is possible.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks so much for explaining your journey. I’m looking to go into archives and to complete the qualification post the completion of my PhD next year, so its really useful to hear how other people have done it!

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