Wednesday 7 August 2019

An A-Z of life as a Trainee at the Borthwick Institute for Archives

By Sarah Moses, Archive Trainee

Welcome to my A-Z of what I’ve learned while I’ve been a trainee at the Borthwick Institute for Archives! I started working here in July 2018 and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the traineeship but, as I’m almost finished, I wanted to provide some insight into the life of an Archive Trainee. 

A is for Archive Graduate Trainee: This traineeship is an opportunity for someone interested in being an archivist to learn more about the practical side of working in an archive, before pursuing a formal postgraduate qualification. The Borthwick role includes a huge variety of tasks from copying probate orders to social media to working in the searchroom, as well as training in aspects of an archivist’s job and visits to other repositories to learn even more. In this blog post, I’ll be attempting to show just how varied the trainee’s role truly is! 

B is for Borthcat: The Borthwick Catalogue ( provides all manner of information about our archives and their history. Whether you need a quick search to check some information or you have time to get lost in the depths of archival descriptions and authority records, Borthcat is your one-stop shop for all things holdings-related. (Although I’ve also learned that you sometimes just cannot get by without the paper catalogues in the searchroom.) 

C is for Conservation: Our conservators form a vital part of the team at the Borthwick. As a trainee, I’ve got to know them as the people who work magic on the rolled probate records I bring in to have made flat. They are also the fount of all knowledge when it comes to packaging, and don’t seem to mind too much when I repeatedly ask questions about how to deal with specific documents/objects/photograph albums. On the subject of photographs, most of these (along with some scientific instruments) are held in our cold store, which is (as the name suggests) COLD. I quickly learned that if I would be spending a large amount of time in there, I needed to wear extra layers. (On a side note, this sartorial advice actually applies to working in archives anyway - many areas are colder than you expect!) 

D is for Data Protection: Before I started my traineeship, my only known experience of data protection was the numerous emails I had received the previous year relating to GDPR. But I now know far more about the 100-year rule and the various regulations for medical records in particular. Although a more knowledgeable member of staff has always been happy to answer any questions about data protection because this is one area in which I really didn’t want to mess up!

E is for Exercise: An unexpected side effect of being an archive trainee is the exercise I’ve got. Although I have lifted heavy items more than once in my life, it is slightly different when you are moving dozens of boxes every day. Not only have I actually got arm muscles for the first time in my life, but climbing stairs and walking between strongrooms and the searchroom and accessions (where I’m based) and the digitisation suite and the staff area have made me fitter, despite all the cake archivists eat.

F is for File: While fixing problems on Borthcat, I asked what I assumed was a very simple, very stupid question: in a description of an archival collection, what is the difference between file-level and item-level? Apparently, this is not such a simple, stupid question after all, which provokes debates on, for example, whether a minute book is an item in itself, or whether it is a file in which individual entries/pages are items. I found myself surrounded by hours of discussion and had books recommended to me on the topic.

G is for General Staff Meetings: The highlight of every three months. It is the trainee’s job to provide statistics on rolled wills given to conservation, which will inevitably involve a fight with a spreadsheet and more time than it should take manually copying and pasting and adding up, but I always managed (eventually) to obtain the right information. I also learned that it’s advisable to read other people’s summary reports that are provided before the meeting, so you don’t end up sitting in a room of 20 people where everyone else seems to know what is being discussed and you don’t have a clue.

H is for Handwriting: Or more accurately: palaeography. This is one of the greatest archival skills I have learned in my traineeship. Through both 1:1 study with a member of staff and seminars taught as part of a postgraduate module, after a few weeks of studying early modern material, I started to realise that maybe I could actually read it. And if in doubt, I learned to count the minims and ask myself if the letter I was stuck on was ‘c’ or ‘h’ or ‘r’ or ‘&’ (it’s normally one of those). I also had the opportunity to work on some 19th and 20th century material, which made the 16th century palaeography seem like a doddle. On a slight tangent, I was also able to participate in the Medieval Latin course run by the University’s Languages for All scheme ( This can be taken at either beginner or advanced level and provides a solid foundation in Latin grammar and vocabulary, as well as information on standard phrases used in legal and probate documents. 

