After nearly two years as a graduate trainee archivist, I’m flying the nest to complete my Master’s degree and be a fully-fledged archivist instead. I wanted share some thoughts about my preconceived notions about what exactly an archive is and what it does, and how I think now after working at Gloucestershire Archives.
Before I started working in an archive, here’s what I thought happened:
- Everything vaguely ‘historical’ needs to be kept and preserved.
- Everything in an archive should be digitised and put online so people can read them from home.
- Archives are mainly used by and meant for historians and academics doing research.
- If you are determined enough you can have everything in your archive tidily catalogued and put away during your time working there.
- Looking for a document shouldn’t take too long.
Do you agree with any of these? Do these statements sound familiar to what you think? Here’s how things actually happen (from my trainee perspective):
- If we kept everything ‘vaguely historical’ we’d have no room left on the planet for anything else (it’s not very eco-friendly!)
- Even if you had all the time and money to do this, it still wouldn’t be useful for everything. Things can easily be missed in a digital scan and you’d need resources to transcribe all the material as well. Digital material also needs digital storage space – we’d have to pay to store something both physically and digitally, and digital preservation has lots of its own risks. Paper has been around in some form for hundreds of years but digital formats become obsolete in a few years.
- Whilst historians do rely a lot on archives, all sorts of people use our search room. I’ve found lots of people come to use our documents to prove/disprove land boundaries or discover more about their family history.
- If you go in with this mindset, you WILL become disheartened, which will make it difficult to do anything at all. Instead, you have to look at what you CAN DO, and break it down into manageable projects that will have the greatest impact on people. Eventually, it will all be catalogued, but by then they’ll be a completely new system anyway. And so on!
- Erm, sure – if you only have 1 box in your collection! Gloucestershire archives have millions of records, in thousands of boxes, in nearly 20 strongrooms, and each strongroom has about 300 bays, and each bay has at least 6 shelves….you get the picture.
If you have any assumptions about archives, comment below – are they different to mine? It was amazing how much I didn’t know, and how wrong I was about pretty much everything.
My favourite thing about working here (apart from the best team you could wish for) is the eureka moment when a collection makes sense to you. As a colleague told me: ‘where is the material telling you it wants to go? What is it telling you about how it wants to be arranged?’ After sifting through a box of papers and material that has no previous arrangement, you start to see patterns and links which tell you the most logical way to arrange it, so that people will be able to search for and find it again. I feel like a gold-panner, sifting through until I find that golden nugget which explains what I’m looking at.
I’ve had the best time working here and will miss it immensely.
And for everyone I work with – you can use my trolleys now, they’re empty and waiting for new documents to carry!