SNP Discussion Topic #1: The state of the archive...
Hi! I'm Lindsay Ince, the Communications Officer for the Section for New Professionals. We're hoping to use the marvellous new social networking tools on the new site to keep in touch with you, get your ideas and pass on all the information we can to keep you informed of relevant professional issues. Last Thursday, myself and our secretary, Caroline Wakeham, attended ARA's London Region meeting where there was a great discussion on the state of the archive qualification. Attendance was limited due to the size of the room, so I've written a report of the main topics that were discussed, and look forward to hearing your ideas and opinions below!
Illustrating the old saying there may only be six original ideas in the world, a participant in the floor discussion of the London Region ARA meeting on the 24th February noted that the subject, “Is the archives qualification fit for purpose?”, is one that has been lurking near the forefront of professional discussion for almost 25 years! So whilst it may be at the very front of the minds of us new professionals, or those on the cusp of entering an ARM course, it's just as important to our future employers. Speakers at the event reflected on their own archival education, the strengths and weaknesses of the current courses and areas for improvement, followed by a floor discussion.
Geoffrey Yeo, Lecturer on the UCL ARM course, began by saying that asking 20 different archivists their opinion of the structure of the current ARM course would provoke 20 differing opinions! The clearly identified job market that existed around the profession 20 years ago no longer exists today, but the opportunities within the sector are larger and more varied than ever before. Curriculums for the FARMER courses are reviewed every 5 years or so (UCL’s next review is late 2011/early 2012), but with only 2.2 permanent teaching posts, he said there was a reliance on the wider professions to fill in the gaps through guest lectures and visits. He also spoke about the tensions between the university’s expectations of the teaching staff, to come through a traditional academic career and be immersed in research, and the expectations of prospective students and the wider profession to have a vocational and practitioner led course. He said it was open for discussion whether universities were the right place, or the only place for this kind of professional training. Considering the future of archival qualifications, Geoff finished by saying whilst it was never likely to happen a 2 year course would be an opportunity to cover subjects in greater depth, and he personally wondered whether a reduction in the number of courses, and a concentration of staff and resources in a couple of centres may be a possible answer for the future of ARM learning.
Sarah Norman from the UK Debt Management Office spoke from the perspective of a recent graduate; she finished the UCL course in September 2010. After being employed for six months in a professional post where her predecessor was not archivally trained, and she felt the course gave her gravitas when dealing with other managers, and ability to cope when thrown into a position where she was already having to manage. She felt a lot of what she learnt was common sense, but skills like palaeography are incredibly useful. She felt some gaps might be filled by there being more on electronic records and on the legal side of deposits, which wasn’t covered on the course. She also felt scenario based learning and practical experience of changing attitudes would be really helpful to have before going into the workplace.
Sue Donnelly from LSE archives, like Geoff Yeo she came through a traditional archives training route, taking a diploma at Aberystwyth. She’s worked in an academic background for a number of years, and looked at the strengths and weakness of the archives qualification by reviewing some previous LSE job specs, identifying aspects she felt could only be learnt on an ARM course, and other things she would be looking for she believed equally as important. She’s employed people from most of the UK courses over the past few years, from full time and part time backgrounds, and is looking for candidates who can show they are competent to appraise, arrange and describe records, and confident enough to ask if they aren’t sure! She’s looking for good people skills, advocacy skills and depositor skills, for graduates that are good with the public, can argue the point with internal staff but know the line between flexibles and absolutes, and can handle the ups and downs of dealing with depositors! Her view was there was a visible gap in some of the current courses were around the subjects of digital archives and the e-environment, and this was probably one of the most important areas for archivists going forward.
Geraldine Charles from the National Maritime Museum described that the route into archives can sometimes be a result of serendipity – in her case, an elbow injury! After a background of biological sciences and anthropology, including working with various bits of snakes and squirrels, she ended up at the NMM, and after the aforementioned injury, working in the archive. It’s given her the opportunity to become an author and educator, and she was one of the last members to become registered through experience rather than by qualification in the early 2000s (she kindly brought along her 10” thick portfolio!) She finished by neatly summing up some of the understanding (what is a record? What is relevant legislation? What the lifecycle is, how to secure data, how to conserve or preserve records from harm), skills and abilities (organise and catalogue; read handwriting; recognise archival potential; undertake research; work alone and in a team; convey ideas well; assist people) and natural assets (a good memory, sense of history, and passion for paper!) she felt all good archivists should have!
When opened to the floor there was a lively discussion on a number of issues, including discussing the gap between teaching students ‘best practice’ and preparing them of the realities of the real world! The benefits of teaching management skills on the course were debated, some attendees felt it was important, Geoff Yeo reported that often fairly new graduates find themselves in ‘lone ranger’ positions where they are the manager, so a broad range of skills was taught to prepare them for this kind of situation. Sue Donnelly raised concerns that newly qualified students weren’t as familiar with the e-world as might be expected, and whilst employers don’t expect students to know everything about digital archives straight from a course, more emphasis on this would make them more employable in the future. New professionals reported sometimes knowing where to go for resources, like software vendors etc. was difficult and an ARA committee member commented that this was perhaps more of a role for the Association or the JISC listserv to address rather than the universities.
The discussion ended by looking at how the course should be structured, and what the balance between learning theory and applying it should be. There was general agreement that working whilst studying was a great opportunity to embed lectures on subjects like appraisal or classification design, and Dundee alumni backed this up. There were a number of suggestions on the form this may take, apart from the traditional p/t work/learn approach. A former civil engineer and nurse spoke about the benefits of participating in sandwich courses and block release learning programmes, in helping students mature and feel more confident in their abilities.
What’s your opinion about the state of the archives qualification in the UK? What are your expectations if you’re thinking of applying for courses? What do you think about training whilst working? Have you attended meetings where alternative methods to qualification were discussed? Share your ideas below!
It was interesting what you were saying about scrapping the PG, I don't know about the other courses, and this kind of opens a different can of worms, but there was a discussion on ours about archives/RM becoming a 'profession', as doctors, teachers are etc. and the postgrad side was seen as being a major part of that. Would scrapping the qualification effectively bin that idea, (if it even matters) and what are the results of that? Might it possibly be used as a justification for lower wages?! Or am I being a bit overdramatic and letting the cuts paranoia get to me? Is there a danger of a two tier system, people with PG quals viewed differently to vocational ones? Having worked for the youth service in that past that was a bit of an issue there! I suppose there are ways round everything though! Show more 7 years ago
I realised when I wrote that the PG should be reserved for academia that it may create a two tier system. The way round it would be for the profession to only recognise you as a 'practicing' archivist if you have the vocational qualification - not the academic one. The simple solution may just be to scrap PGs altogether. If scrapping the PG means we are no longer recognised as a profession I say so be it - it could open the role up to a greater variety of people. As for low wages - compared to most other professions an archivist is a low earner anyway - particularly junior archivists who are lucky to get more than £23,000 outside of London. Very few people recognise archivists as professionals anyway, since so few people know what we do.
I personally am not entirely convinced that teachers are professionals either but that's another story! Show more 7 years ago
-Wasn't it more of a risk to study full time and..."I'm too old for that much risk, I wanted to know exactly what I'd be doing for the foreseeable!"
-Wasn't it more of a risk to study full time and then finish unemployed, with the possibility of no job at all, than to study part time and have a job which would at least outlast the course?
Anyway, don't mean to just discuss your circumstances! Kudos to you for getting through via savings.
Perhaps if all PGQs had a sandwich year or long term placement as a compulsory part of SoA (sorry, ARA) recognition it would solve the problem of ivory tower versus vocational. Show more 7 years ago