 The first palaeography document I attempted to read - the will of Jane Stapilton

I is for Instagram: And Facebook. And Twitter. One of my most time-consuming roles has been maintaining the social media channels of the Borthwick. We may not have reached the dizzying heights of The Museum of English Rural Life or Orkney Library but social media is a great way to show what we do. I’ve learned to be creative, have fun and, most importantly, ask my colleagues for ideas. Typing in a certain word on Borthcat may provide an overwhelming selection of records to use, but it is most likely that someone will have a random nugget of information tucked away deep in their memory banks that was stored for such a time as this. And I’ve had the privilege of staging many a photoshoot for Archie (our dearly loved archive squirrel). He could be doing anything or saying anything (more or less) and get away with it. Because he’s a squirrel. 

Archie the Archive Squirrel

J is for Jobs, Odd: As a trainee, I’ve ended up doing jobs that I’d never expected. From staging photo shoots for a squirrel to creating a post-it note crown for said squirrel (twice), I’ve occasionally found myself in slightly bizarre circumstances during my traineeship. One of my most ‘what am I actually doing’ non-squirrel-related moments was when we got a new safe for our keys and I spent an hour sitting on the floor, writing out sticky labels with staff names on, attaching these to the new cabinet and transferring the keys across (which had helpfully been mixed up moments beforehand). 

The first outfit I made for Archie - a crown and a paperchain

K is for Key Cabinet: A few months into my traineeship, we got a new safe for the keys we use to access various parts of the building. With its handy touchpad to ensure ease of opening, this safe will seem perfectly normal to anyone beginning a career at the Borthwick. But, unfortunately, they’ve missed out on the rite of passage that was the old key cabinet. Transferred from the Borthwick’s old home at St Anthony’s Hall, this cabinet had a dial that was incredibly temperamental. A fraction of a degree out of place could make all the difference (as could pounding the door of the cabinet), and I thought I would never learn how to use it and instead be reliant on other people getting my keys out for me...until Day 3 of my traineeship, when I opened the safe by myself and, of course, no one was around to see it! Sometimes change is good.

L is for Lifelong Learning: Our main classroom space is known as the Lifelong Learning room. I’ve spent plenty of time in here setting up for various classes and visits. Sometimes it is simply a case of moving some chairs and tables; sometimes I’ve spent more than an hour laying out archival material that will be studied by the visiting group. Sitting in on classes (especially at the start of my traineeship), was a great way to learn more about the holdings of the Borthwick, and to see how outreach can be done in an archival setting. 

Archie in Lifelong Learning

M is for Milk: We’re halfway through my A-Z, so I think it’s time for a tea break, but is there milk in the fridge? This is one of my most inconspicuous, yet vital, roles. If there’s milk in the fridge, no one bats an eyelid. If there isn’t, someone else will have to buy milk from the shop on campus and I feel like I’ve failed at life. 

N is for The Northern Way Project: And the Rowntree Archives Project. And the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust Project. And the Alcoholics Anonymous Project. And the Yorkshire Historic Dictionary Project. It’s always a great idea to learn about the projects being undertaken at the Borthwick. The project archivists have provided me with all sorts of fascinating information and taught me about cataloguing (and I’ve been able to hear them discussing times when they’ve found funny/sad/annoying records which provide an insight into their project). Because they know their project material so thoroughly, they are also great people to ask for ideas for social media.

