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Susan Shanks & Alice Millard, Archivists (Episode 41)

    Susan Shanks & Alice Millard, Archivists (Episode 41) | Susan and Alice are cataloguing the past for the researchers of the future

    For this episode of the Research Adjacent podcast Sarah is talking Susan Shanks and Alice Millard. They are both archivists working together on the New Jerusalems project, although Susan is based at Durham County Record Office while Alice is at West Sussex County Record Office (and freelance).

    New Jerusalems is all about post-war New Towns including Newton Aycliffe and Peterlee in County Durham and Crawley in West Sussex. The project is cataloguing images, documents, land records, maps, plans and other evidence so that it will be accessible to researchers for the first time.

    Different routes to the same destination

    Susan was always interested in heritage and did a history degree. She took a job in events and fundraising where she found that the information management side of the role suited her skills. She volunteered for various archives to get experience before embarking on a postgraduate diploma in archiving. Various jobs in information management and archives followed before landing her current role in Durham.

    After an English degree Alice originally work in museums, helping out with exhibitions and school visits. Finding the museum sector too competitive Alice side-stepped into archival work, also completing the postgraduate diploma which is essential to work in this field.

    “You do have to have a postgraduate qualification. There’s a governing body called the Archives and Records Association and they accredit a few different courses around the country. You can either do a diploma or you can do a full masters.”

    Perhaps echoing academia, it seems that permanent jobs in the archive sector are hard to come by, because there aren’t that many jobs and people tend to stay put. However, there are more opportunities for short-term project-based roles.

    Alice used archive records to identify the boy in this painting as Marcus Thomas. Read the full story here.

    Naming Marcus

    The project Alice is most proud of involved the painting to the right. It all started with parish records.

    “So we’ve been doing quite a bit of intersectionality work at the West Sussex record office and as part of that I began trying to search for people of non-white heritage in our parish registers. I was able to do quite a bit of research into people of non-white heritage, so black Caribbean, south Asian heritage and that was really, really fruitful and that attracted a lot of lovely conversations with the public.”

    Alice Millard

    The 1782 painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds is of Charles Stanhope, third Earl of Harrington. It is currently held at Yale University. Thanks to Alice, we now know that the child’s name is Marcus Thomas. You can read the full story of how Alice pieced together the information on Marcus’ identity in this great blog.

    Enabling Access

    For Susan she is currently finding satisfaction in correctly cataloguing images for the New Jerusalems project.

    “We’ve had a couple of local projects using those images and being able to find things easier. We’ve been part of a few exhibitions and it hasn’t necessarily required them to be absolutely au fait with how to use a catalogue. You can just put through the name of a street and it might come up. That’s quite satisfying.”

    Susan Shanks
    Image from Durham Record Office, Victor Pasmore archive collection, shows a child looking out of Pasmore’s Apollo Pavilion (1969), Oakerside Drive, south west Peterlee.

    Finding the right balance

    For both Susan and Alice the biggest challenges come around balance. For Alice it’s finding the right balance between facilitating access and preserving fragile materials.

    “I think for me, learning to get the balance right between facilitating access to archives for researchers, whilst also trying to manage risk and protecting documents full stop.”

    Alice Millard

    For Susan it is finding a balance between working in the archives cataloguing materials and working with the public to share those materials.

    “I’m not saying one is better than the other but when you’re doing the archive course sometimes the impression you get is that you’ll be cataloguing all day, you’ll be getting really deep into the archives. But then we have service delivery too. And I love service delivery and working with the public – it’s one of the best things about archiving. You get to show people what you’ve worked on and their heritage as well. But it’s difficult to balance that with the core work.”

    Susan Shanks

    Clearing the backlog

    Both Alice and Susan opted to use their magic wand to clear the cataloguing backlog, although in slightly different ways. Alice wants to churn through all the things which are waiting to be archived.

    “If we had unlimited funds I’d tackle the ‘bread and butter’ stuff in the archives. In my experience at the local authority record office, we have quite a backlog of records and many, many archives have the same thing. Legacy things that haven’t quite yet been catalogued and made as accessible as we would like them to be. It’s just an issue with resources.”

    Alice Millard

    On the other hand Susan wants a sustainable way of archiving digital records like documents created using outdated software or hardware (floppy discs anyone?).

    “You know, there are some things from the 90s that can’t be accessed. And that’s not that long ago! If you imagine opening an old file and being like, oh no, it’s Word 2005.”

    Susan Shanks

    Find out more

    Theme music by Vitaliy Levkin from Pixabay

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