My Lockdown Dissertation Experience – Natalie White

I am almost embarrassed to say that the Covid 19 crisis has been a blessing in disguise for the zenith of my 5 years part-time at UCL on the MA ARM course. I am a very kind of worker, so whilst a weekend often proved enough to belt out 2-3000 words I was extremely worried about leaving 10-12,000 words to the 11th hour. The memories of lack of sleep and panic I had previously subjected myself to, made me feel physically sick when I extrapolated the larger word count!

Even so, with a robust timetable from UCL, about where we should be in our development of ideas and plans throughout the academic year, I began to lose some ground after Christmas 2019. I work full-time, and just found myself in a cycle of getting through the working week; recovering at the weekend; and starting all over again. I was committing absolutely no time to this huge project that I had decided was such a grand thing to do.

I had spent much of my five years fretting on what I might focus on for my dissertation. (I wonder if too much time to think is a downside to part-time versus full-time course? But I expect the full-timers would have opposing thoughts on that too!) Every year, chatting with my personal tutor Jenny Bunn, I would think of a new and exciting idea to pursue. Eventually I settled on the reasonably intangible topic of creative responses and engagement with archival material. I feel quite passionate about this as I come from an artist-trained background, and feel there should be a cross over within the archival world; ways I had been taught to develop, and approach art projects I feel can, and should be, applied to the practice of archival engagement.

Then along came Covid-19, and we all went into spirals of panic over the unknown. Very luckily for me I was safe at home, and had good support from work too. So, quite suddenly, and with some relief as Easter approached, I found I had some head space, and energy to apply myself to reading, writing and planning. I was still quite adrift with my topic and where to take it, but Jenny did an exceptional job of pinning me down. It was however a long time before I really grasped what she meant by “framing my work”. I ended up developing three areas of research, which only really materialised after Easter 2020, deep into our new ways of existing.

Here is a quick breakdown of how I went about it:

I decided on the parameters of research to be the five years of my study, the UK and Ireland picture, and only ARA publications. I’m sure there are plenty of limitations to these choices, but I needed to focus quite keenly within the limits. My gut feeling was that we just aren’t creative enough with our engagement outputs, and Jenny quite rightly pointed out, that you can’t base your dissertation on your guts alone, you do actually need to work to prove/disprove this – we had slightly opposing views on what the result would be, but I was not deterred from my guts.

My first piece of research involved word searching for “creativity” and derivatives across the Archives-NRA listserv. The majority of the results came from job description requirements, so certainly being creative is a wish of sector employers. After this I conducted a literature review of the Journal of the Archives and Records Association. I selected articles and essays that appeared from their title to be of some relevance to my focus on creativity. There was an inordinate amount of reading, so much so I was a bit afraid to stop; what if I missed something? I compiled a spreadsheet with comments and potential quotes.

From these results I moved on to looking at what outcomes we actually produce and used the ARC magazine for this. Again, I made a little spreadsheet of my findings. I cannot stress the amount of time this searching and reading malarkey takes to achieve, and the monotony of it. But the sense of achievement of having a body of data at the end does make up for it.

In my wisdom I decided to create a questionnaire to see what attitudes and approaches are common amongst practitioners for engaging with archives. It was a huge task. And once I received the results I kicked myself quite hard for not asking quite a lot of important other questions. I would recommend not writing a questionnaire on your own; it definitely needs collaboration for more effective results. And then I wrote it all up and decided I was right, something isn’t happening within the sector, but I was wrong to think that archivists are without creative flair. We most certainly are an exciting bunch of folk, who are constrained by external factors mostly beyond our control.

When I look back over the last six months I do wonder that I took on too much. However, it all became something of an organic process, as each step and finding seemed to flow from the previous, and somehow I did manage to get the thing in on time, with the correct amount of words. I’d like to think that my tiny input on this topic does provide a neat little package of research; that it could be expanded upon and, hopefully would lead to some future progress and interest in the area of creative outputs.

Natalie White, recent student at UCL Department of Information Studies

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