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‘A Month in the Archives’ – an account of a work experience placement

  • 26th August 2016

Recently we have put up two great posts (here and here) that were written and researched by Chris Rouse, a work experience student who joined us for a hundred-hour placement this summer. Before he departed, Chris also wrote us an account of his time here, which gives an insight into the wide variety of work an archive service undertakes:

At the end of 2015, I sent a hopeful, rather vague email as a hopeful, rather vague history undergraduate to the archives department of Worcestershire County Council. I was in my final year, and beyond knowing that I wanted a career where I could indulge my love for history, I didn’t have a strong idea about what exactly I wanted to do for a living. Several talks at university on jobs in heritage and the historical sector had repeatedly stressed the necessity of experience and insight. Archival work especially seemed to entail a career ladder with many rungs; entry required a specialist degree, which itself needed a large amount of prior work in the area. So, hoping to dip my toes in the sector and gain a bit of experience, I sent an enquiry about volunteering, expecting maybe a week of shadowing, a bit of database grunt work, and tea making. What I ended up doing was so much more.

When I heard back, what emerged was no week of cliché work experience tasks (I only ended up making three cups of coffee, and they were for myself), but rather a month long, hundred-hour placement. These regularly run placements, which cover the various branches of the Hive’s Archive and Archaeology Service, offer a rigorous and extensive demonstration of all aspects of life in archives. As well as the hands-on work with the sources themselves, there are the vital User Services and Outreach teams, who are integral in helping the public engage with their local or family histories.

After the organiser of the placement established what I wanted to do and get out of the placement, I started with a tour around the facilities and offices, including the Hive’s seven strong rooms. Monitored for temperature and humidity, these contain twelve miles of records and a rich assortment of treasures including royal seals, beautiful antique maps, and what every archive should hold: a set of teeth. The sheer volume of documents –deeds, letters, electoral registers, plans, all manner of written information related to Worcestershire– was quite staggering. Processing, monitoring and utilising it all seemed a daunting, though gratifying, task. Over the weeks, I picked up how this was done, having insights into the forms, databases and processes relating to matters like copyright, deposits, cataloguing, prioritisation and retrieval. This struck me as the beating heart of archival work, and I was thrilled and privileged to be allowed a look inside. I learned early on that working in archiving is not itself a research job, but rather a role where the research done by others is facilitated- this is a highly rewarding position to be in.

There is also a lot more involved in the sector. I spent a few very pleasant mornings down in conservation (envied by others, especially in the summer, as the only well air-conditioned area) listening to Radio 4, drinking coffee and doing various jobs. Some –like cleaning documents with the oddly textured, aerated-rubber-like conservation sponges– were quite straightforward and I was able to get a lot done. Other activities, like making cases for old books using acid-proof card and the biggest guillotine I’ve ever seen, exposed my lack of coordination but were good fun nonetheless.

Although archival work is not a research job, I was lucky enough to be let loose on a variety of historical projects. An alarming number of my family have worked in education, so I was interested to hear an older perspective on working in schools when I transcribed the oral history interview of a teacher formerly of a primary school in Redditch. Although some details change, the highs and lows of the job seem to be a constant. It was the first time I’d done any transcription from an oral source, and I worked at a heroically slow pace, though this did pick up towards the end. It was a very interesting hour and twenty minutes to listen to, and I felt like I was developing a useful skill.

I also transcribed some letters from World War One for use in a local group’s presentation. Written by members of local families, including a pair of brothers from Evesham and a ward sister based sometimes in the south coast, sometimes in France, these were insightful, funny and poignant in equal measure. The ward sister, Rachel, emerged from her letters as a thoroughly forthright and witty individual, decrying “hags” and “fishy eyed” trades unionists, while also requesting a true Worcestershire aid package of asparagus, which “doesn’t keep- we’ve tried!”. The traditional British stiff upper lip and aversion to informality were evident in one of the Evesham brothers. His war experience seemed largely to comprise touring Egypt and India; getting wounded; and convalescing around the world, all relayed to his parents with barely a trace of passion. He signed his letters “Your affectionate son, Cyril E. Sladden”, presumably to distinguish himself from any brothers also called Cyril.

Finally, an ongoing project has been based on the 1914, 1915 and 1916 volumes of the national Register of Habitual Criminals. This involved collating references to offenders born or convicted in Worcestershire, whom I then followed up using The Hive’s free access to Ancestry.co.uk and the local papers which are available on microfilm. This threw up some oddly amusing stories and an unexpected mystery, which can be read elsewhere.

I’d like to finish by expressing my gratitude to everyone involved in the archives at the Hive, and by wholeheartedly recommending the placement to anyone interested in a career in this area. I’ve had a thoroughly enjoyable time, have learnt so much, and have gained much needed experience to help me follow a career based in history. As a hopeful and now rather less vague graduate, I look forward to seeing where pursuing a career in archives will take me.

By Chris Rouse

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