Gary Brannan: A day in the life of an Archivist
This blog post is part of a series for Explore Your Archive.
Rule 1 of being a local authority Archivist. There is no typical day.
Rule 2 of being a local authority Archivist. You shall eat cake.
How does a typical day begin? The main point is that there is no such thing as a typical day. There are common elements. There will be researchers. Possibly, lots of researchers. But they’ll all be studying different things. Some will be absolute experts, others absolute beginners. There will be documents to interpret. Some of them easy, others less so. There will also be collections to work on, some of them interesting, and some of them the archival equivalent of a strong mug of Horlicks.
So, when throwing open the doors of the Archive, there’s a tangible sense of the unknown. Anything can – and on weekdays, probably will – happen. The carefully laid out diary is only an indicator of the fun to come.
And so, the doors open, the day begins. The day will be a mixture of searchroom duty and collections work. The first researchers arrive, a mix of regulars and eager, long distance travellers, itching to make the most of every moment. The regulars are like family, a mix of volunteers diligently transcribing old parish records and PhD students, slowly inching towards ‘writing up’. The new visitors hesitant, worried, in need of reassurance. Lockers are filled with belongings, and then, documents produced. History is grasped at hand.
We’re aware that – sadly – for some of the older regulars, we may be the only human contact they have all week. We know so much about them already, beyond their research needs. Their family, their health, their holiday plans, their new grandchild in New Zealand. When we don’t see them for a few weeks, we worry.
Searchroom duty is entirely dependent on what you have in the room with you. You could have a room that’s so full, there is barely a seat to spare and never move from the desk. Researchers are researching, comfortable with their material. On other days, a single user could occupy your attention for the whole day as you navigate them through the difficult material they have in front of them. What skills do we need?
Well, some Latin, perhaps. We’ll almost certainly need to be able to read and interpret documents back to the 1500s. The content and meaning of land deeds. Knowledge of enclosure records. The Civil registration system. Old local authority boundaries. The electoral system 1840 to the present day. The Data Protection Act, 1998. How to comfort someone when they read a mental health file about their grandmother. Amongst this, remote enquiries on a variety of subjects – vehicle registration records; police personnel enquiries; magistrate’s court records; drainage plans; requests to withdraw records for exhibitions.
In the background I might be planning a talk to a local community group later in the week. The talk will need to inspire and move them to connect with the records of their area, but still entertain them. Part of the job is this front-of-house entertainment and engagement role as the face of the archives. Sadly, archivists do come with a pre-ingrained image – the bow tie, tweed jacket, bookish look, sharp manner and overbearing I-know-it-all-ness of legend.
Do we need to be experts in local history? Maybe. We need to know our patch. But we need to know our records more. We’re just the mine that the historians can use to put their interpretation of the past.
And in the afternoon, time to deal with collections. Time to actually work on an existing collection? Not today. That’s Friday’s treat. Today is all about a new collection. The authority is moving offices. Local government bodies all over the country are in the middle of this process – as cuts bite, services as harmonised in brand new, shiny offices, with mottoes such as ‘paper lite’ and ‘e-working’.
Slowly, records held in the tight grip of local authority clerks are prised from their hands. This call’s an exciting one. ‘Old plans’ in a basement. How old? 1850s apparently. The office is a old mine building. The unknown beckons again.
On reaching the basement, it’s the usual situation – the lights have gone, and so have the stairs. Lit only by a torch, and after tripping up over a discarded cricket set and a traffic cone, I stumble into the dark basement. As well as forgetting to dispose of these records, they also forgot to get rid of the lightbulb. Light! Luxury!
And – yes! Plans! From the 1850s! Only problem is…we’ve already been through these and selected the ones we want! 1850s they may be, but an 1850s drawing of an outside toilet (x1000) really isn’t what you would want to keep forever. As I troop out of the room, my left foot catches on a pile of volumes. Idly, I wipe the murk from the cover. A local authority planning register? The ones we were told were destroyed in the 70s? And the same underneath? And another five? Shining the torch through the now-dusty air, the light catches on a wooden box. Index cards to the plans? The ones that would make finding a building plan a matter of seconds of research rather than hours? And more sets? Crumbs and crikey. We’ll be back with the van later this week.
There’s sometimes a conception that we just take in a few books here and there – it can be anything from to a single carrier bag left on the doorstep to a few van loads of records. During some recent maintenance work we had to empty one storage unit – this came to just over 600 volumes! The work can be heavy and really dirty as well. Some of the volumes we work with can weigh up to 20 kilos each.
It’s an amazing feeling, being responsible for nearly 1,000 years of history. It’s daunting – but thrilling – to think that everything we keep, we keep forever.
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.