How I Started – Helena Clarkson

I didn’t travel a traditional path to find work in archives; my degree was in Illustration and after building a little business (which came to end) I started to look at how my illustration skills could help find other meaningful work. In writing this I’m hoping to show that finding work and getting accepted onto an archives MA, is possible even without a strictly relevant degree! If you’re considering this path but worried about not having the qualifications, don’t rule it out. If my time so far has taught me anything, it’s to value transferable skills.

After my creative start I found that my degree left me very comfortable around technology. I had gained an eye for detail; was able to pick up new software quickly and developed colour matching skills. I realised this meant I didn’t have to limit myself to drawing. At one point I’d ended up in a call centre, and wondering how I got there, reflected that I could use my skills in a very different way! I love the arts and heritage sector – and after research – I found some digitisation job postings.

Max Communications was my first opportunity. At that time the team scanned scientific journals for the Royal Society. We ensured digital image quality; indexed the journals, added metadata, and used Occipital Character Recognition software (the digital journals had to be fully searchable). The material scanned was to be destroyed; this gave insight into the importance of accuracy and quality digital surrogates. I began to get a real feeling that I was contributing to safeguarding history. Working for companies like this is great; they get a variety of jobs and have access to the latest scanning and capturing technology. Max Communications cemented my desire to work in archives.

After Max I decided to aim for applying for a Masters in Archives and Records Management. I needed 12 months and a variety of different experiences for this course. This is when I emailed a some archives and applied for volunteer positions. I was accepted as a preventive conservation volunteer at Royal Museums Greenwich and a volunteer at the Archives and Special Collections at the London College of Communication (LCC).

Image 1.Reading Room at LCC
Reading Room at LCC © University of the Arts London Archives and Special Collections Centre

At LCC I was introduced to box listing and the cataloguing software Calm. I learnt their retrieval processes and got glimpses of their Stanley Kubrick collection. If you can tell, the reading room pictured is inspired by Kubrick’s film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. It is amazing to work for a busy archive shadowing assistant archivists. I learnt the correct temperatures for storing materials in a strong room (and how this differs when storing film). Alongside this, I was learning preventive conservation at Royal Museums Greenwich (RMG). 

Image 2.VolunteeringatRMG._cropped
Volunteering with Royal Museums Greenwich (‘with permission from the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London)

Volunteering at RMG meant I could shadow their conservation team across the Cutty Sark, the National Maritime Museum, the Queen’s House and the Royal Observatory. I got to see first-hand how conservators and archivists fit into the exhibition/loans process. The team taught us about lux levels (what levels of light are acceptable before becoming damaging), temperature and humidity control, pest management and other environmental factors. Other practical skills taught included gilding, caring for frames and objects on open display. RMG staff would prepare talks on archival handling. Volunteers toured all departments involved in the care and promotion of its collection. If you are able to volunteer, and can do so at different locations, I would recommend it. You can build a larger and more complete picture of the heritage sector.

In between volunteering I made sure to visit events that were held in archives and communicated with as many archivists as possible. It’s a remarkable community and even though competitive, I have never met an archivist who has declined to advise me. So network as often as you can; many events are free or low cost.

Lastly this brings me to my current post; an archives and digitisation assistant at RCVS Knowledge (Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons). You can find their collection here . This is the website I helped populate after digitising the material.

Image 3. Screen shot of digital collections website
Screenshot of the Digital Collections website ©RCVS Knowledge

I work alongside a qualified archivist so I get lots of guidance and handle a wide range of materials. I am also cataloguing a small part of the collection myself. All the experiences I’ve had so far really have helped my position here and because of my degree I can also get involved in creating promotional material.

Image 4. archivestorageatRVC
Archive storage at the RCVS ©RCVS

I have now been accepted onto the UCL course in Archives and Records Management and though I am nervous about studying again, I’m definitely looking forward to the next chapter. I hope anybody starting on this path, reading this, in a similar position to when I started, will realise they can achieve whatever they set out to do.

Helena Clarkson, RCVS Knowledge



  1. Great post Helena! It’s great to hear how other people have come into the profession! Good luck with your MA!

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