As today is International Archives Day we have decided to ask staff members (past and present) to give their views on the archives profession and their experience working in Special Collections…
Firstly, how do the archives fit into Special Collections?
At Southampton, Special Collections is used as an overarching term to encompass the Archives and Manuscripts and the Printed Book Collections. The Archives and Manuscripts are unique collections of original historical records and documents which provide a permanent record of the past. The Printed Book Collections are primarily published material, often held in named collections, which have a specific subject focus, such as the Parkes Library or Cope Collection.
Conducting research in the Special Collections reading room
The following Q&A relates to the work of the Archives and Manuscripts team (Pearl Romans, Sarah Maspero, John Rooney, Tace Fox and Lara Nelson):
What attracted you to archives?
LN: I have always enjoyed learning about the past and how it has led to the world we have today. Engaging with history through interacting with primary sources was an activity I much enjoyed at primary school, secondary school and university, due to it strengthening my understanding of a particular period. One of my earliest memories of engaging with history is a primary school trip to St John’s Museum in Warwick, where one aspect involved hiding under a table with a helmet on when an air raid siren sounded.
JMR: I enjoy the depth and diversity of archive collections. Archives cover such a broad range of human activities you never know what types of materials you may end up working with. For example, after my post graduate studies I ended up managing corporate archives, an area in which I had no prior knowledge. I found it fascinating to immerse myself in the rich history of the companies I worked for. That said, I have always had a particular interest in religious communities and institutions and was immediately attracted to the impressive range of Anglo-Jewish collections held by the University.
PMR: History was my favourite subject from a very early age. I was fascinated by historical questions: How did we know the ‘truth’ about the past? Where was our evidence for that truth? That led me to my local record office to use primary archive sources to write my dissertation. Everyone there was a fantastic help but I hadn’t thought of archives as a career. I enjoyed research; I wanted to work with people; I had liked working in my local library. It was only after my degree that I heard about a post in the University Archive… and I found out, on the job, that it was the one for me.
What qualifications do you need?
JMR: In order to become a qualified archivist I studied the MA in Archives and Records Management at University College Dublin. While it is often assumed that a background in history is required to become an archivist, my undergraduate studies were in Biblical and Theological Studies and Early Irish. Through studying both of these subjects I was made acutely aware of the importance of preserving and enabling access to original sources.
SJM: I chose to do my postgraduate studies at University College, London. Experience of working in an archive (either paid or voluntary) is key to getting accepted onto the course. Prior to my MA, I volunteered at Portsmouth City Records Office and the Glamorgan Records Office before getting a job as a Records Assistant at Hampshire Records Office.
PMR: I studied for an M.A in Archives and Records Management at Liverpool University. I was fortunate to work as an archive assistant in my University Archive for a year. Prior to that I had worked as a library assistant. Before starting the M.A. I carried out a work placement at a city record office and completed a course in Latin palaeography. There is a lot of helpful information about training and placements on the Archives and Records Association website at www.archives.org.uk/
Special Collections staff member fetching material from the strongrooms
What sort of people visits you?
SJM: The Special Collections is open to everyone, and no charge is made for use. People from all sorts of walks of life use our collections including family, local and amateur historians as well as depositors. As you might expect, most of our users are academic – undergraduate, post graduate and lecturers – both internal and from other universities. People tend to think of the archives as only being of use to students of history, but we have visitors from various academic departments including Music, English and Engineering as well as Communication & Marketing and Development & Alumni Relations.
PMR: We have a strong focus on public access, helping staff and students, and supporting teaching and research. It is very rewarding to see students discovering the resources here and going on to do well in their dissertations and degrees. We have a great many visitors from abroad, as our collections are international in scope. We look after the historic archives of the University and its predecessor organisations and this involves us in commemoration, publicity, and alumni relations. Some visitors come to see our exhibitions or are attending conferences on subjects related to the archives; others are guests of the University and we often provide tours and displays of documents on subjects of interest.
What is the best thing about the collections?
