A British Archivist Abroad – Sandra Blake

I had always wanted to live and work abroad. In my final year of university I agonised over what to do once I graduated, but I knew that I wanted to work abroad at some point. When I realised that I was destined to be an archivist, I focused on finding work in the UK, convinced that finding paid work as an archives assistant in the aftermath of the recession would be impossible. Luckily, I found one in September 2011, and spent the next four years as Archives & Records Management Assistant for the Northumberland Estates at Alnwick Castle. During this time, I achieved my MLitt in Archives & Records Management from the University of Dundee.

It was towards the end of this post that I started thinking about opportunities abroad, even though I was moving to Suffolk. Taking into consideration the fact that I don’t speak any other languages, I would frequently look at lists of countries that had English as an official language! Malta was on that list, but I never dreamt that I could end up working there. However, as fate would have it, after a cataloguing project with the BBC at Imperial War Museum Duxford, circumstances arose which saw me jump on a plane to Malta in July 2016.

National Archives of Malta

The National Archives of Malta, Head Office, Rabat

Back in May 2015 I was writing my dissertation, part of which focused on Archives for the 21st Century and Archive Service Accreditation. I thought it would be interesting to meet the National Archivist and CEO, Dr Farrugia, while I was there on holiday, to see where Malta stood on national policy. After this I imagined what it would be like to work there. As the end of my contract with the BBC approached, I contacted Dr Farrugia in the spring of 2016, to ask about employment opportunities. I had been offered an extension to my contract with the BBC, which I was grateful for, but I distinctly remember thinking, “now is the perfect time for me to go abroad. If I don’t go now, I might never get the chance again and I’ll regret it.”

In May I met with Dr Farrugia and he told me that there were some employment opportunities coming up later that year connected to Memorja, the National Memory Project. In July I moved to Malta and volunteered at the National Archives of Malta (NAM) from August until December, when I was offered a paid position there. The recruitment process was agonisingly slow for me as I wanted everything to fall immediately into place upon landing in Malta. In reality I found myself volunteering again, as a qualified archivist, and there was no guarantee that I would be employed – I would have to go through the same application process as other candidates. In addition to the usual concerns with job-hunting and recruitment, there was the Mediterranean pace of life to contend with. Things move slowly in Malta compared to the UK and there were times when I questioned my decision. I couldn’t keep volunteering forever, and after a couple of months I began to wonder if the job opening would ever come up.

Image-1

Finally, in November 2016, the call went out for five positions to work on Memorja: Administrator, Assistant Archivist (requiring five years post-qualification experience), and three part-time Archive Assistants (requiring one year of  post-qualification experience). After submitting my application I was invited to interview for the Assistant Archivist and Archive Assistant positions. This consisted of questions from a selection board made up of the National Archivist, two managers from NAM, and a gentleman from the Ministry for Education and Employment. I was offered one of the part-time Archive Assistant roles because an Italian archivist, who had already been there for a year and a half, had more experience and was offered the Assistant Archivist position.

Colleagues

With some of my colleagues

My role is very exciting – Memorja is going to be Malta’s national oral, sound and visual archive. I’d previously never had any experience of audio-visual archives or oral history, so I’m happy that I’ll be one of the people behind its launch later this year. There are different oral history themes, and my colleagues and I each have a different theme to interview people on. These include folk medicine, childhood, the war, soundscapes/bellringing, migration and public administration. My theme comes under migration, and is based on British people who moved to Malta from around the 1950s onwards, either due to the British armed forces, or for other reasons, such as marriage.

ImageThe long-term goal for Memorja is a large, online portal whereby individuals can access oral histories, music, soundscapes, film, photographs and ephemera etc., all in one place, without having to visit the archive. NAM is collaborating with lots of individuals with private collections, so that as many aspects of Malta’s collective memory as possible will be preserved and accessible to all.

Language is not a problem here as English is spoken by almost everybody, and official documents are written in English. I really want to learn Maltese though, so I’ll be starting a course in the autumn. If any other new professionals want to work abroad, I’d say go for it. You do need to put in the effort, as I know that already having volunteered at NAM helped me a great deal. I also know that if I hadn’t contacted Dr Farrugia in the first place, I’d never have known that those positions were going to become available – I was very proactive. My contract was originally for three years, but very recently it was made indefinite, so I’m more glad than ever that I took the plunge.

Sandra Blake

Archives Assistant, National Archives of Malta

sandra.blake@gov.mt

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