The SfNP Summer Seminar 2017 – A Bursary Winner’s Perspective

Thanks to a travel bursary from the Section for New Professionals, I was able to attend this year’s Summer Seminar in Glasgow. The popular, free event was already fully booked by the time I heard about it so I applied for one of the newly launched bursaries which came with a place at the seminar. I sent off my application more in hope than expectation, but to my surprise I was successful. As well as securing me a place, the bursary helped cover the travel costs from my home in London to be at the seminar.

As soon as I entered the venue, I was struck by the warm and welcoming atmosphere. Attending an event where you know nobody is often a daunting experience, but not on this occasion. Everyone was very friendly and approachable. The SfNP committee joked that their planned icebreaker seemed unnecessary when the room was already buzzing with conversation, but we went ahead with it anyway for the sake of the chocolate prize.

Summer Seminar 2017

The day’s three sessions were very practical in their focus and reflected the broad range of skills required by archivists today. A show-and-tell of current document packaging products and handling techniques was bookended by talks on less traditional but no less vital skills for new archive professionals: writing business cases, and managing projects and people. The rest of this post gives an overview of my personal highlights from each session.

Session 1: “Many projects start life as a walk in the fog”

Consultant Archivist Elizabeth Oxborrow-Cowan shared her vast knowledge and experience of writing business cases in the first session of the day. In today’s economic climate, archivists increasingly find themselves in the position of having to justify the continued need for their work or bid for funding to support it, so being equipped with the power of persuasion is important.

Elizabeth Oxborrow_Cowan talking about preparing a business case.

Elizabeth demonstrated that the key to a successful business case is finding a way to align what you want to achieve with the concerns and interests of your target audience (i.e., the funder or senior manager you need to persuade). Where funding is involved, it is all too easy to assume that costs and potential savings are all that decision makers will be interested in, but a standout message from Elizabeth’s presentation was not to underestimate human and emotional ‘pull factors’ of archives. She cited numerous examples from her personal experience where these had really tipped the balance in favour of a project, even winning over accountants.

The other message I took away from Elizabeth’s presentation was that far from being onerous and simply bureaucratic, writing a business case can actually be a very useful first step in defining a project and its goals. As Elizabeth put it, ‘many projects start life as a walk in the fog’ and a business case brings clarity to the situation.

Session 2: “Archivists can’t get enough of acid-free bookmarks”

In the second session of the day, Richard Aiken, Senior Conservator at the Highland Archive Service, gave an overview of the best preventive conservation and cleaning products on the market with plenty of tips on caring for archives.

When you’re a new professional responsible for ordering expensive conservation materials for the first time, the choice of products available can be overwhelming so it was great to get an expert opinion on which to choose. But we also learned that you needn’t restrict yourself to using products as they come—just modify them to make them fit for purpose. For instance, Richard recommended cutting down one side of a document envelope to make it easier to get the contents in and out without damaging them and he also gave us his method for making custom-fitted bags to protect wax seals.

Richard Aiken showing us basic preservation skills.

When I set out to become an archivist, I don’t think I ever realised that I’d need to learn about the properties and relative advantages of different plastics and rubbers. However, I now know that polypropylene is more suitable than polyester for storing photographs due to its flexibility, and I will always avoid latex in both handling gloves (go for nitrile) and smoke sponges (choose synthetic latex-free).

For me the most surprising tip of the day was to store large volumes on their spine. This saves space, reduces the risk of damaging the spine when taking the book off the shelf, and prevents the book boards from collapsing. Richard’s revelation that he uses gifts of acid-free bookmarks to keep in his archivist colleagues’ good books came as less of a surprise, however. I always have a stack of these on my desk and they’re a pain to make yourself.

Session 3: “If you fail, fail giving it the best go you can”

Dawn Sinclair, Archivist at HarperCollins Publishers, gave the third presentation of the day on managing people and projects. Having started out as the lone archivist in charge of a substantial archive with lots of untapped potential, Dawn has now recruited and managed several paid interns and a full-time archive assistant to help her make the most of the archive.

Dawn’s strong ethical stance was admirable. It is fantastic that she insisted on paid internships and believes that there must be mutual benefit for the archive and the intern. She urged any of us who end up as lone archivists not to be afraid to admit if we need help and to accept support when it’s offered, but she equally emphasized that archivists shouldn’t just offload their unwanted tasks onto interns.

Dawn Sinclair’s talk on managing projects.

As someone who has recently been given some responsibility for my archive’s spending, I really appreciated Dawn’s pragmatic budgetary tips. She discussed the differences between working with your own allocated budget and having to request money on a project-by-project basis from the wider organisational funds. In the latter case, she advised being especially mindful of the time in the financial year when you ask for money.

As for approaching projects themselves, Dawn recommended making a plan, setting realistic goals, and then doing your best. Expect things not to go to plan, be prepared to break your own rules and be aware of your own limitations. But above all, ‘if you fail, fail giving it the best go you can’, and remember to learn from your failures.

Ruth MacDonald


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