O is for Orders Database: What to say about the orders database. It is a fantastic spreadsheet, providing a wealth of useful information but it is full of all kinds of formulae and buttons I never ever want to mess with. When people order anything through the research or copying services on our website, their request arrives in the orders database, from which we can generate invoices and store any necessary information. I use it almost daily, so I’ve had to become familiar with the columns I need. And in the worst case scenario, it does ask whether you really want to type in a box which should not be changed, so I can quickly say, “No, thank you” and get back to what I was trying to do. And in the worst worst case scenario, the database can easily be restored to a version from a few hours before (but I always ask someone who actually knows what they’re doing to fix it).

P is for Packaging: As part of my traineeship, I’ve been asked on several occasions to transfer archival material from the cardboard boxes/plastic bags in which it arrived, to archival standard packaging, checking for rusty paperclips, plastic wallets or anything that maybe should be treated slightly differently (like a box of matches - yes, really). My repackaging tasks have varied from school records to ecclesiastical records to scripts for plays to miscellaneous business records. I’ve also been asked to create lists of the contents of each box - such a simple exercise and yet incredibly useful for finding stuff. 

Some examples of box lists I've created

Q is for Questions: This is questions in two senses: (a) questions I receive, and (b) questions I pose. Firstly, when working at the searchroom reception desk, I am asked many many questions. These enquiries could be received by email (in which case I can consult other members of staff before replying), by telephone (in which case I can ask them to email us, or say that I will email them, if I don’t know the answer), or in person (in which case it is more difficult to hide my lack of knowledge). The questions could be anything from general queries on using probate indexes to incredibly detailed analyses of a person’s ancestors. Secondly, there are the questions I have posed as a trainee. Throughout my first few weeks (and, let’s be honest, all year) it was reiterated to me on multiple occasions that there were no stupid questions and I could ask for help as many times as I needed. And, to be fair to my colleagues, everyone has treated me with patience and kindness, even if I have forgotten something incredibly basic. I had to ask how to turn a computer on a few months into my traineeship, so it’s pretty impossible to do any worse than that.

R is for Rowntree correspondence: Presented with three boxes of hundreds of letters written to and by the Rowntree family in the middle of the 19th century, I faced the daunting prospect of writing a short note on the author, recipient, date and contents of each letter. Fortunately, some work had already been done to find the common thread in each bundle, and so, armed with a fairly detailed family tree of Joseph Rowntree, I began this task. However, I hadn’t reckoned on the challenge of reading Victorian handwriting. And, as luck would have it, the least legible writing style came from Joseph’s mother Sarah, hundreds of whose letters are contained within the collection. Fortunately, I quickly learned that if I was really struggling to read someone’s handwriting, I should take the time to actually sit and transcribe whole letters. Although this was time-consuming, it enabled me to “get my eye in” and pick out common stylistic variations.

The first Rowntree letter I read - from Joseph Rowntree Sr to his son Joseph

S is for Searchroom/Strongroom Duty: This is arguably the most fun, and yet most daunting, part of the traineeship. On a quiet day, I’ve spent most of my time at the computer in the searchroom reception, tackling email and telephone enquiries. But on a busy day, I’ve run to the strongrooms and back multiple times an hour. However, I’ve been able to see first-hand how archives are used by members of the public and enjoyed several joyful experiences of a researcher finding just the information they needed. Doing searchroom/strongroom duty has taught me more about our archival holdings than I could have thought possible, and within a few weeks I knew which part of the strongrooms I needed to be in to find the requested material (most of the time). I also quickly learned that when showing a visitor how to use a digital microfilm reader, there is a diagram on the machine itself, so if I pointed them to it while I explained how to put the reel on, they didn’t know that I’d forgotten how to do it. Finally, I had the joy of using our hanging map cabinets several times. Although it wasn’t ideal that my first experience of using them was at 5pm on a Friday, when I couldn’t get it open properly and then the lid wouldn’t stay up, and I ended up with numerous people trying to talk me through how it works over the phone and then in person. 

