From the Archives: Ask an Archivist

POST BY MAllen

Illustration from Assistant Archivist Lucy’s favourite document, Augustus Law SJ's diary (SJ/32/1/1)

9 June is International Archives Day. The day is intended to raise awareness among the public of the importance of records and archives, promote the unique and extraordinary documents preserved in archival institutions, and de-mystify the archive profession. In light of this, the Jesuits in Britain Archives team asked those that they live with, who during lockdown will be seeing them at work for the first time, to ask the burning questions they have always wanted to know about being an Archivist. We hope that this blog post will help you better understand our profession.

What inspired you to become an Archivist?

Rebecca Somerset, Archivist: I discovered I had a vocation to become an Archivist while doing work experience with the wonderful Sr Magdalene Roskell CRSS in the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre Archives in Colchester the summer before my final year at university. The experience opened my eyes to the wonders of archives and I fell in love with the stories that could be unearthed. I felt drawn to not only protecting these treasure troves, but was also keen to find ways to safely share these with others. The varied work and need for meticulous care suited me and so began my journey to becoming an Archivist.

Mary Allen, Deputy Archivist: My favourite subject throughout school was history and my undergraduate degree was in Ancient History. I knew I wanted to do something practical with that interest, so I did work experience with a family friend who is Archivist at one of London’s oldest livery companies. During the placement I got to work with documents that were hundreds of years old, and coming across Henry VIII’s handwritten signature on a document confirmed that this was what I wanted to do!

Lucy Vinten Mattich, Assistant Archivist: I used to work as a historical researcher for the Tower of London, and I spent a lot of time in what was then the Public Record Office (now The National Archives).  I was working with the Pipe Rolls, a series of financial records kept by the medieval Exchequer Office.  These are physically very large, and often took a long time to arrive at my table.  I would wait and watch the archivists at their work, and thought their job looked very interesting.  Years later I wanted to retrain and remembered this and looked into being an archivist, and thought 'I could do this'.  I then started volunteering in a local archive, and realised how much I enjoyed working with archive material.

Alex van Goethem, Cataloguing Archivist: I studied Ancient History at university and knew that I wanted to continue working closely with historical material. Being an archivist allows me to work with interesting material from the past every day - especially at the Jesuits in Britain Archives.

What is your favourite task?

Rebecca: I love cataloguing and thinking strategically about how to make archives more accessible to all.

Mary: Working from home during the pandemic has given us the chance to work on things that would ordinarily get pushed to the side in ordinary working conditions. I have been transcribing an oral history interview for the first time which, although has been time consuming, has been incredibly rewarding. It has been fascinating listening to older members of the Society reflect on their lives, and has given me an insight into Jesuit life that us lay people don’t always get.

Alex: Creating opportunities for outreach, such as writing blog posts and curating exhibitions. I enjoy the opportunities these activities provide to show the archive's most interesting pieces off to wider audiences, and creating a conversation around them. The satisfaction of piecing together the catalogue of a complex collection is a close second place!

What is your favourite document or object?

Mary: My favourite collection, which is cheating slightly, is the correspondence of Fr John Luck. The letters to his parents, five sisters, and latterly his niece, begin with a letter to his mother dated 8 September 1888, the day after he arrived at the noviceship. They span over sixty years, including his time as military chaplain in the First World War, and the last was written to his niece six months before his death on Christmas day in 1950. Needless to say I became quite attached to Fr Luck! Some of his wartime correspondence has been recorded and can be found at the end of this blog post.

Lucy: My favourite document is probably the diaries written by Fr Augustus Law SJ when he was a midshipman in the Royal Navy in the 1840s and 1850s.  They are amazing accounts of life in a navy which was still pretty much unchanged since Nelson's time, with beautiful little pen and ink sketches throughout. 

What is an archivist's average day like?

Rebecca: Each day can be quite different but in an average day a large chunk will be spent with emails: responding to enquiries (often spending more time than I should researching the question!), dealing with requests for work experience, providing advice about material to come to the archives, sorting through offers from specialists be that training or supplies etc., as well as answering questions from colleagues. I’d like to say that the other main task I do on an average day is cataloguing, but for me that is often not the case. Instead I can often be found drafting or revising policies and procedures, reviewing the archives’ progress in line with our development plan, planning future projects, producing reports, and supervising visitors and volunteers. Occasionally, I research and write blog posts. As hopefully has become apparent there is a huge variety of tasks that I do as Province Archivist.

Lucy: My average day pre-lockdown consisted of a very strong coffee just before I arrived followed by a quick check of emails, a little chat to colleagues and then settling down to work.  I usually have about 3 tasks to be getting on with, usually a large and complex archival collection to catalogue, which can take several months to complete, the antiquarian books to catalogue, and a volume of bound documents to calendar.  It's good to switch between the tasks when I get stuck or jaded by one of them.  However, usually the opposite happens and I get so stuck into one that I find the others get a little neglected and I have to force myself to switch tasks.  I like the very structured day at the Jesuits, with Curia coffee break at 11 am and lunch at 1.  It helps bring order to the day. Things are different during lock down.  I am working 2 days a week, but I tend to spread my hours out throughout the week, and do about 3 hours a day.  My children are having online school, and we all sit in the same room and work, especially in the mornings, so my work is often interrupted by the sound of them talking to their teachers.  I quite like this!  I am no longer cataloguing, but am doing other archival tasks such as transcribing oral histories.