TF: There are so many great things about the collections held here. First and foremost they are entirely unique and hold so much research potential for academics or genealogists and historians that their worth is inexpressible. In terms of how special the collections are, no other archive will have a copy of a poem by Lord Byron written down by Jane Austen from memory. Then there are the famous collections such as the Palmerston Papers or the Wellington archive, the latter of which includes the letters sent to and from the Duke of Wellington during the Battle of Waterloo! Historically to me these collections are priceless and I think the fact that so many people visit us every year suggests that many others feel the same.
JMR: I am continually amazed at how rich the resources housed by the Archives are and just how much information is held within them. The collections are entirely unique sources of information and attract people from all over the world for a variety of research purposes. I really enjoy the fact that you never know what types of enquiries you will receive, whether it’s someone trying to trace the ownership of a Vermeer painting or someone trying to find out whether the car they bought once belonged to Lord Mountbatten!
SJM: We hold the raw materials for the study of history; the primary sources for researching what was said and done by people in the past.
PMR: I agree with all that my colleagues have said: our collections are unique – diverse – useful – and valued for many reasons. I think they shed light not just on the past but on how we live in the present. The best thing is that anyone can see these records today, and know that they will be preserved safely for tomorrow.
History students consulting the Wellington Papers
What is your favourite item in the collections?
TF: My favourite item would be Byron’s poem written in Jane Austen’s hand. I have to admit I find the idea that you are holding something written and held by Austen herself pretty cool! I also like the Samuel Rich diaries, because I have worked with these diaries to find quotes relating to the Second World War for the Special Collection’s blog and I love the detail in them. Samuel Rich never missed a single day when writing his diaries during the war which means there is a wealth of contextual, historical and social information available for this period. However, these diaries also offer a personal insight into war that we sometimes lose in text books. So these are perhaps my favourites.
LN: The handcuffs within the Papers of the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry (MS 254). They act as a symbol of the efforts that the pressure group went to in demonstrating for the rights of Jews refused permission to leave Russia.
JMR: There are really too many to choose from. However, I have really enjoyed cataloguing the letter books of the secretary of the Jewish Board of Guardians. The physical nature of the collection meant that, prior to being catalogued, much of the content was obscured. It’s really exciting to enable greater access to the records of this pioneering Jewish charity and help users engage with what had been a largely hidden resource.
PMR: There are many wonderful collections here but I have particularly enjoyed working on the Hampshire Lieutenancy papers within the Wellington archive. They are a fascinating source for life in Hampshire during the period 1828-1852 when Wellington was Lord Lieutenant. In that role he appointed magistrates (a coveted position of power and responsibility) and deputy lieutenants. The papers provide wonderful insights into local issues and individuals at the time – their ambitions and concerns – not to mention their disagreements! The scope of the records is a constant surprise: crime and peace keeping, the Swing Riots, elections, politics and the Government of the day, poverty and the Poor Law, agriculture, the yeomanry cavalry and militia, local families, schools, transport, there are even references to racing and hunting.
How is the world of Archives changing?
TF: That’s a tricky question. In some ways the world of archiving is very much the same, we collect, we preserve and we make available these collections for future generations. However, perhaps it’s more the world we live in that is starting to affect change in archives. There is more technology available, records are being produced in a variety of electronic formats and information is being stored in a variety of places (including social media such as twitter and Facebook). How we capture that information and present it is perhaps one of the key issues that archivists are currently faced with. Even with collections hundreds of years old, we have to consider how to raise awareness for those collections, possibly by writing a blog or a tweet and so on. Also what kind of information is made freely available on the web or how you access data from outdated technology are further issues we must consider. Therefore I would say that the archival world is changing in the way that, despite our ambitions being the same, we must continually adapt to our ever shifting environment.
SJM: Many people today expect everything to be digitised and freely available to everyone online. Twenty-first century technology provides amazing opportunities for making material more widely available but it’s important to remember that it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to problems of access and preservation. Not only are there challenges in the areas of data protection, copyright and confidentiality but digital solutions are as yet untried in terms of providing long term sustainable solutions.
PMR: Online catalogues and digital copies of records have raised the profile of collections and improved access to them: visits, enquiries, and demands for service have all increased. Our user community is now global, as well as local; online, as well as face-to-face in the search room. Instant communication is driving demand for instant service, and expectations have never been higher. This is exciting and challenging. New technology has added focus to a very longstanding debate in the archive world about balancing preservation, access and resources.