Archie in the Searchroom

T is for Teamwork: Teamwork is incredibly important in an archive. As I mentioned elsewhere, my colleagues have given me so many suggestions for records to highlight on social media and provided insights into the life of an archivist. I’ve also had some very team-focused tasks. Just one example is the day an addition to the Alcoholics Anonymous Archive was transferred to the Borthwick. After the archive arrived during mid-morning, it took four members of staff the rest of the day to put all the boxes back into order and move them up a floor to the correct strongroom. It was good fun! (But I wouldn’t want to do it every day.)

U is for University: Although the Borthwick is situated within the Library of the University of York, we don’t just hold University records. We also have archives relating to the church (Church of England and non-conformist), health and medicine, businesses, families, architecture, horticulture, the environment, social welfare organisations, charities, schools, societies, music, writing and performance. And as the trainee, I’ve had to learn everything there is to know about all of these! Well, not quite, but I’ve certainly acquired some knowledge about each of these and added constantly to my learning. But I quickly learned that there was always someone around who knew more than I did, so I shouldn’t be afraid to ask for advice.

V is for Visits: During my traineeship, I’ve had the opportunity to visit other archives (university archives, business archives, museums and local record offices).  These visits have been great times to ask questions and discover something new about the archival profession. It’s easy to become accustomed to one way of working and assume that this is the best way but through visiting other places, I could learn from the systems in place which may work better or worse than what I’ve experienced in my traineeship. Visits are also a great method of networking with other people working in archives. Likewise, training days provided me with the opportunity to meet other archive trainees and gain a more theoretical knowledge of what I do in practice. It was only through a training day that I truly learned just how prestigious the Borthwick is in the field of archives, so I knew that I needed to make the most of my time here!

W is for Wills: The Borthwick holds more than 750,000 probate records, dating from the 14th century to 1858. As the trainee, the 14 aisles containing wills are my domain. At times I love these records; at others I strongly despise them (when I just can't seem to find the one I need). Most people will use Find My Past to request copies of probate documents, but I’ve also learned to appreciate the ease of having full searchroom indices (or is it indexes?) of all probate records. When someone has paid for a copying order, it’s my responsibility to find the will or administration they have requested, digitise it and email/post it out. This does require a lot of time but I quickly got into a rhythm of knowing when I enjoy doing each stage of the process (and being aware of any problems in conservation which might cause a backlog). 

This is how the wills look before they visit our conservators

X is for X marks the spot: By which I mean “treasures”. Every archive has its treasures - those records that get wheeled out time and time again to wow visitors. A 12th century manuscript fragment, a medieval Archbishop’s Register, the baptism register entry for Guy Fawkes, the will of Charlotte Brontë, papers relating to meetings between Lord Halifax (the British Foreign Secretary) and Adolf Hitler, the list goes on. I’ve seen these treasures (and got them out of the strongrooms) several times, yet the wonder never quite fades.

Y is for Yorkshire: The best part of England. Fortunately, I spent my years as a student here in York, so I already had a great appreciation for this wonderful city and the area in which it is found. But through my time at the Borthwick, I have learned so much to make me love it even more. I’ve become more familiar than I ever anticipated with the names of the old deaneries within the Diocese of York, until I could rhyme them off alphabetically: Ainsty, Buckrose, Bulmer, Cleveland… On more than one occasion, when out in the Yorkshire countryside, I would suddenly recognise the name of a small hamlet I was driving through. But why? I racked my brains and then realised that just last week I had located the will of someone who lived there in the 18th century.

Z is for Zest of Lemon: Apologies for the slightly tenuous link here, but as any archivist will tell you, cake is important. Just take a look at #archivecake on Twitter. In my experience, bringing cake/biscuits means your colleagues will love you forever (well, for the rest of the day at least). So - apologies, another tenuous link ahead - I’m going to end my A-Z on a truly soppy note about the wonderful people who work at the Borthwick. They’ve put up with me for more than a year, so they must be pretty amazing and it’s thanks to them that I’ve enjoyed my time as a member of staff at the Borthwick so much!

Essential supplies

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