– 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.

Time management

This week I will be making a time management experiment. Here is a structure for my ideal work week – or at least a first draft of the ideal week.

Time/Day Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
Hour 1 Paperwork, catch up, log enquiries Research & answer enquiries Research & answer enquiries Plan exhibitions/ talks Plan exhibitions/ talks
Hour 2 Produce/put away records Research & answer enquiries Research & answer enquiries Enquiries processing backlog
Hour 3 Write reports, compile stats Research & answer enquiries Research & answer enquiries Enquiries processing backlog
Hour 4 Write reports, compile stats Accessioning Produce/put away records
Lunch – St Cross closed Lunch Lunch Lunch Lunch
Hour 5 Urgent/emergent Urgent/emergent Cataloguing Cataloguing Environmental monitoring etc
Hour 6 Web content, blog, social media Scans & photography Cataloguing Cataloguing Tidying, filing, putting away
Hour 7 Web content, blog, social media Scans & photography Cataloguing Cataloguing Paperwork, catch up, log enquiries

It doesn’t allot many hours to any particular task, but it does give some time to pretty well all the different sorts of things I need to do. This means that at least some of all those tasks will get done every week, which in turn means that quite a lot of them will get finished over the course of a month or a year. If something doesn’t fill its allotted slot in a given week, there is always plenty else to do in that time instead. This never happens! indeed, several hours are deliberately left unallocated ( – ). Meetings, talks, tours, visitors, assisting readers, invigilation, answering the phone and door, correspondence/visits re maintenance etc  cannot be scheduled like this, but all take up time throughout the week in most weeks.

Backlogs of every kind, so often inherited, are the archivist’s bugbear, so some kind of structure is required to whittle away at those while also answering the constant barrage of enquiries, helping researchers, making sure it’s not raining in the repository (what I call ‘environmental monitoring’) and keeping at the cutting edge of everything else going on. When it feels as though there is constant catching up to do, it’s good to schedule some progress tasks – which make you feel as though you are improving something – as well as maintenance ones.

One day, I will have caught up all the enquiries and enquirers entries for the database, and that ‘enquiries processing backlog’ designation will disappear – probably to be replaced with more digital photography & scanning, which I’d like to spend more time on in order to shorten waiting times for those on the list.

I considered using Twitter for a blow by blow account of how the day goes, plus the blog to note the actual work accomplished in each hour and demonstrate how it reflects, or doesn’t, the allotted task for that hour – but decided that would be too much to inflict on readers. Nobody wants torrents of tweets from one account in a day. Instead I’ll post at the end of each day and the week. I meant to use some web use tracking software to monitor how much time documentation of the day takes up, so I could weigh whether the greater accountability and conscious productivity make the use of the rest of my time more effective enough to be worthwhile, but on a very quick browse through the most obvious possibilities it seemed that they all required downloading of some piece of software, which I am not able to do at work. A completely browser-based one is what I’d need. So I’ll keep a diary and use online timers to keep myself on track.

This is part of an initiative (on my part) to write up guidelines for the smooth running of the archives, or rather, the closely interrelated non-print special collections: medieval books, institutional archives and modern personal papers. In practice they are mostly relevant to my work, but there have been several pre-course work experience placement students and there will be more, and I hope eventually there will be at least a part time trainee here. Library staff are at St Cross more often now that the early printed books stored here are consulted here , so we will be cooperating on invigilation. With a tiny staff of skilled professionals, it’s efficient to have clearly delineated responsibilities but a good enough understanding of at least the basics of each other’s work that services can be maintained during absences or emergencies. This is a good way of thinking through and writing down the system for getting things done and doing them well.

Too much is usually left to the individual memory/conscience/capability/experience, and we all know where that gets us – not as far along as we want to be, usually. Too often these things only get written down as handover notes – if then. This means that the postholder has no time to consider the system as it is written out, look at it from the outside, and improve it. So if the basic necessities, and a few refinements, are written into a system, it should be possible for anyone with the right background to be able to understand how things work and what needs doing, and to tweak and add value and information according to their own strengths, interests and experience. Otherwise we end up with too much reinvention of wheels, and some of them turn out to be square.

I’ll be pondering further along these lines, in a somewhat tangential but certainly related way, with the Cardigan Continuum’s latest readings for April.

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