What’s life like as a Bridging the Digital Gap trainee?

Jim Costin Bridging the Gap archivist

Jim Costin

Greetings and salutations. I’m Jim and I’m a trainee digital archivist. ‘What’s that?’ I hear people ask a lot when I tell them what I do. In simple terms, I look after digital records and ensure they are preserved for both now and the future. Which is a lot more complicated than it sounds. I’ll get into that later, though.

I’m based at the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York, as part of the ‘Bridging the Digital Gap‘ programme run by The National Archives.

I’m not from what you might call a typical archivist’s background, if I’m honest. I listen to extreme metal and come from a family of engineers and musicians. So, how on earth did archives and history enter the equation?

Well, that’s due to my sister. She’s an historian and is currently working towards finishing her PhD on the Pals Brigades in the First World War. She talked about visiting The National Archives several times, and I was dissatisfied working in a call centre for an energy company, so I applied for the scheme. I wasn’t expecting to hear anything, as I was quite left-field, but I then got an email – followed by an interview and phone call.

Fast forward to a few months later: here I am, sitting in an office without worrying if I sold enough boilers this week to hit my targets. Instead I’m doing something which I’ve found I love. Funny how life takes you places you never thought you’d end up.

So this is an archive

Prior to applying for this job, and even arriving for the interview, I had never been in an archive. I didn’t even know what one did beyond storing records and making them available for people to access. That has all changed now. Now I understand not only what they do, but also how important they are for preserving both past and future records. Digitally speaking, we have a digital archive, which I’ve been keeping tabs on.

The main challenges I faced in the first few weeks were related mostly to getting my head around the referencing used in catalogues, and some of the writing styles used in older texts. I still struggle to read some of the squiggles and lines, particularly if they’re in Latin as well. With time though, I believe I’ll be able to make sense of it all.

Working out where items are in the strongrooms is another minor challenge I’ve faced as I get more familiar with our archives. Things keep moving though, so it can be tough to keep up with it!

An archival strongroom

An archival strongroom

Training

The main scope of Bridging the Digital Gap is to bring people from non-traditional backgrounds into the archives sector, and I think they’ve done that with the group I’m part of. There are eight of us based at archives in London, Norfolk, Hull, and York (where I am). We all met one another at the first initial training session, which we’re referring to as ‘basecamp’.

What was clear to me as we introduced ourselves to one another is just how diverse our backgrounds are. We all had some kind of technical ability with digital equipment; however, everyone had developed it doing different things. Michael (East Anglian Film Archive) and Jack (Hull History Centre) both come from a film and media production background, while Issy (UCL) has worked in museums. Despite our different backgrounds, we all got along really well, and I look forward to catching up with everyone at our next group training day.

On one of our basecamp days, we got to have a tour of the repositories and also see behind-the-scenes of some the projects currently going on there. One of the most interesting projects was the 3D printing of seals for documents, where the seals have become too damaged due to age and poor conditions prior to moving to a secure repository.

So what do I actually do?

So far, I’ve been working on maintaining the digital archive that currently exists at the Borthwick Institute and ensuring that nothing nefarious happens to it.

More recently, I’ve been working through some Richard Orton and Trevor Wishart audio archives, digitising the cassette tapes and working out what is on some of the un-named tapes. Being from an audio background, it’s been really good fun to work with the audio digitisation equipment and also to listen to some tapes that have content from several years ago. Working out what year they are from can sometimes be challenging though!

I’ve also been digitising case books and helping with the reprographics orders. The latter involves finding and making copies of probate records, wills and other items such as marriage bonds from the microfilms or, in some cases, the originals. As I mentioned earlier, some of the early probate registers have rather difficult handwriting to read, and being in Latin makes the task of finding the names all the more challenging.

An extract from an early probate register, handwritten in Latin.

Early probate registers can be difficult to read

Looking forward

Despite only being in post for just under five months now, I feel as though I have already learnt a considerable amount. There is always more to be learnt, and I feel that the archival industry will be going through a massive shift in the next few years as digital records start to become the norm. What we do with those records is key and I believe will shape not only the archives of the next few years, but also the next hundred years.

9 comments

  1. Dr Nicholas Keegan says:

    A great opportunity for these young people. I hope that it will open up further opportunities or careers for them.

  2. Terry Wilkinson says:

    Good read, Jim!

    It’s a vital job you are doing. So important that this history is retained – and maintained – for future generations.

    Keep up the good work, bud!

  3. Mrs Patricia McDermott says:

    Very interesting work. I have been trying to discover what happened to my father’s Service Record and 2 medals for many years now. He was in WW1 from 1915-19 from age 16-20 years – in France (western front) and part of the peace-keeping force in Germany. He was in the 9th Batallion Seaforth Highlanders. I have his medal index card and two photos of him in uniform. He trained in Ripon and we have football medals from there. His name was Private Alexander Norman McEwan Regil No 201678. He came from Belfast, N.Ireland and survived the war. His father was Scottish. Any ideas about
    research?

    1. Liz Bryant (Admin) says:

      Dear Patricia,

      Thank you for your comment.

      Almost all of the surviving service records of soldiers (but not those of officers) who served with the British Army in the First World War are available online at Ancestry.co.uk. This is a subscription website but there is free access at The National Archives building in Kew.

      Please be aware that around two thirds of the service records have not survived.

      You can use our research guides to find out more about the First World War records we hold: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides-keywords/?show=keywords&keyword-letter=f&keyword=first-world-war#step-three

      In particular you will find the guide on British Army soldiers of the First World War useful (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/british-army-soldiers-after-1913/). I would also suggest that you look at our First World War 100 pages where we have gathered together information about our major online record collections for the period (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/first-world-war/centenary-digitised-records/).

      To find out where a soldier was fighting and what was happening to his unit from day to day follow the advice given in our guide to war diaries: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/british-army-war-diaries-1914-1922/

      Many of our First World War records are available online but to see records held at The National Archives that cannot be viewed and downloaded online you have two options:

      – visit us to view the original documents (or, in some cases, microfilm versions) in person for free – check our website for important information regarding our opening hours and closure dates, what to bring and ID requirements, especially important if you need to look at original documents as you must have two valid and correct proofs of ID with you

      – order copies of records to be sent to you (you will need the exact reference for the record): http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/record-copying/

      I wish you good luck with your research.

      Best regards,

      Liz.

  4. Mrs Patricia McDermott says:

    I was I had known that about research before I bothered with my last email. There seems to be NO HELP FROM ANY QUARTER regarding research for soldiers who fought for our country (under age too). Disappointed.

  5. Cheryl Tomlinson says:

    I found this very interesting. Thanks for the glimpse into “behind the scenes”. Your work is invaluable. Good luck with the job, Jim.

  6. Aweys says:

    Hello Greatings iam glad to hear that and be the best really your doing good job

  7. Irene Dawson says:

    I like how youve moved into archiving from a different direction. Its good people are given this chance. Hope you comtinue to enjoy your job as these records should be preserved for the future generations.

  8. Caroline says:

    You’re doing a fantastic job, I’m quite envious though!

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