Starting work experience at Westminster Archives could have been a daunting prospect. There was a lot I wanted to get out of it: having completed my third year at Aberdeen University in English and History, I was looking to increase my experience of using historical sources and also to investigate archive work as a possible future career. However, there really was nothing to be afraid of.
My volunteer supervisor met me when I arrived at the Archives Centre and, after calming my nerves with her friendly approach, took me on a tour. I got a real sense of the outstanding volume of materials held at the Centre, which was almost overwhelming. Luckily most visitors don’t have to contend with wading through all this material, as there is always professional help on hand, and the experienced and approachable Archives staff promote a positive outlook on even the most complex searches. Their friendly natures certainly contributed to my settling in very quickly.
After being given a rota of my tasks for the week I got straight down to work. I was one of several volunteers working at the Centre that week. The volunteers are an invaluable asset to the constantly developing collections, helping the staff to maintain an organised system by assisting with the listing, indexing and preservation of materials.
Volunteers help with many different projects. I chatted with David Evans about his work on the Centre’s theatre collection, and he was more than happy to show me the theatre playbills and explain their intricacies and interesting features.
My own particular projects during the week included the listing of the photographic collections, and store room work, which, although a chilly experience, highlighted the vast number of materials which the staff work so hard to maintain. I also shadowed one of the Archivists for a morning, when she showed me how to tackle some of the more routine enquiries the service receives. I learned how to source local history information, how to use microfilm readers, the principles of collections care… the list goes on! It all vastly increased my knowledge of the complex nature of working in an Archive.
On Thursday, I spent the day with the Centre’s Conservator. Stepping into the Conservation Studio threatened to bring back the rather terrifying memories of art classes at high school. However, in complete contrast, the day was thoroughly enjoyable. Although I at first doubted my ability to carry out work on some extremely delicate items, re-binding theatre pamphlets with book-binding thread proved an involved yet satisfying job – bar frequent slip-ups threading the needle, of course! The meticulous work undertaken in the conservation room is essential to securing the longevity of materials and introduced me to yet another aspect of the Archive Centre’s activities.
My University studies had given me a real love of the history of London in the 17th and 18th centuries, and I really enjoyed coming into contact with numerous documents from that period. It brought my studies to life, and encouraged me to investigate the period further – a sign of the inspirational effect the Archives have on researchers.
My experience at Westminster Archives was extremely enjoyable and educational. Working with photos, theatre pamphlets/posters, in the store room and conservation room, and being shown the processes of enquiries and some of the rarer items, was invaluable. However, my favourite job – perhaps surprisingly – was book-processing, when I had the privilege of wielding the Westminster City Archives ink stamp!
Working in the Archives gave me an insight into the hard work and dedication that working with historical materials requires, whilst also allowing me to understand their ongoing value in society today. A special thanks to Judith, Trish and Georgia, who kept me busy during my week at the archives, provided me with plenty of interesting jobs, and showed me the ins and outs of an amazing building and its fascinating contents. It is a wonderful local resource, and one which is certainly worth visiting – or volunteering!
To find out more about volunteering in Westminster Libraries & Archives, visit our Volunteering page.