4 Feb 2015

From Coffee to Cataloguing; experiences of a newbie archivist

(In this guest post archivist Emma Horgan talks about her experiences in qualifying as an archivist, and the events which led to her current role as archivist for the Central Bank of Ireland)

For me it all began at a postgraduate study fair, held to inform final year undergraduates of their further academic options. Having finally succeeded in persuading both my parents and myself that I would make a very poor teacher, and no amount of holidays would change that, I began searching for an alternate career path.

It was whilst speaking with the UCD representative that the MA in Archives and Records Management was first mentioned as one I might be interested in. The initial brief outline was enough to pique my interest and I decided to investigate further. All available course material seemed to be limited to that which was given on the UCD official prospectus, with no available information on the experiences of previous students. But, as the prospect of career in archives was sounding more and more attractive, and the UCD MA was the only accredited option in the country, I decided to take a chance and applied. This marked the beginning of an arduous application process which culminated in the most daunting interview of my life so far. The first stages of applying for the MA involved submitting two separate forms, supporting documentation and a personal statement outlining why I wanted to be an archivist. I had wisely sought the advice of the UCC careers office, their assistance and guidance enabled me to craft an appropriate personal statement. “I want to an archivist because I like reading old books” wasn’t going to cut it here. The interview tested my knowledge and expectations of both the MA and the archival profession as a whole, as well as requiring me to field questions such as “What contribution do you see yourself making to the archival profession in the future?” Somehow I successfully met all the requirements and was offered a place.

As I had begun the application process quite close to the deadline I completed my required work experience after I had acquired a place, rather than prior as most applicants do. The placement consisted of six weeks in the Boole library UCC, under the care of Martin O Connor and Breeda Herlihy. Despite my limited time on placement, I was given the opportunity to experience all functions and departments of the library including the archive, which gave me fresh insight into how the information management professions operate, both on a daily basis and in conjunction with other. The experience also provided me with many networking opportunities and introduced me to the concept of utilising social media, in particular Twitter, as a professional networking tool. To this day I am an ardent user of Twitter for this purpose.

The MA itself can be most accurately described with the adjectives comprehensive and intense. An extremely diverse workload is packed into the seven months of academic classes. As well as modules providing an introduction to the various types of archival material, the course also provides classes in archival theory which serve as the foundations upon which to build our other teachings. Although perhaps not the most exciting of classes, learning and understanding the theoretical background of the profession is important if new professionals are to effectively bring their repositories into the future. But, being able to talk the talk is no good if you can’t walk the walk, so two separate cataloguing projects were also a component of the course, one single, and one group project. These had to be completed to strict deadlines, and whilst also attending classes, writing essays and selecting a suitable thesis topic. This meant many late nights in the UCD archive, which is where the coffee in the title comes in!

Outside of the academic workload, the final element of the MA is a two week work experience period, which the collage organises, to take place in March. I was placed in the Pernod Ricard Archive in Midleton, Co. Cork, my task being to fully catalogue all the wages ledgers of the Midleton Distillery. I seized this as an opportunity to demonstrate what I had learned, and apply it in a real world setting. It was quite a pleasant surprise to realise how much I had learned in just a few months, and that I was now capable of cataloguing a ‘real’ archival collection to the required professional standard. At the culmination of my work experience I was offered a two month contract to return and conduct further cataloguing projects, which led to my being recruited by Arcline, the archives and records management consultancy. I completed the two month body of work concurrently with my MA thesis. This meant for an intense few months, but it is not a decision I regret taking. For an archival professional who’s still wet behind the ears, every opportunity to enhance both my skills base and my CV was one to be seized. Following on from my work in Pernod Ricard, I was referred to the Central Bank of Ireland by Arcline in September 2014. The bank at the time was recruiting a temporary archivist on a three month contract to catalogue a small collection within the Bank’s archival holdings. This is a position I still hold today and I am now actively involved in the establishment of a successful archival service for the Central Bank.

In the end it was combination of blind luck and hard work that got me where I am today. To other newly qualified professionals I offer this piece of advice; give 100% to each and every opportunity offered you. It is impossible to predict the future so who knows where it might lead?    


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