Starting out as an archivist

 14 March 2012

Jenni Orme is a Diverse Histories Records Specialist at The National Archives. She spoke about how she got into the industry and what the role actually involves.

A researcher working with delicate resource at The National Archives.
A researcher working with delicate resource at The National Archives.

Jenni began her career here through a temporary post, after she had completed a Masters degree in Cultural Heritage Studies.

Her role is to assist the public in using the records, making them accessible to as many people as possible; enabling them to find information, and to understand relevant documents. She works both ‘behind the scenes’ and with the public, often giving talks on the archive’s collections.

How to become an archivist

Jenni’s early passion for history led her to study for a degree in the subject.

“History was always one of my favourite subjects at school – a natural interest. I always loved going to visit museums and to places where ‘history had happened’. It was always the things you could see, touch and experience from the past that really inspired me.

"It wasn’t necessarily archives that I was heading for in my career, but I always knew I wanted to do something where I could use history.

"I chose to do a Masters degree as I wasn’t sure which area of the heritage sector I would like to work in. So this provided me with a broader perspective of the theory and practicalities of heritage work and management.

It was things you could see, touch and experience from the past that inspired me.

"After graduating, I gained a six-month researcher post at The National Archives – with no idea where this would lead. Luckily, the role was extended and then other permanent jobs came up internally.

"Four years later, I have moved a few times within the organisation before getting this job two years ago. It was a great benefit knowing how everything worked, so I hit the ground running.”

“Entering the profession now, a degree is almost certainly essential. A background in history and a Masters degree in a relevant area are very useful, particularly as the sector is a competitive one.

"Unusually, working at The National Archives does not require me to be a qualified archivist. For regional or local archives where the role is more traditional, it is usually essential that you are a qualified archivist or working towards an archival qualification.

"Some places may offer ‘on the job’ training with a qualification at the end."

Building a career in the heritage sector

Jenni feels that alongside a love of history, good people skills and patience are very important, as there is almost always a public facing element in archival roles.

Assisting individuals with research and, in smaller or specialised archives, adding to collections is vital. So good relationships with local community groups, businesses and religious organisations can be essential.

“The ability to work sensitively with a range of people is very important. Experience of research and attention to detail are both valuable qualities, as is public speaking as there are often opportunities to give talks to groups interested in a particular area.

"Having said this, there is also a lot of time spent working alone. So self-motivation and time management are something you will learn if you don’t have it already!”

The role of a Records Specialist

Jenni’s current job as Diverse Histories Records Specialist is hugely varied. Her daily routine includes at least two hours of public duty.

“In one day I can go from advising people at our research desks on how to access Foreign Office records, to showing a research group around the archives, to writing a blog for the website on an unusual find in the collection, through to checking cataloguing work done by volunteers about relationships between the British and the Ashanti on the Gold Coast in 1900... it certainly keeps you on your toes!

The ability to work sensitively with a range of people is very important.

"Aside from the day-to-day business, I run a volunteer cataloguing project which aims to increase access to part of our Colonial Office material.

"By improving the descriptions of items in the collection in our online catalogue, the volunteers make the material much more useful to researchers, and gain valuable archival experience at the same time.

"I am preparing some public talks for this year on aspects of our collection to highlight the items we hold, raising awareness of how people can use this information. I am also involved in numerous projects across the organisation as well as doing cataloguing work myself.

“My plans for the next couple of years are to develop my specialism further with the aim of writing an article and potentially contributing to a book on our collections. A longer term ambition is to eventually write my own book on a subject I love.

"There is plenty of material within the archives that has yet to be touched by writers, so I would love to explore some of this one day."

The appeal of working in archives

In the main, archivists are specialists who are very passionate about their subjects.

“This passion could have been there from the start, or it may have emerged from the work the archivist has done in a particular area.

"Personally, I have worked on records I thought wouldn’t interest me, but once I put them in context and learnt about their history, I’ve usually been hooked! The lure of an original piece of history and the opportunity to share it with people is a powerful one!

“Since working at The National Archives, some of the press work I’ve been involved in has been fantastic. The biggest highlight so far was a live interview with George Alagiah on BBC News 24 concerning a project in which we published thousands of Colonial Office photographs of Africa online.”

The lure of an original piece of history and the opportunity to share it with people is a powerful one.

As someone who loves history, Jenni feels privileged to work with historic artefacts every day.

“Working with original documents can’t be beaten! I have met people researching all kinds of topics and it really makes me enthusiastic about the new areas that are developing which have perhaps been overlooked in the past.”

Although Jenni finds much of her role enjoyable and fascinating, there are some frustrations.

“As much as I love the documents we hold, not every aspect of the research work we need to do is so interesting. Some of the old government registry systems used can be hard work to find what a researcher is looking for!

"It is always disappointing having to advise people that the document they were hoping to find hasn’t survived. We are essentially a government archive, and there are many aspects of the lives of people and groups, that are fascinating in a social history sense, that just don’t exist or survive here.

"Part of my job is to be aware of where other collections are held – and be able to suggest where else people can look”.

Career development in the heritage sector

As part of a large and renowned organisation, Jenni has found that there are many opportunities for teaching and learning.

A free programme of talks is available to the public on many aspects of the Archive’s collections, delivered by both members of staff and external speakers.

Visiting groups come from other countries, academic institutions, as well as UK government departments.

Records Specialists provide document displays, talks and tours, often tailored to needs. The archive staff is also involved in a virtuous circle of teaching each other about their specialist areas.

Future projects for archivists

Digital technology is vitally important in the archives sector – we now have material that is ‘born digital’.

In Jenni’s current role, new projects emerge all the time and she says, “It’s great not knowing what will come round the corner next!"

"At the moment there are many projects being run by our Outreach team with various community groups, creating great opportunities to share our records more widely. We’re hoping to write more detailed guides for researchers working in the areas of LGBT and Disability history over the coming year to help them access and use our records more easily.”

The archive’s online catalogue is the key tool for accessing the collections and this will undoubtedly increase over time. The organisation is constantly digitising more of their collections, and so it’s essential that Jenni knows how to access and search these resources so she can help others.

“Digital technology is now vitally important in the archives sector as we look at new ways to preserve the material we have, but we also now have material that is ‘born digital’.

"Although I don’t work in this area myself, preserving information existing in emails, social networks and text messages is a huge challenge!”

Advice for a career in heritage

"Most areas of the heritage sector are very competitive, and archives are no different. It’s a good idea to contact your local archive to get a real understanding of what they would require in terms of qualifications and experience.

"I personally think if you are struggling to find your ideal job, a volunteer position in an organisation that interests you can be an excellent first step. It allows you to get to know how everything works and you may find further opportunities to develop in different areas that interest you.

"Never underestimate the value of work experience. Not only does it prove to future employers your interest and commitment, it also allows you to be sure it is the right path for you.”

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