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  • Writer's pictureLucy Vinten

Two Years as Archives Assistant

An illustration by Fr Augustus Law SJ whose papers Lucy catalogued

To date, the Archives have supported two part-time Archives Assistants, with the aim of helping prospective archivists into the profession. We are pleased to say that both were accepted onto Masters programmes for Archives and Records Management, an accredited qualification which is required of individuals working in the profession. Our most recent Archives Assistant, Lucy Vinten, has been working with us for almost two years, the second of which she has been simultaneously studying part-time for her MA at University College London. In this blog post, Lucy writes of her experiences as her time at the Archives draws to a close.

My two years working as Archives Assistant at the Jesuits in Britain archive are drawing to a close. It all started back in June 2016, when I hesitantly answered a job advertisement. I was 48, had not worked in paid employment for over fifteen years while bringing up my 4 children, and was worried that everything I had once known was now out of date. I had a few things going for me including a good academic record, albeit one several decades old, and recently, a couple of years volunteering in relevant organisations. However, I was very nervous -- weren’t they really looking for a recent graduate with great tech skills? So, I was delighted to be invited for interview, then to hear a few hours later that I was being offered the position, which was a part time job as a trainee at the British Jesuit Archives, with a view to applying for a place on the Archives and Records Management MA at UCL. I accepted with joy.

I have learnt so much in the last two years. Rebecca, Archivist, Deputy Archivist Mary, and Sally, Assistant Archivist while Rebecca was on maternity leave, have been diligent in ensuring that I get a variety of archival tasks to expand my knowledge of what it takes to be an archivist. My main activity has been cataloguing, which is relatively straightforward when the collection is a small and well organised one, but when it is in disarray and very large is much more challenging. Luckily I started with a few simple collections. I catalogued the papers of a Jesuit institution -- Campion House at Osterley, and a couple of very interesting nineteenth and early twentieth century Jesuits, Augustus Law SJ and Bernard Vaughan SJ. Law had been a midshipman in the Navy in the 1840s and 50s and kept beautiful illustrated diaries of his voyages, and later, when a Jesuit, of his travels as a missionary in Africa. Vaughan was a showman Jesuit whose sermons to packed out congregations in Holy Name Church in Manchester and then Farm Street in London were regularly reported in the press. I liked the way that as a cataloguer for each collection I learnt a lot about the individual or institution, and that by fully immersing myself in the life and times I could make much better cataloguing decisions. Rebecca and Mary were very patient in guiding me through the intricacies of cataloguing and of using the cataloguing software CALM.

Group of Osterley retreatants

I then embarked on a far more challenging cataloguing task, the papers of

Alfred Thomas SJ. This huge collection has taken me a year to complete, and despite occasionally doubting that I would ever finish it, I finally uploaded it to CALM last week. Thomas was a twentieth century Jesuit, a scholar whose life’s work was devoted to Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ, and who tirelessly promoted Hopkins’ poetry. In the course of this Thomas corresponded with the great and the good of academia, with an ecumenical range of senior clergy, with politicians, musicians, poets and actors. His papers were fascinating and it was a real privilege to read correspondence with Benjamin Britten, W. H. Auden, Alec Guinness, three Prime Ministers and successive Archbishops of Westminster and Canterbury, as well as gain a far deeper knowledge of Hopkins’ poetry. However, the papers were extremely disordered, and extended to over 25 boxes. I spent many months trying to ascertain what the original order of them may have been and often had to impose my own so I could catalogue them in a way that makes them accessible. It was frustrating at times, but now I feel great satisfaction at having finished it.

A selection of Alfred Thomas' papers

Cataloguing makes archives accessible -- people can’t come and use the archives if they can’t search what is in them. But there are more informal ways of letting people know what is in the archive, and I am fortunate to have been given the opportunity to write blog posts. Our blogs roughly fall into two categories. The first is historical, using material from our archives to highlight people or issues from the past. The second relates to archival issues encountered in the day to day running of the archive. When I started writing blogs I was a lot more comfortable with the former, given that I’m a historian by training, but as I have learnt more about archives I have enjoyed writing more posts which address archival issues. I have also taken part in mounting two exhibitions in my time here, a chance to show to our colleagues some of the interesting material we have found in the archive.

I have learnt other archival skills, including calendaring and indexing, have helped to move our entire archive collection into new storage, using the opportunity to survey our collection, and have helped to move our extensive library collections. I have even learnt how to build shelves for them, which involved lots of banging with a rubber mallet. I represented the Jesuit Archive at the Catholic Archives Society conference, and relished the opportunity of meeting other archivists working in similar archives. But most of all I have benefitted from the opportunity of working alongside the archivists here, Rebecca, Mary, and Sally, as I have learnt so much from them about how an archive is structured and run, both daily and in the longer term.

During the course of my first year, I was accepted onto the UCL Archives and Records Management MA, the professional standard for archivists. For the past year I have been studying for this at the same time as working in the Jesuit Archive. This has enhanced my studies and I have enjoyed being able to bring current practical examples to debates in the often rather theoretical seminars at UCL. Conversely, I have found it very useful to discuss issues addressed on the course with my colleagues at work (who have been very long suffering -- they may have hoped that they would never have to hear about the Australian Continuum Archival Theory again!).

Next year I hope to complete the MA and will be able to devote more time to doing reading and research for it. However, I shall miss working at the Jesuit Archive very much. I have launched myself back into the world of work, which I have loved, and have learnt so much -- including that my decision to work in archives was the right one, and that I am excited about my future career as a professional archivist.

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