Explore Your Archive: Interview with an archivist

We asked Whitney, one of our volunteers, to find out about the different roles carried out by archivists at MERL and the Special Collections. She started by interviewing Cataloguing and Projects Archivist, Sharon Maxwell, who joined us just a couple of months ago.

  1. What does cataloguing entail?

I’m trying to make the collections accessible to the public. Collections arrive in various state, with a brief list or nothing at all, with no way into knowing what’s in hundreds of boxes. So I sort the material out, produce a list for use in the Reading room or online. It’s a bit like an Argos catalogue so researchers can go very quickly to the part of the collection they are interested in.

  1. What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

For me personally, it’s seeing a new box as you never know what you’re going to find. It’s a bit like Christmas. I always get really excited! Yesterday I came across a First World War diary from 1916 that I wasn’t really expecting to find. It’s also really nice to see users get excited and have a ‘eureka moment’ in the reading room when you’ve managed to find something for them that they’ve been looking for and it really helps to their research. It helps you see the point of your work.

  1. What is the most challenging part of your job?

We have to be a lot more out there now and engage with the public and that can be quite difficult if you came into the role because you liked to work behind the scenes! So presenting isn’t something that necessarily comes naturally to me but I quite enjoy it especially if it’s about the material that I’ve been working on and when I see people respond to my enthusiasm. Archivists traditionally used to sit in their ivory towers and just catalogue the material. In the very early days I don’t think they even worried whether anyone was going to see it! But obviously now that’s not the case!

  1. How do you think digital media and social media have changed the role of the archivist?

We are all encouraged to look for possible stories. When I find nice pictures I think about twitter or maybe a blog post. I will use social media to publicise the new things I have catalogued. So things we’ve maybe had in the stores for years are now hopefully more accessible because they’re catalogued. Though it can be difficult to maintain the momentum on social media when you’ve got so many other things to do but it is a quick way of getting information out there.

  1. What have you been up to this week?

I’m currently  juggling three different collections. I have spent time finishing off cataloguing some farm diaries. This was a small collection, just a couple of boxes of farm diaries dating from the late 1700’s through to the early 1800’s. An uncle and his nephew ran a farm and these diaries contained general accounts but also day to day things like ‘cut the wheat today’ or ‘planted the potatoes’. I was doing a little bit of labelling and conservation. I have also been working through the University history collection at the external store. The last couple of days I’ve been working on the papers of landscape architect Maryann Thompson, checking what we’ve got and creating a quick list of contents.

Beale family farm diaries
Beale family farm diaries
  1. How are farm diaries preserved over a long period of time and who is in charge of keeping them?

From what I can understand these were in the family for quite a long time.  The local history society bought them at auction and they obviously decided that the diaries would be best placed here to be looked after. They had little notes and all sorts in the side pockets of the diary as well; there were letters, bills, workings out and accounts. It’s really personal. As archivists we do get to go into that personal world. It helps if you’re nosey as well!

  1. What do you like about working at MERL and is different to other places you’ve worked?

I particularly chose to come here because this role had cataloguing at its core and as an archivist you’re often pulled in a lot of different directions, running a public service in the reading room, and managing staff.  I wanted to be able to focus on cataloguing. Also I’ve not been able to work before with an archive that has an object collection and a library as well. So you’ve got the whole story here. It’s just lovely to have access to all of that professional expertise as well.

It’s a lovely team here. A lot of archivists work on their own in quite small teams so it’s nice to actually have a bigger team to talk to and bounce ideas off.

  1. Have you picked up tips from other colleagues yet?

I’ve only been here 2 months. I think I will pick up a lot on the conservation side because we have Nitisha and Fred working on conservation in the museum. I have started to talk to colleagues about the art collection and the object collection. I am benefitting from the fact that the other archivists have been here for quite a long time. Their knowledge of the collection is phenomenal. There’s a lot of stuff here and I don’t know where to start with some of the enquiries, so it’s a real help.

  1. Do you have any tips or advice for young people that want a role in a museum?

I definitely would think about working with archives. Young people might think they don’t want to just deal with paper, but archives cover all different formats, including sound and film. They’ve all got real issues with preservation and long-term access. With digital records and the internet, what are the archives of the future going to be? We’ve got love letters and things like that here but how many of us write those now? Facebook pages are the diaries and scrapbooks of the future and how are we going to look after those?

I would say get in and volunteer in different archives – business archives, Local Authorities’ collections, Special Collections as they are all quite different. Volunteering can help you decide whether it’s for you.

  1. I didn’t know there was so much to the role of an archivist

In the past we have been quite bad at getting out there and telling people what we do. People may know what curators or librarians do but still struggle to know what we do. My friends think I just file stuff. I guess social media means that’s changing but it’s not a natural aspect of our profession but now we are trying to show there’s a lot more to it.

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