What is a career made of?
Is it your one true ambition, with everything else you’ve experienced falling by the wayside as unimportant?
Is it the person you become through your work life, wherever that has taken you, including all the dead ends and back roads?
Is it simply a list of the education and jobs you’ve had?
We think it’s a bit of all of the above – but most of all, it’s the journey you’ve travelled, the decisions you’ve made, and the reactions you’ve had to both victories and setbacks. Everyone’s career has different qualities, and we can all learn from each other.
So in this series, we talk to people about where they are and how they got there, in the hope of inspiring our readers to think about what they want from their own careers.
Robert had no real idea of what he wanted to do when he was at school, but he knew what he was interested in: history. As an archivist in a university which is nearly 200 years old, he is privy to huge collections of records and documents, and enjoys discovering history on a daily basis, and has even studied to postgraduate level as a distance learner while in the job. He talks to us about volunteering, how his role has developed over the past fifteen years, and the satisfaction of destroying piles of boxes.
Can you tell us a bit about your job at the moment?
I work at University College London (UCL) Records, part of UCL Special Collections, as an Archives Assistant. My role is twofold. I help look after the College Archives, which is the administrative history of the College, so deal with collection management, collection care, answering research enquiries and assisting with various outreach programmes and exhibitions. Collection management might mean taking a stock check of our holdings and ensuring that public catalogues are accurate and up to date. UCL Records is a team of two, but we are part of a larger Special Collections division (which is in turn part of UCL Library Services), and we liaise constantly with colleagues with regards to preserving items in our collection, or using our material in teaching or exhibitions.
Further to that, I am responsible for facilitating the University’s records management programme. That means liaising with UCL staff, telling them what information they create should be retained or destroyed, ensuring that records can be quickly located and retrieved for legal or business purposes.
Is it anything like what you imagined you might do when you were young?
Absolutely not. I did not perhaps pay enough attention at school during careers lessons, but have always had an interest in history, regardless of whether I was any good at the subject.
What was your route into getting the job?
I studied History at University of Manchester but had no serious idea what I wanted to do after graduating. However, as part of my final year dissertation, I had to do research at the National Archives in Kew, looking at Foreign Office records, which was rather thrilling. I worked at a local café after university whilst also doing some volunteering work at Lincolnshire Archives when I saw the advert for the post at UCL. Initially, my role was for one year only before I went on to apply for the Postgraduate Diploma in Archives Administration at UCL, but I failed to get onto the course. Eventually, I decided to do the distance learning degree via the University of Dundee which made more sense financially, though it was a lot of hard work.
Whilst working at UCL, I also managed to do some volunteer work at the Parliamentary Archives for a few months, which was absolutely brilliant. I have been fortunate in having managers that looked out for my career.
What are your favourite and least favourite parts of the job?
I do love assisting the public with their research enquiries. Most of the enquiries I receive are family history based, or relate to artists that studied at the Slade School of Fine Art. It’s always satisfying to get positive feedback or an acknowledgement in a book and know you have helped someone with their research, whether academic or family historian. Similarly, it’s always wonderful to see something from your collection in an exhibition, whether it is UCL Art Museum or the Deutsches Filmmuseum in Berlin. Destroying boxes of records that are no longer required and creating shelf space is also deeply satisfying.
My job can be quite different from week to week, but perhaps my least favourite part is receiving 100 archive boxes of records for processing onto our moribund records management database, and finding the space in our store for these boxes. This can be rather time-consuming, menial, repetitive work, ensuring that boxes are not over-full and that staff have followed our instructions and not sent us records that should have already been destroyed. The university still creates an awful lot of paper records and we receive and process so many more records than we did when I first joined.
If this job didn’t exist, what would you be doing instead?
I have literally no idea. I did not pay too much attention to my future whilst a student, so am not sure. I could have followed my parents into law or teaching.
Are there any industry issues you think need to be addressed / overcome?
I went to the Archives and Records Association Conference in Glasgow last year for the first time and there was plenty of discussion regarding representation and lack of diversity in the archives sector, as well as barriers to entry. The sector is typically white and middle class, and the route to becoming an archivist or records manager is typically through a postgraduate degree, which is not cheap.
What advice do you have for anyone who’s interested in doing what you do?
Get work experience, either through volunteering at a local history group or community archive, or a county/city archive. If your interest is in archives, be prepared to travel to find work and recognise that a lot of archive jobs are not full time and only temporary posts.
What’s next for you, career-wise?
I have been at UCL for 15 years and seen my role develop an awful lot. I enjoy being part of a good team as well as living in London. However, I am not sure how long I can afford to live in the capital, so my career may take me further north in the future.
You can find information about UCL Records here – https://www.ucl.ac.uk/library/about-us/ucl-records-office or on Twitter @UCLRecords