Paying attention to details – Laura Benvie

“When you fall in love with the process rather than the product, you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy. You can be satisfied any time your system is running.” – Atomic Habits by James Clear

You may have spotted my #100days100details posts on Twitter, sharing small details from my work and daily life. As I write this, the first fifty details have been published and the project will finish on 18 November with all the usual project-completion fanfare any large undertaking deserves. Celebrations may include, but are not limited to: a coffee from the fantastic indie café on campus; buying myself a new audiobook or something as simple as trying out a new path on my lunchtime walk.

The Sir Duncan Rice Library, University of Aberdeen. Reflecting the building of the Science Teaching Hub.

I’ve worked in special collections for over a decade and I have become convinced that one of the most important tools you can have with you at all times is your smartphone. Need to note the condition/location/reference of an item? Spotted something fun for social media? Need a quick reminder to email someone about an issue once you’re back at your desk? Snap a photo and make a habit of checking your camera roll at points during your working day.

Since around 2014 I have regularly found images of hundreds of unique, beautiful and mysterious minutiae hidden amongst the ‘to-do list snaps’ in my camera roll. Often when I tool the photos I considered these little things unimportant – just quirky and overlooked features, tucked away within the collection. A cat’s inky footprint spotted on the back of a building plan; a slip of paper with a man’s face on it, used as an impromptu bookmark; or a beautiful compass rose.

‘Bookmark’ found while surface cleaning an estate collection.

Most of these images were taken during large accession and conservation projects – records from historic local estates and businesses or private collections of academic papers that have been gifted to the archive. These projects often include documents with so much dense text – which you have no time to read – and so few images that when you stumble upon a tiny fragment of beauty you feel compelled to record its existence.

The most popular post to date from #100days100details, a wrapped ‘mega bundle’ filled with smaller bundles of records, dated by year.

The #100days100details project was a challenge to myself. I wanted to keep up the habits I have developed while working on large projects, even though I wasn’t physically at work. Large projects, no matter the type, are all about habits, proceses, overcoming challenges, focus and adaptability. If you can master these, you’ll be ready to deal with anything, no matter where you end up working.

Habit

No matter the particular project or location of my work, there are a few things that I try to maintain as constants in my daily routine. These give me time to process and problem-solve. Some of my non-negotiable habits for the past few years are:

  • A lunchtime walk, no matter the weather. We all know the benefits of taking yourself away from your desk, even just for 20 minutes.
  • Having a podcast or audiobook ready for the practical parts of my work, such as rehousing, removing staples.

Process

Everyone works differently, but I’ve learned little things from everyone I’ve worked with. It’s a little bit like a recipe – you take a little bit of each person’s way of doing things and hang on to the parts that work best for you.

Challenge and focus

Working on large projects isn’t for everyone, but if it is your jam, it’s important to have ‘bribes’ to keep yourself energised on the occasional off days that we all have. These days always feel a little like Groundhog Day for me.

These are the best days to challenge yourself to find details like the ones I am featuring in my #100days100details. Are there beautiful letterhead illustrations? Is there a specific estate Factor or Manager who onl uses the verso page for sums? Are there doodles in the margins or inside covers? These are the details that will change your day, stimulate your mind and help you power through.

These needles (and a pin) were found hidden inside a legal document, was it ever opened before I cleaned it after being bound?

Ability to adapt

The role I have means that I have to be extremely flexible with my working day and if one project needs to be swapped for another, so be it. Get those processes and systems in place that allow you to jump from one project to another without worry.

You can see my #100days100details posts on Twitter. Feel free to say hello and give me a shout if you’d like recommendations of audiobooks/podcasts/mixtapes for working to!

Laura Benvie, Collections Care Assistant, University of Aberdeen

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