Before reading through the points, I should say that these are my personal and scattered experiences. I am sure everyone has their own different experience or others that they wish to add to the list, which makes me think, it would be nice to have a trending hashtag like #experiencesfromworkinginarchive or #archivistsshare or #secretsfromthearchives where archivists could share their stories and notes about what it is like working in archives, and libraries. However, for now let me tell you about some of my favorite moments, information I acquired and experiences of being an archival volunteer:
- Being precious and careful: Given that archival documents and materials are rare and often old objects, it is a MUST that they are handled delicately. This is the most obvious and commonly known fact, therefore, going into further detail may not be necessary. However, if I were to expand further I would simply say it is like holding a new born baby. So I cannot stress enough the CARE element of the job.
- Making lists and cool spreadsheets: When working in any field the best way to stay organized is to make lists, for example in my work I made lists that were about the work I was required to do, the boxes that need attending to, the realistic number of boxes that I could examine in the day and so forth. After creating such lists and I have many (which are colorful) the next best part of my cataloguing work was making spreadsheets. Now I have in the past worked with Excel but this was an entirely different experience that I enjoyed a lot. Filling out the spreadsheet with information about the documents I was cataloguing was in one-word COOL! To see my interpretation of the documents, for example, the date, condition, form, issue and so forth translated into a detailed digital database that could help others in the future find their way through the collection made me feel like the archival navigator of this particular collection! In many ways, and this is crazy but through the process, lists and spreadsheets found an even more valuable spot within my world.
- Ask when you do not know: This one is another general advice and note that is fitting of most life situations, which was also helpful in my work as I was unfamiliar with the British postal system. Therefore, as a “me to you” kind of advice, remember whenever you find yourself lost, unfamiliar and confused, the best solution is to ask for help or Google it! Researching unfamiliar material to gain a better understanding of the material you are working with is ok and necessary. Do not be afraid of not knowing, because, and you can quote me, the way to become the best at anything in life is by observing, reading, listening and learning from others.
- Be prepared to discover: Embracing the moments of finding rare documents and objects in the archival material – this one, in addition to making spreadsheets, I enjoyed doing a lot! If you ask what is one thing I am good at, without hesitation I will say research and finding materials others have given up on—you name it and I will find it. However, with archival work, the experience of finding was a whole different scavenger hunt. Instead of knowing what I need to find, I got to experience the joy of stumbling across things, like a handwritten note on a stamp, a company with the weirdest slogan or the discovery of how a travel agency in the 1930s advertised a return ticket to New York for only £35!!! (I know it was probably expensive back then but for a second my heart skipped a beat out of excitement). I have heard and read how several archivists and scholars found the unpublished manuscript of an author or an important letter or person within their work and I thought how amazing it must be, to be the first to discover hidden gems. You do not always have to be a scientist to discover the cure for something, although they do important work and I do not want to undermine them in any way, but all I am saying is that archivists are also contributing to the world with their discoveries, and preservations of rare documents. While I have not discovered anything yet, I did tell everyone about the £35 return ticket to New York. In many ways I felt like I had found GOLD, I cannot imagine what I would do if I actually discovered a rare object, ever!!!
- Taking breaks: Dividing your time, and giving yourself breaks to be more productive is mandatory (Coffee or tea, along with a cake or cookie). I was blessed to be working with generous and sweet-toothed librarians and archivists who always brought a delicious treat to brighten the working atmosphere – chocolate turns any frown into a smile! (this is not just me saying it, scientist have proven this fact to be true!).
- Talking to archivists: One thing I did in my breaks was talking to other librarians and archivists and learning from their experiences. Hearing their stories, for instance when they first started in the field and the collections they have worked and helped to preserve and what they enjoy about working with rare documents and books and so forth added a new layer to my experience as a volunteer. It felt like I was part of a community. So take advantage of the opportunities to talk to archivists, because most of the time their stories are as fascinating as the many archival collections and manuscripts they take care of.
- Embrace the joy of the work: I was exploring documents that once belonged to a different time, held a different value and were used for a different purpose, but were now collected and preserved under one roof. They are in many ways a time capsule of what the past used to be like, how people communicated (letters), how businesses advertised their products, what legal documents looked like in comparison to those used today, how magazines or newspapers have evolved; and also a treasure trove of the cultural productions of prominent writers and artists. I will say this, while sometimes the work becomes repetitive, it is never dull.
In these past few months working as an archival volunteer, I think I have found my true calling in this world. I have always been a devoted collector, from movie tickets (starting with the first film I saw in a cinema when I was 8) to keeping receipts (yep if it’s a special occasion) and postcards from places I have visited and places I want to visit. These are just a snippet of my collections, you never know maybe one day they will be in an archive somewhere! In any case, when I say that the opportunity to be part of the archival community has been an experience that has changed my life, I am not being dramatic. I hope to continue being part of this community and maybe inspire others to also follow my lead.
p.s. Let’s work on making the hashtag a thing, don’t you agree?
Shima Jalal Kamali