– notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Opinions expressed are the author's own.

AskArchivists Q&A 3

Another couple of musings on questions tweeted during Ask Archivists Day:

Q: What is a typical day as an archivist like?

I’ve never yet had the same day twice, and I like that.  A typical day is constantly interrupted, which can be frustrating (and inefficient), but requires short-term flexibility and long-term focus. A good day is one in which you can start AND finish something. Or at least finish something.  Most of my days at the moment consist of some or all of the following:

  • packing archives on the main site
  • unpacking on the new site
  • answering enquiries, possibly a bit more briefly than usual
  • labelling boxes
  • updating the locations database as more boxes are shelved
  •  adjusting lots of metal shelves in the new repository to maximise space use efficiency, since so many of our things are not standard sizes
  • letting maintenance people in and out, and trying to decipher all the tech-speak to find out what they are actually doing, and what I may need to know about its inner workings later
  • telling tourists that St Cross is not a parish church anymore, but rather a college building, and so they are not allowed to wander round, but that if they have a research question, including about the memorials in the church, they are welcome by appointment from October, and that the church will be open to the public for Oxford Open Doors on the second weekend in September (subtle plug there)

Ask me again in three months and there will be no more packing and upacking, but quite a lot more fetching and replacing of archives from the repositories, invigilating of researchers and (if I’m lucky) cataloguing on the list! A particularly good day ends with a group of college archivists meeting in the pub.

Q: What draws most of us to the profession?

I’d be curious to see others’ response to this question; I suspect that few paths to a career in archives are without twists and turns. I came at it sideways from a higher research degree in Medieval Studies, where I enjoyed learning medieval Latin and palaeography immensely.  I love having a job in which such apparently arcane skills are of daily practical use, and I get to read, use, photograph and write about medieval manuscripts much more than most academics ever do, even though most of that work consists of contributions to or facilitation of someone else’s research. It’s always a challenge – you learn the standards and formulae, and you need those systems and frameworks to make any sense of archives, but they never apply in quite the same way twice. And one corner of my soul is forever a systems geek, so I have a certain guilty pleasure (very strictly limited) in records management theory. Despite the delight in systems, I’m not a naturally tidy person, so I appreciate being able to detect and restore order to a collection and describe it so that it becomes orderly, comprehensible and useful (and even interesting!) rather than just a frustrating box of messy STUFF. And – well, medieval Latin, 14th century handwriting… nowadays these are in effect secret codes, and being a codebreaker is very cool.

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