What is the difference between an Archivist and a Librarian?

Lucy: At the most basic level, this is simple because Archivists look after archival material which is unpublished and is unique, and Librarians look after books which are part of an edition and are the same as all other books from that edition.  Librarians and Archivists have different cataloguing methods, with Librarians preparing a simple list of all their items and Archivists making a catalogue which is a web of interrelating material, showing how different documents and records relate to each other.  Archivists describe their material, they do not list it. However the boundaries between the two get more blurred the closer you look.  Printed material gets more archival as it gets older.  A book printed 400 years ago is a far more archival object than a modern one because the use it has had throughout the centuries has made it a unique object.  Even if several books from one edition printed in 1620 still survive, no two will now look quite alike, having been bound, probably more than once, written or doodled in, had letters or objects inserted and bookplates stuck inside their covers.

Alex: This is a question that I have been asked many times, and yet some of my friends still think I'm a librarian! Archivists must approach each item or collection thinking about its historical value, and this is the most basic way in which we differ from librarians. More specifically, the main differences, in my opinion, are: that the material contained in most libraries is published and not unique, whereas archival material is unique, unpublished and irreplaceable; the arrangement hugely differs, librarians arrange books according to subject matter, while archivists arrange collections in a way that preserves their historical value, e.g. keeping them in the same sequence and system in which they were first created. 

What are the best and worst aspects of being an archivist?

Mary: The best part is that every archive is, by definition, unique. So wherever you work, you will be dealing with documents and materials that, in theory, exist nowhere else. For me it’s really exciting getting to grips with new material and developing knowledge of the people, places, and organisations whose papers have been collected. The worst part is that while many people are familiar with the word ‘archive’, fewer are familiar with the concept of an ‘archivist’, so I often have to explain to new people what I do (it’s nothing to do with archery or alchemy…).

Lucy: I love the materiality of the archive, the tangible link with the past.  My PhD was in archaeology and material culture matters to me; history is not just facts, but things too.  Being able to work with material from the past is an absolute privilege.  The worst thing is when I cannot get my catalogue made on Excel to upload properly to CALM, the archival cataloguing software.  This is a too-frequent occurrence and very frustrating!

What is the most important skill an archivist should have?

Rebecca: This depends on the responsibilities of the archivist but generally good communication skills are necessary for describing catalogues and making them useful tools for others (researchers and archivists alike), for dealing with remote and face-to-face enquiries, and for keeping colleagues informed of your activities and discoveries.

Mary: Being adaptable is important, whether that’s adapting to ‘new’ forms of material such as digital records, adapting to new legislation, acquiring new skills, and during the current lockdown adapting to working from home without access to the archives!

Lucy: That's really hard!  Archivists need lots of skills, including the abilities to read old handwriting, to identify which insects eat archive material, to write about the archive in interesting ways, to respond to enquiries, to make order out of chaos.  A methodical sense of order is probably the most useful.

Alex: The most important skills are attention to detail and an ability to work in a highly organised, logical manner. Without these skills it can be hard to work through a large, complex collection without getting overloaded and lost within the material and information. The ability to highlight and describe material in an interesting and engaging manner to wider audiences is important to maintain the development of an archive.

How has your work been affected by lockdown?

Rebecca: Returning from maternity leave while the archive is closed has been strange and having a young family at home whilst attempting to work is at times challenging (I currently have a one year old tired and grumpy from vaccinations in my arms for example!). It is good that we are able to get on with tasks that normally would be side-lined. On the other hand it is frustrating that without access to the archives we cannot deal with enquiries fully as is the fact that the progress we had made in cataloguing has ground to a halt. Lockdown has shown the value of having collections digitised as we can get on with work on them. A more specific advantage for those working in basement archives like we do is that working at home with a window view of the garden is refreshing!

Alex: As a Cataloguing Archivist my role has changed significantly as I am unable to catalogue any material from home. Luckily I have been able to perform a range of other activities which I have previously not found the time for. These include writing biographies, updating our 'List of the Dead' (a spreadsheet containing the key dates of Jesuits who have died), calendaring digitised volumes, and transcribing interviews for our oral history project. From this experience I have learnt to be more adaptable and to always have extra work prepared in case I cannot catalogue for whatever reason in the future.

We hope that this blog post will have given you a better idea of what being an archivist can involve. We wish you all a happy International Archives Day, and if you have any queries about the Jesuits in Britain Archives, please do not hesitate to get in touch: archives@jesuit.org.uk.