‘How I Started’, Part 2: My Path to Becoming a New Professional

In Part 1, I had a look at the ‘How I Started’ series of articles in the Archive & Record Association (UK)’s Section for New Professionals e-magazine, Off the Record. Each article is written by a different information professional, from different areas of the world, and with different educational backgrounds and experiences. In Part 2, I review my introduction to the archive world.

I suppose that I have come from the ‘traditional’ route into archiving, as my BA is in history, but I didn’t know that I wanted to be an archivist when I immediately left school…

When I started sixth form in 2004, I wasn’t interested in learning or doing the work. I faffed around, didn’t work very hard, and came out with D and E grades for both AS and A Levels. I desperately didn’t want a full-time job, but because I’d messed around in sixth form, I didn’t have the grades to go to university. The local higher education college ran a HND in photography that I could get on to, so I signed up for that as a way to escape a Full Time Job. After just 2 months I knew it wasn’t for me, so I left. I spent a number of years working in different full and part-time jobs, not really knowing what I wanted to do, but to really do anything or go anywhere in life, I thought I needed a degree.

So, in 2010 I started a undergraduate degree in History by distance learning with the Open University. I found it so hard to balance a part-time degree alongside a full-time job and knew something had to change, and really, I had no idea what I was going to do once I’d got my degree. I remember searched online for ‘jobs in history’, or some vague search term like that, and ‘Archivist’ popped up. It grabbed my attention straight away. I’d always liked history, but I hadn’t done it at school since I was 11, I didn’t want to be a teacher, and I certainly was not academic in any way, so to me, this seemed a good fit. I started volunteering at the University of Northampton Archive, where I learned about cataloguing, basic conservation, and handling archive materials. This was a really important introduction to archiving, and it fuelled my desire to learn more. My manager at the archive suggested I apply for an Archive Assistant role advertised at the Heritage Motor Centre (now the British Motor Museum), and after two interviews, I was offered the job!

Working in a paid capacity in an archive was a-maze-ing! I absolutely loved it! The other archive staff there were really great. I experienced a range of practical archive processes, and the Archivist paid for me to go on a Basic Archive Skills course run by The Archive Skills Consultancy. Unfortunately I experienced a very personal tragedy soon after starting and had to take two months off to recover and find my feet again. I couldn’t concentrate very well afterwards and had to stop my Open University degree, but I went back to work and thoroughly enjoyed it. One of the girls had just completed her MA in Archive Administration at Aberystwyth, and another was working through hers by distance learning alongside her archive role. They were both really helpful in passing on information (and letting me read some of their course material!). By this time, I knew that to be an archivist, I needed a postgraduate degree

With poor A Level grades and an unfinished history degree, I wasn’t doing well not he education front, but I had managed to complete enough modules with the Open University to gain a Certificate in Higher Education, the equivalent of the first year of a undergraduate history degree. I approached the University of Northampton, and as I had my CertHE, they were happy for me to continue my history degree with them full-time for two years. Being at a ‘bricks and mortar’ university was wildly different from the Open University and I had to work very hard, but in the end I came out with a first in my dissertation, and a 2:1 over all, which I was absolutely thrilled with. I had applied for a place on a two-year part-time MA in Archives & Records Management at University College London, so with my archive experience, a 2:1 for my history degree (and somehow doing well in the interview), I was offered a place, which I took up and started last September.

Whilst finishing my history degree at the University of Northampton, I started two voluntary archive roles. One digitising and cataloguing material for the Teams of Our Lady Transatlantic Super-Regional Archive, and the other was my original voluntary role with the University of Northampton’s role. I’ve continued these voluntary roles through to the present day, whilst undertaking my MA. They are both very different, but I am gaining so much experience, and I enjoy them both very much.

The position I’m in at the moment means that I attend lectures two days a week in London, but I live in Northampton. Thankfully I’ve been able to secure a postgraduate student loan, which covers my train fare and very little else. I really need some paid employment to cover my other expenses (bills, etc.), but as I can only work part-time, there are few paid archive roles that fit in alongside my university schedule. I have applied for a number of part-time roles in archives and records, but sadly I’ve not been successful (yet!). From April to October I’m free full-time, as I finish for the year the end of this term,and then don’t return until the Autumn term, so I’ve been applying for jobs where I can – fingers crossed! It looks like I may have to find some non-archive related paid work whilst I complete my MA, but the end goal of gaining my postgraduate degree is what’s important – but I’m open to part-time paid archive work if anyone is interested!

So that’s where I am now, and I’m really excited about the future, and starting my archive career. When I left sixth form I wasn’t ready to go into higher education. I didn’t really know what I wanted, but what I did know was that I did not want a dreaded Full-Time Job, so I entered higher education to avoid that. You could say that I wasted time, energy and money in doing that, but actually, I learned something valuable: it’s okay not to know what you want to do when you’re seventeen! I find it really hard that children at school are pretty much expected to know what they want to do, to know which GCSEs to take in order to take the right A Levels, in order to take the right university degree. Higher education isn’t for everyone, and that’s OK! Looking back, I didn’t take the right GCSEs or A Levels that I would have needed to get into university straight out of sixth form, even if I had the grades to do so.

Finding out what I wanted to do made me want to work hard, to go out there and get that first degree, and to work for a postgraduate degree. I wasn’t ready back then, but I am ready now, and to think that me, Sophie, got a 2:1 and is studying for an MA, after such a inauspicious start? If you want something enough, you will work hard to get it. Sometimes, stepping away from education and experiencing life can help you find what you enjoy, and what you want to do. I don’t think that I would be doing what I love now, had I not taken time and experienced the world.

Contact: learningaboutarchives@gmail.com


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