Voluntary Problems…

9 12 2010

I’ve been blogging less and less frequently recently, largely due to work, but also due to an increase in general apathy with the news. It isn’t that I’m not interested, it’s more that I see no need to write about it, especially when an old friend of mine is writing things much more eloquently over on the Paperback Rioter.

However, I do finally wish to end my blogging hiatus by writing about a growing problem for aspiring professionals such as myself. The problem is simple: volunteers.

Now I volunteer once a week at my local archives with the goal of gaining valuable experience which will benefit me in the long term. I have been doing this for 18 months or so and have picked up lots about how archives are run and what goes on ‘behind the scenes’. I have contributed to various projects during my time there and am being given larger projects to contribute to. Which is good for me.

However, the very large, and very frustrating catch-22 which has been created is that The Society of Archivists actively encourage volunteers. Of course, the advantage that this gives individual archives is that they have an unpaid work-source doing jobs which ought to be done by those employed within the profession. Volunteers sustain the archives. As a consequence therefore, the archives are then not going to employ somebody if they can have (such as in my case) at least four volunteers coming in and regularly completing tasks. The role of the volunteer is a huge, and still growing, one.

Volunteers pick up the slack somewhat, willingly completing the mind-numbingly boring tasks which the archivists and assistant archivists do not do. We do this because we think that this is giving us ‘valuable’ experience. I’m no longer sure. Do employers really want someone who can simply transcribe names from a census into a digital spreadsheet, for instance? It isn’t exactly hard, even allowing for some of the writing. It tells prospective employers nothing about my ability to do anything more than mundane tasks, which, lets be honest, monkeys with typewriters could do.

By actively encouraging volunteers though, the Society of Archivists is narrowing down an already small market into something almost impossibly hard to get into. There is a list on their website with various archiving institutions nationwide on. Last year this list included information about which institutions would take on trainees, apprentices and the like, in paid roles. This year the list has shrunk, and, by and large, details places which accept volunteers. The number of apprentice or trainee opportunities has fallen dramatically, a consequence, perhaps of the recession; but more likely, of the realisation that volunteers can maintain the industry whilst archives can get away with employing only a skeleton staff.

Tightening the belt, yes, I get, but pretty much blocking access to the sector? Really? For an industry concerned with maintenance for the future, this approach seems to have very obvious, and very negative consequences. This problem came to a head recently as I was invited to apply for a post with the local council by my archives on the back of my volunteering. When I asked for more information about the post, I was then told that I could not apply because I had a degree and was already employed. I do have a degree. It is in history, not archiving. I am employed, although officially not full-time, and in a minimum wage retail job, taken out of necessity. This meant I could not apply for the post, which sounded like a great practical opportunity.

So, I have to continue volunteering because my applications for jobs tend to get met with the response “lacks experience”. Through volunteering I am able to gain some experience, but I am also a free labour source for the archives, and therefore am providing them with no real incentive to create opportunities for young people to get into the sector. And those opportunities they do create I am not allowed to apply for because I already have a job. In something completely not related to archiving.

The system is broken by volunteers, but it is also sustained. The authorities need to work out a happier balance to this problem, or face being short of staff because it is simply too hard to get into the profession in future years. Of course they won’t solve this problem, and there will be consequences. It’ll be ok though, because volunteers will shoulder the burden of sustaining an incredibly detailed and complex profession.

The Trouble…

17 03 2010

The stereotypical image of an archivist (if there is one), is of old men wearing tweed jackets with elbow patches, sitting in musty rooms surrounded by piles of three-inch thick books and wads of paper or roles of parchment. Few seem to know what they do or why they do it. Many identify them as interchangeable with librarians, who, stereotypically at any rate, share certain traits.

As with many things, it is this stereotype which holds everything back. When talking to some of my work colleagues about what career path I wish to pursue, I have to talk simply about the job, “it’s someone who looks after old documents” I say. I suppose, in a nutshell, it the job is about looking after old documents, be it newspapers, tithe maps, photographs or anything else. Except it’s a little simplistic to say that that is what the job is.

It isn’t just about looking after these old documents, it’s about making them accessible to the public. It’s about making things easy for the researcher, be them passionate historians with a nose for details or a casual family historian who simply wants to know what their great-grandparents did in the war. Most of all an archivist is a link to the past, someone who will know about where to find the right information and how to weed out the bits you need without going through all the rest of it.

For me there is more. It’s about challenging those stereotypes, it’s about bringing the old records into today’s society and making them accessible, relevant and informative. I see people spending hours looking for a name in a 500 page long list of names. This isn’t how it should be. It’s off-putting, it’s tedious, and it’s long winded. And, at the moment it is how it has to be.

Yet the technology is here already, waiting to be used. Computers with large memories can hold tens of thousands of names, all ready to be searched for at the touch of a button. Websites such as ancestry.co.uk, or freebmd.org.uk can already help you look for people. And there is much more work going on all the time to bring archives into the modern world. Yet people still see archives as musty places, with shelves and shelves and shelves of information organised into some archaic system that is long since forgotten and rarely understood.

Archiving is not like that. It’s about exploration, it’s about learning and broadening your horizons. It’s about chasing down random things and tying up the loose ends. In many ways, it strikes me, it is a similar process to having a ‘wiki’ hour, just searching for something and then following the links on wikipedia, not knowing where you’ll wind up. It may not be sexy but it is interesting. It’s actual, living history you are looking through. You can read diaries from people in the 1800s. You can learn about their lives from censuses, newspapers, or random pieces of paper in other collections. You can take the learning about the past into a whole new sphere, one outside of history books, or university tutors. It becomes yours. It is your information, your hard work, and your results. There is a great deal of satisfaction to be taken out of piecing together the story or someone’s life, and tracing how their lives have impacted upon your own. Or learning about the history of a particular place through the photographs. There is, for me, something hugely satisfying about the whole process of exploration into the documents.

And yet we return to that stereotype. One which means few people really realise what archivists do, or why they do it. That stereotype which confuses the librarian (someone who looks after books) with the archivist (someone who looks after history). The trouble with the stereotype is that it is a tricky thing to shift. Archives, unlike museums or art galleries are not somewhere where you could go and lose a couple of hours, pretending to be cultural. But they are a doorway into history, and do have a really important role to play in society. Archivists are people who are trying to expand this doorway so that everyone can have access to their past, their heritage. Archives are a valuable part of any society to remain in touch with the past. Archivists manage this so this past is accessible to anyone.