Tuesday, 17 November 2015
A Day in the Life of an Archives Assistant
I started work at Cheshire Archives and Local Studies at the tail end of June. I’ve come from a public library background (in Lancashire) where I spent a lot of time in a busy Community History department. I was therefore looking forward to the similarities (and, if I’m completely honest, to not being threatened with having to incompetently sing nursery rhymes to restless two year olds if I stepped out of line), but in truth I had little idea of exactly what to expect. The first thing I quickly learnt is that there isn’t one ‘Archives Assistant’ role, but four different, if very interconnected, ones. The four of us – Joy, Siobhán, Samantha and myself, David - are timetabled every day to be on either Reception, Enquiries, Production or Reprographics. I’ll take these roles in turn.
The Reception role involves sitting by the entrance, welcoming visitors and talking them through the way things work, producing CARN and temporary tickets, answering the phone, undertaking basic administrative tasks, signposting users – in fact just about everything you’d expect from a reception desk in a public setting. As the first port of call for visitors and enquirers, this is a role where no two days are ever the same – it all literally depends on who walks through the door and what they want to achieve from their visit.
Enquiries is somewhat similar in this regard. There is always a Duty Archivist in the search room, but the Archives Assistant is there to answer basic queries received by phone, email or letter and to be able to assist users when the Archivist is already dealing with a query. It’s enjoyable because one is able to get one’s teeth stuck into some real queries.
Production is our way of describing the role which produces documents for our visitors (and for other staff to answer queries with). We ‘produce’ them from the strong rooms for customers. It sounds exciting and it often is, but it is also very physically and mentally demanding. The physical side is more obvious – we have seven strong rooms over four floors here in Duke Street and that involves a lot of walking. But mentally as well it can be a big challenge, especially when there are many users in, all looking at lots of documents. These come in all shapes, sizes, and weights, of course - and trolleys, lifts, sore feet and aching backs (and sometimes heads) are often a feature of a production day.
Reprographics is where we are copying documents for users. This is technically the hardest part of the job, and can sometimes be very repetitive but can also be very rewarding. We copy everything, from one page of a book, through photocopied sixteenth century wills (which we’ll only copy three times in order not to damage them unnecessarily – after which we take copies of a copy) to high quality A1 photographic reproductions. No job is too big or too small. And wherever possible we’ll copy everything within 10 working days, and usually considerably quicker than that.
If we are working in the search room we are generally on site by 08:30 at the latest when we have to turn on all the lights and computers, plug in all the microfilm readers, get the float money ready for the till, and ensure all the relevant documents are ready for that day’s visitors. If one is on reception you obviously can’t leave until after the last customer has gone at 17:00. We then have to ensure everything is securely locked away in the strong rooms, balance the till, and lock and shut up shop ready for another day. Hopefully, this gives you just a little taste of what a fairly average day in the life of an Archives Assistant might just look like. I wonder what tomorrow will bring?