A day in the life of an archivist

As part of Explore Your Archive week the organisations and people who look after archive collections will be taking to Twitter – and we want you to join us! Find out what a typical day in an archive is like, discover the collections, post your pictures and tell us why you love archives. Each day we will have a different hashtag for you to join in and connect with archives globally.

Today’s theme is a day in the life (#dayinthelife).

Archivists will be sharing their insiders’ perspective of what a typical day in an archive is like – or in some cases, maybe a not-so typical day! Find out about the work that happens behind-the-scenes to collect, keep safe, and share the wonderful record collections that make up our nations’ memories. We have made a Storify of the day, to show the diversity of work going on in archives across the country.

Who are the people who work in archives and what do they do?

As part of the day, Melinda Haunton from our archive sector development team talks about a typical day working on Archive Service Accreditation. Over to Melinda:

Melinda on a train. Image courtesy of Melinda Haunton.

Melinda on a train. Image courtesy of Melinda Haunton.

As the Programme Manager for Archive Service Accreditation, the UK’s standard for archive services, my days can be very varied. I spend a lot of time training applicants, supporting services who are in the midst of their applications, and publicising the programme, which is still quite new and unfamiliar to some who work in the archives sector.

But my most exciting days are the ones I spend doing ‘validation visits’ to Accreditation applicants. Applying for Accreditation means completing an online form, but we don’t want assessment to be just a desk exercise. We need to get out, talk to people who work in archives, and (gently) test the truth of the information they have sent to us with their application. Not every application gets a validation visit every time, but over the cycle of applying for and retaining Accreditation in years to come, we will ensure that every Accredited Archive Service is visited regularly over time.

A validation visit day begins early. I usually need to be on a mainline train between 7.30 and 8.30, but since I don’t live on top of Kings Cross station, I’m usually grumbling my way towards work by 6am. Right now, I’m training a lot of colleagues as assessors to support the programme as greater numbers of archive services apply, so there’s usually someone to meet at the railhead, and the day’s work begins.

We also meet up at some point on the journey with the peer reviewer who is joining us for the visit. Archive Service Accreditation is a standard developed and owned by the archive sector as a whole, so it’s important that assessment isn’t just carried out by The National Archives: we work with the Archives and Records Association to train peer reviewers to support us. They ensure we remain grounded in the real world of everyday service delivery, make sure we are fair, and contribute to the feedback and actions we set for all applicants. It’s also a great opportunity for people who work in the sector to understand how other services work, getting and sharing ideas for service improvement.

By about 10.30, we arrive at the applicant archive service. The point of a validation visit is really threefold. Firstly, we want to see the place: far better to look around rather than have our applicants write long essays about how reception looks and how easy it is to find the car park. Secondly, there are some pieces of documentation which we ask applicants to have in place, but not to send us for reasons of security and data protection. We shouldn’t hold copies of every emergency or security plan in the country, nor contact details of everyone who has ever deposited something with an archive service. But we need to check that such things exist and are accessible to the people who do need them. Thirdly, and most importantly, a visit is the opportunity to find out how the service really works; to test whether what’s on paper is what happens in practice, and to find out how Accreditation can best support the service’s improvement.

Validation visits can seem stressful all round. Trainee assessors and new peer reviewers have never been in this position before, and the applicants, of course, want to make a good impression. But once the ice is broken (usually with cups of tea), on a good visit everyone will relax. Accreditation assessment isn’t about looking for spotless perfection, or ticking things off a checklist while shaking our heads disapprovingly: instead, we’re happy to talk about real world problems and how the archive service is tackling them. We talk with heads of service, about challenges for the future and the direction they hope the service will be able to take. We talk with team members about how they contribute to the work of the service, and how things connect. We look around strongrooms where records are held, checking that any risks to collections are known and managed. We often meet with volunteers, to chat about how they became involved with the service, how they are contributing, and what support they receive. We talk with conservators about how active conservation is prioritised, and how the collections’ condition is managed.

Often, we’ll meet with related professionals, such as education or museum development officers, and learn how they work with the archive service to share its holdings with wider audiences. And where possible, we will also meet with records managers, to discover how more modern records are transferred into the archive service, to keep our present history for the future. Where possible, we’ll also meet with people further up the reporting line, to see how the archive service fits into its parent organisation, and to help to raise its profile.

A visit takes anything from four to seven hours, and it will always be a mix of discussions, walking around, and checking those practical examples we know we need to see. Every service is different, and we want to make sure they have as much opportunity as possible to show themselves accurately and in full. It’s fascinating, though tiring: we need to be encouraging, alert; making mental or literal notes, but not letting uncomfortable silences develop; ensuring our questions are effective, and give people the chance to talk, not closed and discouraging. Having the odd break is essential, to keep our focus.

After the visit, we tell our hosts what the next steps are: when the next awards panel is, and what they can expect to get back in terms of feedback. Then the assessors and peer reviewer meet to agree the outcomes of the day (and have more tea, if possible – all visits run on tea). We already have a draft assessment, which we used to focus the visit, but now we agree how what we discovered on the visit has altered our views of the applicants against each requirement of Archive Service Accreditation, or our overall recommendation to the panel on whether they should be Accredited. We also note a few key points of success and constructive criticism which we want to be sure the service will draw out of the assessment. Lastly, we agree some actions which we feel the service should take in future. A small number may be ‘required’: the service won’t be re-accredited if they are not addressed, because they represent concrete risks or increasing problems. But often the actions are ‘development’ ones: things that the service needs to think about for the future or support for changes that are already in train. This is an important part of Accreditation: helping services to see how they can best improve for the biggest impact.

And then off to the train, and the next train, and probably a third train, and a bus, till I’m home – on a good day, before 10pm. At some point, chatting with colleagues and peer reviewers peters out into making notes, or more likely into dozing and quiet reading, as we rest our brains and let the visit marinate for a while.

Next day, if I’ve planned things well, I complete writing up in the office, check the peer reviewer agrees with what I’ve noted, and another application will be ready to go up to the awards panel. Another potential Accredited Archive Service is on the way.

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