Thursday 16 July 2020

My Year as an Archive Trainee

By John-Francis Goodacre

As my year as Archives Graduate Trainee comes to an end, I have been reflecting on my time at the Borthwick and what I’ve learnt along the way. The last twelve months have been a fantastic experience and a great introduction to working in archives. Special thanks go to my manager Amanda, and to all the Archives Assistants for their helpfulness and willingness to share their expertise.

Working with the wills and inventories in the Borthwick’s probate collection was at the heart of my year, and this gave me great insight into a wide range of archival skills and processes. I developed my understanding of how the documents were created, their archival history, and what they can reveal to researchers today. I learned to use the finding aids (both analogue and digital), retrieve documents from the strongroom, and collaborate with our conservators who clean and flatten the tightly-rolled bundles. Last but not least, I made digital copies of many hundreds of these documents to send to researchers around the world. Following up my own interests, I even researched and wrote two blog posts about the probate collection - one concerning a seventeenth-century book owner, and one about Charles Dickens.

I also worked in the searchroom, where I helped students, family historians, academics, television companies and even the university’s own Vice-Chancellor to find and use archival material. This gave me a taste of the bewildering variety of enquiries that archivists get to answer, as well as an appreciation for how important access to archives is. On top of this I have helped with packaging projects, updating the online catalogue, and attended conferences and training events across the country.

A real achievement has been learning to read and interpret the handwriting in some of the Borthwick’s oldest documents. Over the course of the year I took two palaeography modules alongside history postgraduates, and a course in medieval Latin. It’s a great feeling to be able to read documents that seemed impenetrable only one year ago, and I hope to put these skills to use in the future.

A document from our probate collection

As a literature graduate with a love of early printed books, I particularly enjoyed the opportunities to work with York University Library’s staff and collections. I was part of the team that organised the Library and Archives’ student enterprise competition LibInspo, and I helped bring archives and rare books together for Wonders on Wednesday exhibitions. One of the highlights of my year was developing a hands-on bookbinding activity for one of these events.

Sewing a facsimile of The Strange and Wonderful History and Prophecies of Mother Shipton, a chapbook printed by James Kendrew of York in 1809

Running the Borthwick’s social media gave me lots of opportunities to find intriguing stories and new ways of presenting archives to a wider audience. Having a pandemic-related tweet go (mildly) viral was certainly something I didn’t expect from this year!

As my final four months were spent working from home, I was glad to return to the strongroom one last time before leaving. I'm now looking forward to beginning my masters degree and the next stage of my career, and I wish all the best to my colleagues and to anyone considering working in archives.


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