Steam engines and Samuel Beckett: My Experience as the Graduate Trainee Archive Assistant
Written in September 2022 by Rebecca Keddie, Graduate Trainee Archive Assistant 2021-2022
My time as the University of Reading Graduate Trainee Archive Assistant is drawing to a close. The last reference numbers are being written, Adlib entries made, and reading room enquiries dealt with. This past year has been an amazing experience; I have learnt so much and gained a true appreciation of the scope and scale of the work it takes to run an archive.
A lot of my time has been spent behind the reading room desk, welcoming visitors to the reading room, retrieving material, and answering researcher enquiries. The vast scope of our collections meant that the range of readers and enquiries was broad. From Samuel Beckett scholars, to undergraduates on their first reading room visit, Reading locals searching for relatives who worked for Huntley and Palmers, and steam-engine enthusiasts nationwide. There was never a dull day! It was always a joy to witness the excitement readers held for the collections, and to hear about what had led them to the archive. My time on the reading room desk has also brought into focus some of the challenges people face with accessing an archive, from navigating the online catalogue to interpreting an archival hierarchy. I know that my experience in the reading room over the past year will ensure that questions of accessibility inform any future work I do. I leave with a much better understanding of the value archives hold throughout the community, as well as a much-enhanced knowledge of Fowler steam engines and a well-honed ability to wield a reading room trolley!
When I wasn’t in the reading room, I spent my time working with the collections, assisting with accessioning, cataloguing, preserving and digitising. One of my favourite projects was helping to catalogue the collection of Stephen Dwoskin, an avant-garde filmmaker, where I was responsible for preserving, labelling and packaging the photographic material. This project was fascinating, in part because of the exciting subject matter, but also because of the questions raised through the packaging process. Preservation requirements had to be weighed up against the budgetary constraints of the project – whilst we may have wished to repackage everything in Melinex, this was not possible and a lighter touch approach to preservation had to be adopted. The different forms of material, such as slides, prints, and strips of negatives, also raised questions of storage. For instance, the decision to store all the slides separately meant we had to carefully consider how the collection was labelled in order to ensure easy retrieval. This organisation was put to the test a few weeks later when some of the material was requested by a researcher. It was exciting, and a little bizarre, to produce a collection in the reading room that I had helped to catalogue.
Another project I worked on was cataloguing a new deposit within the Samuel Beckett collection– a series of letters written by Samuel Beckett to actor David Warrilow. Cataloguing this collection meant getting to grips with Adlib, a collections management software and, far more challengingly, Samuel Beckett’s handwriting! This task was invaluable for learning about the cataloguing process and the issues archivists have to consider, from establishing a hierarchy, to finding space for new deposits within the store. It is exciting to say that I have contributed to one of the archives’ most notable collections and there aren’t many jobs in which you can reasonably claim that ‘I’ve been spending rather a lot of time with Samuel Beckett’!
The MERL and Special Collections has been a truly incredible place to work this past year. I have learnt so much from the amazing work that everyone is doing, and have benefited immeasurably from being a part of such a kind and supportive team. I am going to miss glancing out of the reading room windows and seeing the museum garden overtaken by toddlers during Friday fledglings, Tai Chi classes, and on one memorable occasion, a visiting farm! I am sad to be leaving, but I am looking forward to going off to UCL to do an MA in Archives and Record Management, confident that the year I spent at the MERL and Special Collections has prepared me for this next step.