So what do you actually do as an Archives Assistant?

…and now for a quick word from the 23rd successive Archives Assistant at the Oxford University Archives, or ‘what I actually do and why I love it’!

When people ask me what I enjoy most about my work, I’m prone to say – just like my predecessors, I imagine – that it’s the view from my desk:

A view onto the new Weston Library, with the Sheldonian Theatre’s white cupola to the left and the ‘green belt’ just about visible in the distance.

I say that mostly because it’s the sort of thing that’s easy to explain in a casual conversation, plus there’s an element of surprise (‘oh, so you’re not hiding away from the world in a basement somewhere?’)  But in reality, what I enjoy the most about being an archives trainee with the University Archives is something very much related to the archiving trade itself: it is how well I can get to know the collections.  A year isn’t a long time when faced with over 3km of records, and yet I feel that, half way through my time here, I have a fairly good grasp on our holdings.

This has come naturally as a result of my day-to-day duties.  One of my main responsibilities is responding to enquiries.  Questions range from fairly straight-forward queries about past students to quite complex ones about the University procedures, practices and endeavours. In order to provide answers, I have to carry out research which can take anything between five minutes and a good few hours spread over several days.  This has given me the chance to familiarise myself with our holdings and, as a bonus, I’ve picked up some very in-depth knowledge about sometimes very minute details of the University’s history.

My other main duty is processing readers’ requests, which is yet another gateway to the collections for me: when a new reader’s request comes in, I get to delve into the catalogues and locations lists to find the desired item.  This gives me the chance to find out what this particular collection is comprised of, how it’s stored, and what format it’s in – which can be anything from strips of parchment protected by an archival box to thick leather-bound volumes, to microfilm and even digital formats.

A Register of Congregations and Convocations, with a record of Queen Elizabeth's 1592 visit to Oxford
A Register of Congregations and Convocations, with a record of Queen Elizabeth’s 1592 visit to Oxford (a chance to test my palaeography skills)

As I then usually have to bring the document(s) over to the reading rooms in the Weston Library, it also means I get to know the weight of each item quite well!

Finally, creating posts for our Twitter account (@OUArchives) is an excuse to explore those parts of the collections which are less ‘in demand’ and show them off to people who might never otherwise come in contact with the Archives.

This combination of diverse duties has allowed me to feel like I know the collections rather well by now.  This is something that gives me quite a lot of satisfaction.  In fact, one of the reasons this career appeals to me is how archivists often have a seemingly supernatural ability to answer questions about very obscure particulars of one tiny aspect of human history.  (I’m definitely not there yet – but, perhaps, one day…)

In addition to all that, my Wednesday afternoons are usually taken up with varied training sessions (which the Bodleian Staff Development organises for our cohort) and I also attend a palaeography class on Mondays.  As you can see, I have been learning a lot, and I am definitely looking forward to the second half of my traineeship here.  Stay tuned for more updates!

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