– 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.

Intercultural communication 1

This article, presented online in a positively Dickensian number of sections, originated as a lecture to postgraduate students on the Master CIMER (Communication interculturelle et muséologie au sein de l’Europe en reconstruction) programme at the Sorbonne (Paris IV) in March 2011. An edited version of part of it appears in the September 2011 edition of the Balliol College Annual Record. Parts of the online version were in the original notes, but were not presented owing to time restraints. My thanks are due to Mr. Aleksandar Protic, President of the Sorbonne UNESCO Club, for arranging my visit, and to the course director, Prof. Francis Conte (Hon Fellow of St Antony’s), for his very kind welcome.

The Sorbonne lecture was intended to give the students, many of whom come from backgrounds in various aspects of European heritage institutions, some idea of the scope of what I do as college archivist and curator of manuscripts at one of the ancient colleges in Oxford, with some reference to Balliol’s history and a few of its notable alumni. However, I also enjoyed the opportunity to look at my work through the lens of intercultural communication. One of the strong themes to emerge, perhaps not an obvious one for a job based in such an ancient institution, was that of constantly challenging expectations and assumptions. So for a bit of history…

Many people assume that archivists have to have a degree in history. This is not true; in my class of ten at archive school, only three had studied history for their undergraduate degree; others had first and second degrees in modern languages, philosophy, theology, classics and art history. (Not very many archivists come from science backgrounds – we need more of them!) My first degree was a BA in English Literature and medieval studies from the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada.  I first came to the UK 12 years ago for graduate studies at the university of York in interdisciplinary medieval studies. As part of the standard research training at York, I took modules in medieval/ ecclesiastical/ administrative Latin, which you may know is rather different (classicists would say worse) from Classical Latin, palaeography and codicology. Gradually I became more interested in the manuscripts, books and documents themselves than in pursuing an academic career, and decided to see about becoming an archivist.

As a standard prerequisite to the professional archivist’s Master’s degree I undertook a year’s graduate traineeship at the cathedral archives of York Minster. I knew from my research degree and my experience at York Minster that I wanted to develop and use those now-rare skills for dealing with medieval documents in a small specialist archive, probably connected with either the Church of England or a university, because of the size and nature of their collections. From the (then) three places in Britain which offered the one year’s professional Master’s degree in archives administration I chose Aberystwyth in west Wales because it is now the last of the three to retain the traditional auxiliary sciences as core modules.

However, I was not only looking back to the past; my dissertation concerned the use of online digital resources for teaching medieval palaeography and diplomatic, and my interest in ways of using digital technology to bring medieval records and the skills needed to work with them to a wider audience continues. I then worked for a year at the archives of Glasgow University. During that year, while I was wondering whether my contract would be renewed or not, the job at Balliol College in Oxford came available and because it stipulated a requirement for a medievalist’s skills, I applied more for interview practice than with any expectation of getting it. I was pleased to be offered an interview  but did not expect to be offered the job, and was not even sure I would want to accept given the chance. I had never had anything to do with Oxford before and assumed that in a world of stuffy old-school-tie customs and old-boy network nepotism I must be the outside candidate: Canadian, young, female, not an Oxbridge graduate, even coming from outside the south of England… and then they offered me the job about two hours after the interview. So I moved south and life changed again – and with it had to change my completely ignorant assumptions and prejudices about my new employers…

next time: rethinking intercultural communication for Oxford archives…

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