August 2017

This is the end result of the Archivist’s job – so why do we do it and how do we get there?

To quote the opening paragraph of our Archive News page 'An archive is something of a mystery to many people. What's it for? What do Archivists do all day?'

While we like to post every month about what we've been up to in the archive, this month we decided to describe a day in the life of an Archivist. One of the best things about our job is that no two days are ever the same (which unfortunately makes writing this article a bit of a challenge!) so we have aimed to cover a range of tasks and duties performed by our staff on a day to day basis.

8.30 am

Traffic depending, we arrive around half past eight. One of the first tasks is to check the temperature and humidity sensors in the archive to make sure everything is at an optimum level and then undertake a walk-round to visually check there are no problems. Control of the environment is essential for the preservation of documents, which is why we check the sensors and do a patrol around the archive three times a day. After the first check we visit the cafeteria for a much needed tea or coffee!

9.00 am

Once sufficiently caffeinated, the day can begin. One important job is to check the emails and, as we have a number of departmental accounts besides our personal ones, this can take some time. The main archive email account, archive@britishmotormuseum.co.uk, is used for technical enquiries and correspondence about our Heritage Certificate service which are dealt with by the research team. We also have an email account for archive donations & historical enquiries, history@britishmotormuseum.co.uk,administered by the Deputy Archivist, and another for photographic and film services, photo@britishmotormuseum.co.uk, looked after by the Digitisation Assistant.

Whilst the emails are being checked and answered, we are setting up for the day. Any material that has been requested by visitors with a Reading Room appointment is fetched out of the archive and put on trollies ready for their arrival. We also have a number of volunteers who assist us with the cataloguing of specific collections. Before they arrive we get out the necessary equipment for them to use, from laptops to light boxes.

Archive Trainee Mollie working with one of our volunteers to identify an early glass negative.

Despite the varied nature of our work, each member of the archive team has a number of daily tasks and ongoing projects. Lisa, our Digitisation Assistant, is in charge of the Photographic Services and a large portion of her time is spent dealing with complex enquiries via email, researching and scanning photographic negatives and compiling agreements and licences for stills and footage usage rights. Alongside this work, she continues to digitise images from the archive collections involving a variety of media such as prints, transparencies, plastic and glass negatives which all come in many different sizes and some in delicate condition.

Cath, our Conservator, also works on several projects at a time, such as the restoration of K-Gate for our recent exhibition or the encapsulation of a set of delicate design drawings. There are a number of daily tasks too, which often involve the repair of documents we come across in the course of our work. Items that are found to be in need of attention are taken to the Conservation Studio to be appraised. After appraisal, Cath carries out work on them so that they can be returned to their correct location in the archive system. The type of damage varies greatly – from general wear and tear to staining or removing sticky residue from misguided repair attempts involving the evil of sellotape or other adhesives.

11.00 am

After a quick break and a cup of tea it's back to work.

Deputy Archivist Charlie begins the accessioning process for a recent donation which has just arrived by post.

Today, our Deputy Archivist is sorting through our latest batch of donations. We often get offers from members of the public wishing to donate items of possible interest to the archive. An initial email or phone call explaining what they have helps us to assess whether we already have the items offered and if they are appropriate for our collection. In this case, a kind member of the public has arranged to send us their late father's 1970s cigarette card collection in the post. These cards depict a range of vintage cars and show not only a variety of the vehicles popular at the time, but the social side of collecting and keeping paraphernalia. Once the paperwork has been signed, any donations to the archive are placed in our Quarantine Room for a short time. The purpose of this is so we can inspect the donation for mould or insects that would quickly spread through our collection if not spotted at an early stage. As there's no problem with the cigarette cards they can move on to be accessioned. This is an important stage in accepting material in to the archive, because it is the point at which material is formally handed over by the donor to become a permanent part of the Archive Collection. The Accessions Form which they sign records key information such as the who made the donation and when, plus any relevant historical background. Accessioning also involves giving the item a unique identifying number which is added to our electronic database. Finally, the items are put in appropriate packaging and placed in the archive store.

Whilst Charlie is accessioning the cigarette cards, Mollie is continuing with her task of reorganising the company brochures – a small collection which documents the developments and achievements of the many companies which are represented in the archive. At 26 boxes this job should only take a couple of days. The boxes have already been sorted in the past but, due to a number of donations and discoveries, brochures have been put in the wrong boxes or have no label and therefore require some work. This involves putting the brochures into piles, weeding out duplicates, putting them in polyester sleeves and labelling them properly.

As the clock reaches 12.30pm, Mollie realises that the company brochures can wait till after lunch.

12.30 pm

Time for lunch!

1 pm

After lunch and the afternoon sensor check we continue with our projects.

Charlie & Mollie do a lot of sorting of uncatalogued archive material and have several long and complex projects to complete. In order to vary the work, they often do a different task every day, sometimes even switching jobs in the afternoon. This afternoon they are working on the reboxing and resleeving of our Cowley glass plate negative collection. Before the invention of photographic film, images were captured on glass plates of varying sizes. We have in our collection almost 19,000 boxes of half plate and quarter plate negatives – each box containing at least 15 images. The original boxes are as old as the negatives, which stretch back to 1925. They are therefore in poor condition and in desperate need of replacing in order to properly preserve their contents. Our job is to sleeve the glass plate in archival appropriate enclosures and put them in sturdy, long lasting boxes. It requires attention to detail and accurate recording of index numbers. It is also a job the whole team can get involved in.

Working on the resleeving and reboxing of the early Cowley Negative Collection. This is a mammoth task which requires persistence and teamwork.

4.30-4.45 pm

At 4.30 pm the Reading Room officially closes and any material got out for visitors is checked and put back in the Archive. The final sensor check of the day is done, projects are put away and the email accounts given a last check. The day is finally over for the archive team and after making sure everything is secure it is time to go home, ready to do it all again tomorrow!