Friday 19 August 2016

Cardigans, Cake...Career? My 8 weeks at the Borthwick Institute

I didn’t really know what to expect when I first started interning at the Borthwick; I had never visited the institute before, but as a history student I knew that spending eight weeks surrounded by old papers and documents, in one of the UK’s biggest and most well-respected archives, would be heaven.  My role for the past two months has been digitising the finding aids of several archives and putting them on the Borthcat website, making them more easily accessible so people know what archives the Borthwick has without having to call up and ask for a list.  I have also been contributing to Facebook and Twitter posts whenever I find something interesting, and I wrote a blog post about medicinal alcohol, a subject which I wanted to investigate after puzzling over a ‘wine and spirits book’ found in the York Medical Society catalogue.  I was given a lot of freedom to write about anything I thought was interesting, and I love the way that everyone working in accessions with me was encouraged to do personal research into what really interests them, as it leads to impassioned blogs and social media posts that are well-researched and great for drawing people in and inspiring them through our collection.  

Questionable medical advice in The Retreat Archive,

I have especially loved digitising the finding aid for the Miscellaneous Documents archive; the collection is so eclectic, and from such a diverse range of sources and time periods, that without being able to access the listing online people had no idea of the amazing and often surprising things hidden within the archive.  Items in MDs can range from an early 13th century charter, to a 1930s album of Nestle-produced stamps, and from beautiful 18th century family photographs to a euphemism-laden medical pamphlet for teenagers from the early 1900s entitled ‘The Dawn of Womanhood’ (side note: this is a very entertaining read).  

A letter from the poet W. B. Yeats in the MacCarthy Foulds Archive

The whole process of digitising the archive included linking accession records and writing authority records associated with the items, which involved a lot of research, and I also photographed many of them to use the most interesting on social media.  The social media I was particularly excited about, as I wanted to photograph the documents that would inspire people to take an interest in this seemingly random collection.  (There will be tweets about the MDs soon, by the way; look out for the hashtag #miscdocuments!). I feel like this is a significant mark I have been able to make on the Borthwick online catalogue, and it has been incredibly enjoyable being able to go through these items and research more about them.  I was, however, very worried about breaking something priceless and for the first few weeks found myself constantly asking ‘Are you sure I’m allowed to touch this?  Absolutely sure?! I might just leave it there…’

Commemorating the launch of the new National Health Service in this 1948 magazine from the
York County Hospital Archive

I have also learned so much about the process of archiving collections, various archival schools of thought and the importance of archives to academia as a whole.  My wonderful colleagues Sally and Lydia showed me how an archive goes from being deposited to being catalogued, the importance of organisation and thoroughness in all aspects of the archive, the correct way of handling documents and some very important research skills, as well as being encouraging and friendly throughout.  They’ve also given some very useful advice on how to work towards a career in archives.  The people who work at the Borthwick make it such a welcoming and exciting environment to work in; ask any Borthwickian what they have been doing that day, you are guaranteed to receive an interesting story about a document they found that morning, or a snippet of historical information they’ve been researching.  Some of the most interesting bits of history I’ve learned about during the internship have been completely unrelated to the documents I’ve been looking at, and have just been things stumbled upon whilst researching authority records or talking to others.  Did you know, for instance, that in late 16th century East Sussex puritans often baptised their children with strange, devoutly Christian names, such as in the case of ‘If-Christ-had-not-died-for-thee-thou-hadst-been-damned Barebone’ and our own Archbishop of York ‘Accepted Frewen’?  Or that in the 16th century it was assumed that if you were born through caesarean section you would have a lifelong fear of women?

One of the many hidden gems of the Miscellaneous Documents collection.

Interning here has made me want to rush out and remind all of my fellow history students at York about the amazing resource that we have, sitting in the library packed to the brim with incredible documents that you can look at for free.  I will definitely be using the archives for future history projects, or maybe just if I have a spare hour next time I’m in the library and I want to look at some old editions of the student newspaper.  I want to thank everyone at the Borthwick for making my internship so enjoyable and for teaching me so much, I’m going to miss working here and it has inspired me to consider a career in archives, as it seems like a job in which you can take immense personal pride in your achievements, is interesting and varied and you can always be intricately involved with the subject that you love, and surrounded by people who love it as much as you do.

Gaby Davies
University of York History undergraduate