This blog post is part of a series for Explore Your Archive.
Life as a University Archivist
The students have returned for the start of term and the whole campus is buzzing. My colleague has just informed me the new undergrads would have been born in 1995. That was the year I graduated, and I suddenly feel very old. You never feel too old for long in the world of archives though. There is always someone, or rather something, older than you. I work at the Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections at the University of Birmingham, where our oldest document dates back to the 6th century, and our clay tablets to c2000 BC. The content of archival material never ceases to impress, but what also intrigues me is thinking about where these ancient manuscripts have been all the years prior to them being carefully handed over to an archive such as ours for safekeeping.
One of my favourite parts of my job is showing groups of students around our department. During such tours I often quote a phrase my former manager once used. He said archives were the closest thing we have to a time machine. I love that idea and he was right. You can pick just about any period in history and view the written documents that were created at the time to get a real sense of what things were like and what people thought and felt. Reading the actual letter Neville Chamberlain wrote to his sister describing his first meeting with Hitler, or seeing Edward Elgar’s original diaries is not something many people experience. But they could. Our department, like most archives across the UK, is open to everyone and free to visit. If you are interested in history, why settle for second best reading about things in books or on the internet when you can see and touch the original documents? Archives are not just for the privileged few, they are for everyone to enjoy and learn from.
My role as public services archivist brings me into contact with a wide range of people who want to use our archives and rare books for a whole host of reasons. I get involved with teaching sessions where groups of students visit with their lecturers; work with groups within the University to create exhibitions celebrating events such as LGBT and Black History Month; liaise with depositors and researchers to arrange lunchtime lectures, and I have been part of ‘Culture Crawl’ evenings where our international students get to visit different cultural departments across campus (likened to a more sophisticated alcohol free pub crawl). The variety of ways archive material can be used is limited only by people’s imagination.
Our department’s primary focus is to cater for the requirements of the students and staff here at the University of Birmingham, and to directly support the University’s research, learning and teaching agenda. We are though a service that is open to all, and part of my role involves working with the wider community, running behind the scenes tours for U3A and local history groups for example; arranging events for open days; and I’ve also had visits from groups of school age children studying the First World War, and slavery. Having had little prior experience of working with children, the first of such visits seemed daunting. I had visions of their time spent with us descending into chaos, and they in return had thought their visit would be boring. It was an absolute relief and delight for us all therefore to find out just how wrong our preconceptions turned out to be.
Being an archivist is a great profession if you are interested in people. Whilst on searchroom duty you meet so many new faces, and it is a pleasure to be able to help researchers navigate their way through the various catalogues and finding aids to enable them to find the documents they require. It also makes my cataloguing work more enjoyable. My work cataloguing new collections of documents involves reading the material in order to describe it in a meaningful way so researchers are able to assess whether the material would be of interest to them and useful for their research. Every archive collection I’ve catalogued has been about a different subject matter, and offers the opportunity to glimpse into the lives of the past. Over the last few months I’ve listed papers of Harriet Martineau and her family; documents relating to a missionary in Burma; and letters written just after the First World War by a young lady working in France. You never know what new material will be deposited or what treasures you will discover within your next box when cataloguing, which is part of the joy of my work.
It is this variety the job offers which makes working as an archivist so interesting for me. One minute you could be involved with a seminar group working with ancient Greek manuscripts, and the next, logging on to Twitter, dealing with copyright issues or advising someone about a reprographics order. No two days are the same, and it is not only the archives themselves which make my job so interesting and enjoyable, but also the contact with the researchers and groups that use them. It is a privilege to work alongside such dedicated and professional colleagues, and it is a career I am very glad I chose all those years ago.
So, put aside those journalistic images of ‘dull and boring dusty old archives’, and go and explore your local Special Collections or Record Office. Your time machine awaits…
Archivist at the Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections, University of Birmingham
This week sees the launch of Explore Your Archive, a new campaign for archives, which highlights the value of local, university, business, specialist, private and national archives. Archive services across England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland are sharing inspiring, surprising and enticing stories from their collections. Have a look at the website to find an event near you and be inspired to Explore Your Archive.