The Careers Officer asked me if I was sure that I wouldn’t regret the choice I was about to make. I was in my final year as an undergraduate; I had just told her that I wanted to decide between archives and archaeology as a career, and she clearly thought I was crazy. ‘Have you thought about joining the Civil Service?’ she said. ‘Or perhaps you could consider the law. Why not think about becoming a solicitor?’. She evidently saw it as her job to steer wayward students into safe and reliable career options. But it was the mid-1970s, and I knew this wasn’t what I wanted. Like many readers of this blog, I wanted to work with the ‘raw materials’ of history. Eventually she saw that dissuasion was hopeless, and tried another tack. ‘Well, if you really won’t consider anything else, then I would advise you to choose archives. If you choose archaeology, you’ll find that the career prospects are terrible and you’ll probably spend much of your life unemployed. In archives, you’ll never make a lot of money or rise to dizzy heights of influence, but at least you’ll have a job when you want one.’
I never found out whether she was right about archaeology. In any case, I had already more or less made up my mind that I didn’t have the limitless patience I thought an archaeologist would need, and that my choice would be archives. The Careers Officer gave me a typed three-page leaflet entitled ‘Archive Work’, which I still possess. It told me that I would need powers of concentration, an interest in administration, a willingness to undertake painstaking work, an ability to communicate with people at all levels, and an interest in the everyday life of past centuries. I wasn’t sure about the ‘interest in administration’, but all the rest sounded fine. The leaflet also told me that part of an archivist’s work was concerned with ‘records accumulating in day-to-day business’ and that this was called ‘records management’ – a name that I had never previously heard.
So I applied to, and was accepted by, the School of Library, Archive and Information Studies at University College London. Then, as now, the ‘UCL course’ could be completed in a single academic year. It was advertised as a postgraduate diploma course. Many years later I learnt that master’s and doctoral programmes in archive studies were also available at UCL, but these were kept very quiet at the time; in any case, a diploma was what employers of archivists expected in the 1970s. The course was surprisingly comprehensive, with classes on offer covering everything from Anglo-Saxon writs to 1970s-style computing, but the emphasis was very much on learning the facts; unlike today’s UCL students, we were not expected to interrogate or challenge received ideas.
At UCL, I was one of about a dozen full-time archive students from the UK; student numbers were far smaller than they are today. I think all – certainly most – of us assumed that after completing the diploma we would work as archivists in local government. Most of the vacancies that came to our attention were for Assistant Archivist positions in county record offices. I don’t remember seeing any advertisements for jobs in records management, and although we had learnt about records management at UCL none of us expected to develop our careers in that direction.
When I was studying at UCL, I thought my ideal job would be in an English county record office, preferably one based in a historic town or cathedral city. In the event, things turned out very differently. I did indeed work briefly in a county record office – even in the 70s, permanent jobs weren’t always easy to obtain, and I started my professional career in a short-term contract of a few months at the Warwickshire Record Office – and I went on to other mainstream archive posts at Guildhall Library, St Bartholomew’s Hospital and the Royal College of Physicians, all in London. Guildhall and Bart’s were wonderful places to work: the first a rich and varied collection embracing almost every aspect of London’s history, the second an 850-year-old institution providing cutting-edge healthcare and medical education. At the College of Physicians, I became involved in records management as well as archives, but I was still perhaps following a predictable career path.
What I didn’t foresee when I was a novice professional was that in the 1990s and 2000s I would return to UCL, not only to teach on the archives and records management programme where I’d once been a student, but also to participate in the burgeoning international field of archival education and research.
Over the past 20 or 25 years, I’ve worked on the initial development of the ADLIB computer system for archives, participated in a number of research projects including LEADERS and InterPARES, taught and supervised students at master’s and doctoral levels, co-written a top-selling book on records management, and edited a series of professional texts for records managers and archivists. I’ve also written extensively about concepts of records and archival description.
Outside the UK, I’ve worked with the European DLM-Forum on digital records, served as a consultant on an International Records Management Trust project to restructure hospital records in The Gambia, taken part in educational design workshops in Botswana and Uganda, and spent four months as a visiting professor of archival studies at a Canadian university. I’ve been invited to speak at conferences from Oslo to Rio de Janeiro and from Vancouver to Hobart. I’ve been able to develop my skills and contribute to the profession in ways that did not enter my imagination when I made my initial choice of career.
Today, I’m happy to tell new professionals that I’ve never regretted my choice. Yes, the Careers Officer was right when she told me that a career in archives and records won’t make you rich or powerful, but it can provide opportunities and experiences that you would never expect.