Aged 17, I was bitten by the genealogy bug and spent the summer at Liverpool Record Office. I was engrossed in the hobby, but somehow it didn’t occur to me that archives could provide employment.
I was nearing the end of my history and politics degree when I started to think seriously about work. I’d aimed to join the Foreign Office, much to the hilarity of my careers officer, who told me that people like me didn’t get jobs like that. I can remember sitting in the careers office totally demoralised, flicking through a graduate recruitment brochure when I saw an advert for a Graduate Archive Trainee. Realisation dawned; archives could provide employment. Excitedly I strode into the careers officer, saying, well how about this? Again, she laughed, “They will want something different to you.” And that was it, I became determined to be an archivist.
It wasn’t easy. I volunteered for a while. I got a graduate library traineeship, which I combined with evenings volunteering in an archive. I rang an archives course to enquire about a place and was rejected on the phone because I didn’t have any Latin, an option which hadn’t been available in my 1980s comp. I felt attacked again. I applied to another archives course and didn’t get a place. I was despondent, but that careers officer had done me a favour and I wasn’t giving up easily. My traineeship had finished and I spent a week telephoning anyone who might have an archive vacancy, securing a records assistant job in a different part of the country. A year later I secured a place at Aberystwyth University.
My first qualified role was as Assistant Archivist in Buckinghamshire Record Office, probably the perfect start for me. Surrounded by experienced archivists, wonderful collections and some lovely researchers, I learnt so much. Skills in cataloguing, undertaking research, managing workloads and dealing with researchers were all developed with the support of the County Archivist Hugh Hanley and team. Soon I moved on to be Senior Archivist in East Kent, where I was responsible for archives in eight locations, including a semi-derelict school and a store next to a public toilet. Amazing collections brought me new experiences, including dealing with lots of mould and cataloguing the archives of the East Kent Asylum. Working with the County Archivist, Tricia Philips, I brought the collections together into a new archive centre in Dover.
I moved on before the centre opened to the public. I’d been living on the opposite side of the M25 to my partner for three years and we needed to move to an area where we both could work. I got a job at Wirral, back to managing archives across several sites and making the case for investment. Again, I set up a new centralised archive, but I was frustrated, wanting to have more impact. It was the perfect time for the North West Regional Archive Council to advertise for a Development Officer. It was a new role, bringing services together, working with museums and libraries and improving services. I worked with archives across the region, assessing regional cataloguing backlogs through the Logjam project, retro converted catalogues and assessing conservation needs. Archive services were seeing real benefits from working together.
My role was soon subsumed into the work of MLA North West and I was restless. I’d enjoyed my regional role, bringing people together, but had no idea of my next step. I applied and secured a Fellowship on the Clore Leadership Programme, which enabled me to spend a year thinking about my role as a leader. The programme had a huge impact on me. I undertook training, two work placements, a research project and attended overseas conferences. I developed the confidence to make a big decision: I was going to go freelance, to work as an archive consultant.
When I made that decision 13 years ago only a handful of archive professionals worked independently. This meant that I had to sell myself and make the case for commissioning me. Since then I’ve provided an extra pair of management hands to many archive services, helping with funding bids and development projects. Sometimes I assess previously untouched collections, creating plans to conserve and create access. I’ve worked on major projects such as Archive Service Accreditation, Archives+, Skills for the Future and developing new museums such as the Silverstone Experience and the Tottenham Hotspur Museum. I’ve worked with museums and archives to raise millions of pounds in funding and I’m learning all the time, sharing my knowledge with others.
Freelance archive and heritage work isn’t easy, it isn’t secure, and it isn’t always fun, but it challenges me and enables me to make a difference. I’m glad I didn’t listen to my careers officer.
Janice Tullock, Archive Consultant and Heritage Specialist