How I Started – Sally Chalmers

In my first semester at university, I was too intimidated to take a single book out of the library. In fact, for the whole of my first year, I was too scared to go above the first floor of the giant 1970s car park chic building the library was housed in. So it shouldn’t surprise you, that in the course of my history degree I didn’t use the archive once (I did eventually master the library though). This doesn’t seem like a promising beginning, yet now here I am working in an archive.

Rolling stack Midlothian archive

The rolling stacks at Midlothian Council Archive.

While I have a traditional background for an archive professional, a history degree and an interest in material culture, archives were not a path I had considered upon leaving university. I had a vague understanding of what archives were. I had worked briefly one summer cataloguing rare books inside university special collections. I had seen the rolling stacks, smelt the red rot and eaten biscuits with archivists but I didn’t really understand what their job was. Their work happened in rooms with closed doors and their catalogues seemed inscrutable to the girl who had trouble with the library. I preferred museums, big open spaces with display cases, labels and cafes. In comparison, archives seemed like the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a place where secret (and possibly dangerous) treasures were locked away. The history nerd in me was interested but, as a young graduate, archives were not a place I understood or felt comfortable.

When faced with planning my future I focused on what I knew. I knew I loved learning about the past and I wanted to share that passion so I pursued roles in education. My university offered me the chance to work in a local high school alongside a history teacher. After graduating I went abroad and taught English in Romania and Hong Kong. Back in Scotland, I volunteered on a project designing school handling boxes for a museum. In these roles I learnt how to communicate effectively; how to make topics engaging for different audiences. I also began to gain confidence in myself and my work. Finishing my volunteer role, I was looking for a new challenge and a friend sent me a link to the Skills for the Future: Opening Up Scotland’s Archives Traineeship.

scottish archive trainees_2

Myself and other Skills for the Future Trainees on a visit to the National Archive.

The traineeship, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, is run by the Scottish Council on Archives and aims to bring new skills into the archive sector by placing trainees in archives all around Scotland from the central belt to the western isles. My interest was piqued by the role offered at Midlothian Council Archive. They were looking for a learning and outreach trainee to help them design educational resources for local schools. It was the perfect combination of working with my current interests, education and communication, and learning something new. I was particularly attracted to the fact that Midlothian Council Archives is working on an improvement plan to develop their service. Working with them I would be able to try lots of new things and help develop their outreach program. I was excited by the chance to take what had felt so scary and inaccessible to me and open it up to others. The role felt like the perfect opportunity for me and luckily Midlothian Council archives agreed.

So there I was behind the closed door, and it looked less like the end scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark and more like a portacabin, because it was a portacabin. As always when the curtain is swept back, you wonder why you were ever intimidated by it at all. But now it was my job to sweep the curtain back for other people.

Visit to National Archive

Myself and other Skills for the Future Trainees on a visit to the National Archive.

Opening up an archive has its challenges. From the beginning I have struggled to find teachers to trial our new educational resources. It has been difficult to find resources in these austere times for local authorities. But I have learned a lot from facing these challenges. I have also been able to branch out and try different types of outreach that Midlothian had not done before. I began a volunteer program and now manage four lovely and helpful volunteers. I am working with other council departments to plan a slew of events for Midlothian Heritage week to make the archive more visible. These include an event on LGBT+ archives which will seek to open up the archive and engage a previously underrepresented community.

World War display

Two of my volunteers and a display on World War One.

I have restarted user group meetings with frequent users of our collections to find out how they would like to work with the service. I have also expanded our social media presence with Tweets, Facebook posts and blog posts to increase awareness of the archive, our collections and our work. I hope my work on all these areas has helped to make the archive a little more visible, and a little bit more accessible. This work has also developed me as a person and a professional. I have learnt so much about managing people, working with people from other departments, organising events and many more useful transferable skills.

Working as part of a small archive, I have had a chance to experience a more varied range of tasks than I would at a larger organisation. Branching out from learning and outreach I have also had the opportunity to do some more traditional archive work, from basic preservation to helping creating an archive inventory. It has been great to get practical hands on experience of the day to day operations of an archive. I now feel confident in what an archivist does and find the work fascinating and variable.

The Scottish Council on Archives has provided amazing training opportunities to compliment the traineeship. I have been able to attend training days across the UK to develop my skills. From archive specific skills, such as digital preservation and paelography, to more general professional skills such as writing copy and people management. In June I look forward to attending their community archive conference in Stornoway. With the support of Heritage Lottery Fund, Scottish Council on Archives are able to offer travel bursaries to ARA members (more information here.)

I have always been a practical learner who learns better from hands-on experience than books or lectures. This traineeship allowed me an opportunity develop myself, my professional skills and learn about a sector I previously knew little about by training on the job. I have been able to open up archives to myself and to the public. In the future, I would love to continue working in archives especially working toward making them less intimating and more accessible to people, like me, who were unsure of archives.

 

 

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