Reflections on the Professional Fellowship scheme

The National Archives and Research Libraries UK (RLUK) created the Professional Fellowship scheme to enable staff from both organisations to gain experience and insight from one another, to strengthen and diversify the relationship between them, and to overcome some of the collective challenges facing research and cultural organisations. 

Professional Fellowships last for a year and are structured around short-term visits to The National Archives for RLUK fellows, and RLUK member institutions for The National Archives fellows, underpinned by a longer period of peer-to-peer mentoring and knowledge sharing. For more information about the Professional Fellowship scheme, click here: https://www.rluk.ac.uk/professional-fellowships/.

Below, our 2019-20 fellows reflect on their completed fellowships. They tell us what  they focused on, what they plan to do next, and why the scheme is a worthwhile and enriching endeavour.

Jennie Aspinall, Assistant Learning Officer, Library and Heritage Collections, University of Durham

Project title: Examining the best practice of archives and libraries in developing and delivering an online and in house session for secondary school-aged students, with an emphasis on widening participation in the University. 

Host institution: The National Archives

My initial goal was to examine the best practice of archives and libraries in developing and delivering an online and in house session for secondary school-aged students, with an emphasis on widening participation in universities. I ran two successful sessions with local schools focused on this and received some excellent feedback, but with the arrival of COVID-19 and the closure of schools and universities, any further sessions were halted. As a result, I had to change my focus to online delivery, which was a completely novel idea for the team I work with.

This opened up a world of digital pedagogy and skills that I have found to be both fascinating and challenging. It meant producing and presenting video resources, developing and designing asynchronous digital resources such as e-courses and games, and delivering live-streamed online school sessions. All of this I was doing for the first time, and the fellowship helped shape my progress.

Jennie’s first opportunity to present to camera for Durham Book Festival, featuring material from the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre kept at Palace Green Library, Durham

With all these new skills and knowledge, I’m going to continue developing my skillset in producing digital resources. It is a vast and established discipline, which I have barely scratched the surface of, and I plan to carry on with my research and its practical applications.

In the coming academic year I’m going to work with my colleagues to consider how we pivot our service, which has been purely digital in its delivery for the past year, to a more ‘blended’ approach – using the best that face-to-face and digital learning can offer, with the needs of our service users at its core.

Inspired by sessions at The National Archives and the work I have done in this fellowship, the team I am part of is now reassessing our full ASC offer for secondary schools. We aim to make the whole process – from booking to delivery – more efficient, engaging and safer for the documents.

And I still hope I might be able to visit The National Archives one day and buy those who helped me a coffee!

The fellowship has let me explore skills and knowledge which I simply would not have been able to explore otherwise. Furthermore, being dedicated to the project really gave me a focus during a very unpredictable time. The structure allowed room to fail, analyse and then adapt, which absolutely gave me the space and confidence to learn and try new things. 

I’m going to echo other fellows’ comments about the joy and usefulness you get from working with other experts in the sector. My mentor, Rosie Morris, was excellent and I am so grateful for her insight and experience, especially when unexpected challenges like ‘imposter syndrome’ kicked in.

Caroline Bolton, Archivist, Special Collections, University of Leeds

Project title: Archival catalogues as data: re-imagining archival practice. 

Host institution: The National Archives 

Having qualified as archivist in archives and records management, I worked in data and records management for 12 years until moving into an archivist role at the University of Leeds in 2016. With a background in designing metadata schemas, digital records management and open data pilot projects, I began working on a number of archive cataloguing projects. I became familiar with the wealth of metadata that was and could be held about collections, but discovered that only a small proportion of it was available to researchers via the curated view of the online catalogue, with limited opportunity for re-use.

Looking at other instances of online catalogues this appeared commonplace, so I began to wonder if these were untapped resources and what we could do to optimise them. The aim of the fellowship was to explore the practicalities and benefits of an alternative approach – how could we make legacy and new catalogues available as more structured, open, accessible, reusable and licensed data? How might this enhance access routes into collections, improve discoverability and facilitate new insights that could support both digital scholarship and collections development and management? 

My fellowship provided a wonderful opportunity to look beyond my own organisation and learn from the work of others such as Archives Hub, Aberystwyth University and The National Archives, as well as take part in training and initiatives such as Legacies of Catalogue Descriptions and Curatorial Voice. It enabled me to explore the possibilities for collection metadata to be reused, analysed, mined, enhanced and visualised using more accessible web-based, open-source, intuitive data tools (requiring no coding) as highlighted in my blog series.

It has given me new skills and experience that have helped my own professional development. I’m also now able to feed these ideas back into the organisation. It’s great to be part of the conversations about the exciting opportunities that digital and data approaches to archives can offer.

Vicky Iglikowski-Broad, Principal Records Specialist, Diverse Histories, Collections Expertise and Engagement, The National Archives

Project title: Co-collaboration and challenging histories: exploring the most effective co-collaborative models to enrich heritage practice in research libraries and archives.

Host institution: The Wellcome Collection

My fellowship was with the Welcome Collection and focused on ways of collaborating with audiences around complex histories 1. The impact of COVID meant this piece of work changed from being more practical to being predominantly theoretical.

Image of an anonymous sex worker, from a newspaper article in a file on ‘Vice in Stepney’, 1957-1964.
Image of an anonymous sex worker, from a newspaper article in a file on ‘Vice in Stepney’, 1957-1964. Catalogue ref: MEPO 2/9715

At the heart of the fellowship was a sample case study, relating to sex work and the state. Using records around this complex theme, I worked on an intersectional framework to ensure more marginalised sex worker experiences were being traced in the archives – you can read more about this work here. This framework can now be used to interrogate wider archive collections which may hold records relating to other complex histories. This seemed particularly important when approaching a collaborative project, to ensure that any records scoping captures the full diversity of a subject, in the hope of better reflecting the audiences we work with.

The fellowship was a great experience. It gave me the time to focus on the ethical foundations of a collaboration and how to ensure an intersectional approach to the records. However, what I would now love to do is test more of these ideas in practice. I am particularly keen to work on a collaborative project with current sex workers to reflect on The National Archives’ powerful, but at times problematic, records around historic sex work. I am hopeful this will start to become possible later this year or next year.

In the meantime, I intend to share more of the records research I have uncovered about the relationship between sex workers and the state, focusing especially on reclaiming women’s voices in government records about sex work, looking at our records on sex work in the 1920s and about male sex workers soliciting other men.

There is so much potential in the collaborative and records aspects of this work. I look forward to continuing to drive this forward.

The real joy of the fellowship was the many connections I made, from the Wellcome Collection and beyond. The Inclusion Team at Wellcome were particularly insightful and always willing to give their time.

The most valuable thing to me was having time ring-fenced to focus in-depth on this work. The fellowship was certainly a challenge, but a very rewarding one that I would really recommend.

Notes:

  1. For the purpose of the fellowship I defined this as historically contentious histories, that are still now considered controversial or sensitive in some way, that force institutions (such as archives and libraries) to reflect on and challenge their own practice and collection biases.

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