The Work of an Archivist

It is a common experience in an archivist's life to be congratulated on his or her good fortune in being able to spend all day browsing among such interesting old documents. The reality is very different. So what does an archivist at the Wiltshire and Swindon Archives actually do?

The accession register, a list showing every deposit within the archivesAcquisition of records

Behind the scenes, archive work begins with an active policy to secure the deposit of records. This is done partly by direct approach to owners and custodians, sometimes prompted by local news such as the closure of a business or the centenary of an organisation. An archivist needs good negotiating skills and powers of persuasion!

For more modern and official classes of records, the techniques of records management are used: these are procedures which decide the fate of records as they become non-current. Some groups are selected for permanent retention, others for destruction after a set period, while the remainder (the majority) are reviewed after set periods. By these means a coherent archive of an organisation is created in an ordered way for the future.

Many groups of records, however, arrive in a more ad hoc fashion, in confusion, and are frequently damp and dirty. After preliminary cleaning, they are boxed and shelved. They are accessioned and a receipt sent to the record creator, who may have chosen either to deposit records on permanent loan, or give the records outright. By this means there is an audit trail concerning the records which is important for their long-term evidential value.

An archivist undertaking cataloguing using a computerCataloguing

The next task is to compile a catalogue so that each unit - volume, map, paper or bundle of papers - is described and has a reference number. This work is time-consuming and there is frequently a considerable lapse of time between the receipt of a collection and the compilation of a catalogue of its contents. Since 2006 the catalogues are created using a computerised database. Cataloguing involves creating a summary description of the records - it does not allow the archivist to read every item in detail, as a researcher might be able to.

During cataloguing, an archivist has the opportunity to see which items are most in need of repair, and to alert the conservators to this.

An archivist examining a map

Interpretation

The archivists at Wiltshire and Swindon Archives carry out regular search room duties, and attend a monthly service point at Swindon library, to assist the public in using records. They help the public to use the catalogues and indexes to find the records necessary for a particular research topic. When the original records are produced from the strongrooms, or the microfiche is loaded on the machines, the archivists also offer skills of interpretation.

Records can be hard to interpret at times because of various factors:

  • old-fashioned hand-writing
  • being written in Latin rather than English (Latin was the language of the law until the early 18th century)
  • archaic words and phrases
  • changes in society since the time the record was created

Archivists have received professional training which includes reading old handwriting (palaeography), Latin, and understanding changes in administrative and legal history, so as to better understand the context in which different types of record were created. Archivists are not historians as such but they have a unique insight into the raw materials of which history is made, and can help other people to make sense of them for their own research.

Guides and leaflets showing typical promotional work

Promotion

Last but not least, the archivists get involved in promoting access to archives through various means such as giving talks, giving tours of the archives and putting on exhibitions. It is vitally important that not only our own generation but future ones will benefit from having an archive service.

If you are interested in a career in archives, records management or conservation, extensive information is available on the Society of Archivists website.

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