Adventures in Archiving: A Change of Career and a Change of Stationery


We have had a lovely volunteer working with us in the University Archives (avid readers may have already spotted her in some of our previous posts) for the last six months, working on a variety of different projects with the aim of gaining more experience in the sector before embarking on a career in the archive world.  The time has come to bid farewell to Sarah as she begins her new and exciting career.  Before she left we asked her to write one last blog post to sum up her time here and to give a bit of advice to others considering a career in archives.


May I take the opportunity here to say a very big thank you to Sarah for all her hard work over the past few months and wish her all the best in her new and exciting venture. 

At the end of 2014, I left my job as a primary school teacher, in order to embark on a quest for a new career direction. With map, compass, ship and a large handful of determination at the ready, I began my search for opportunities. [OK, there was no ship and Google Maps provided the first two.] I had already been researching archiving as a new direction for about a year prior to this. Archiving is a competitive profession to gain entry into and I knew I would need a substantial amount of experience in an archive setting before even being considered for a postgraduate course in archives and records management. Not only this, I like to gain first-hand experience of new work settings so that I know my decisions are well informed and realistic.

I had noticed from a visit back to the university in 2013 that there was a new archive section which had recently been integrated into the library building. It caught my eye then and I kept it in mind as an avenue to investigate when searching for opportunities for volunteering. As a University of Surrey alumnus I already had an interest in the institution and was curious to see what its archive department was like. So, full of eager anticipation, I contacted them to ask about doing some volunteering. The response was an enthusiastic and welcoming “Yes – we’d love to have you!”. A most positive and encouraging beginning to my quest!

The archivist met me, showed me around the archives, explained what kind of items were in the collection there and discussed what I hoped to achieve/ get from volunteering. From February through to July, I volunteered between two and four days a week (with some time out travelling abroad also!) and got to partake in a wide variety of interesting tasks which have helped me learn more about the profession. The archivist here has been most supportive and has made sure that I see and do a variety of tasks linked to the role. I have picked up some valuable tips from her, for example, about looking after materials in the archive and about how to provide opportunities for volunteers which are interesting and enjoyable. Duly, I am exchanging my marking pens for 2B pencils and my trusty forest of post-it notes, for acid free paper and my red and white plastic coated paper clips for brass ones. My love of stationery will never diminish, regardless of career type, I think.

Here’s a summary of the things which I have worked on during my time in the archives at Surrey. I hope it may be of interest to any potential volunteers or archivists in the making:

  • cataloguing of photographs from the early days of the university (initially on an Excel database and then afterwards transferring the information onto CALM, the cataloguing software)
  • sorting and listing items in the photographic collection
  • researching events from the university’s timeline using items from archives (e.g. back copies of the student publication Bare Facts, for information on the ‘Free Festival’, or correspondence linked to the establishment of the tonmeister course)
  • digitising records and photos
  • carrying out general preservation tasks when they arise linked to other projects
  • assisting with the creation of a display for the glass case in the reading room
  • helping with an Alumni day where members of Battersea alumni kindly came in to work on many mini projects in the archives
  • sorting through boxes of the old Battersea Polytechnic Magazine (student publication), checking duplicate copies for any annotations/ differences and then removing them if there are none
  • cataloguing of these magazines on an Excel database.



Highlights from my experience:-

  • Creating a contents list for a box of correspondence linked to the Department of Music when the university was in its infancy. Genuinely, I found this riveting! It was engrossing discovering the story behind how the sound recording (tonmeister) course was established; also getting a sense of what the authors of the correspondence were like from their letters!
  • Laughing myself silly at some of the witty and thoroughly absorbing entries/ stories written by students attending the Battersea Polytechnic for their student magazine. There’s no accounting for taste but I honestly found some of these hilarious. See what you make of some of them, here.

The time has come now though to bid adieu to my new friends here, for I will be moving to Suffolk soon to take up a graduate trainee position in the archives at the Britten-Pears Foundation. It is a very exciting new stage in the archiving adventure I have embarked upon and one which promises to be most interesting. Finally, I would like to express my thanks to the lovely people in the archive department at the University of Surrey – I have gained valuable experience, learnt a lot from my time with you and have enjoyed it greatly. I would certainly recommend it to anyone looking to embark on a similar adventure, who is need of some valuable experience to get them started!

Have you been inspired by Sarah?  Would you like to work in archives?  Or get an understanding of just what working in an archive is all about?  Then we would love to hear from you!  Please contact us and we would love to hear from you.