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The embedded archivist

I am delighted to report that we at the University of Bradford now have our own embedded archivist.  Not familiar with this term?  An embedded archivist works within the structure that is creating the records and is therefore ideally placed to encourage and foster an archiving culture.

As archive services move into collecting born-digital records, we’re going to have to work much more closely with archive creators such as academic staff.  Born-digital collections won’t end up in a filing cabinet or box of papers that needs a home when someone moves office or retires!  We need to get creators thinking about archiving as they create and use their digital files.   Embedding archivists may be one way we can do this.

Putting flesh on the bones

The embedded role at Bradford is the result of a happy accident.  The project, Putting Flesh on the Bones, is funded by a Wellcome Research Resources grant.  It will catalogue, preserve and digitise the archive of medic-turned-archaeologist Dr Calvin Wells.  A fascinating archive, created by an intriguing and somewhat eccentric character.  You can find out more and follow the project via its blog.

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Dr Wells analysing a skull.  Note the books – they now live in Special Collections!  The skull doesn’t though.

Workspace: the biggest challenge

The project team = an archivist, osteologist, conservator, librarian, and placement students.  Fantastic, but where were all these new colleagues to work?  Special Collections simply can’t accommodate more staff in our inadequate spaces.  Fortunately, the project is run jointly with our School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences, who had a room to spare which could be turned into an office for the team.   Our archivist (James Neill) is now settled in, joined by Meg Howe (placement student) and Michelle Williams-Ward (osteologist), with further colleagues to be recruited later.

Benefits of embedding (many)

Co-locating an archivist with the academics and students who will form the audience for the collection they are discovering offers exciting opportunities.  We’ve worked closely with Arch Sci for many years, but it’s transactional: someone needs an image, or information, or to plan a teaching session.  Seeing colleagues every day, at the proverbial water cooler or kettle or printer, the relationship becomes deeper and richer, with better understanding on both sides.

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Two heads are better than one

Such connections are particularly important for this project. Dr Wells reported on bones from many excavation sites.  We need to re-connect the documents and photographs in his paper archive with skeletal remains held at the University and in museums elsewhere.  This requires our cataloguing to reflect in-depth knowledge of archaeological sites and osteology, so we choose the right keywords and descriptors to help this specialist audience.  It’s so much easier to get expert help when you work near/with those experts and know each other.

Other benefits of embedding: as I mentioned above, we expect more donations (especially digital).  Not to mention more collaboration, more offers of oral and written history, more opportunities to help students learn, and who knows what else?  From the University’s perspective, embedding means collaboration, which leads to new ideas and efficiencies.  Our Arch Sci colleagues have incredible skills and kit and track record in 3D digitisation for instance …

Downsides (manageable)

  • It makes line management and supervision more difficult.  I won’t bump into James at the said water cooler, but will get that everyday contact by arranging to meet for coffee, making use of tech such as Instant Messenger, and remembering to keep in contact.  Fortunately, it only takes a few minutes to walk between the two buildings and nice coffee is to be had at both sites.
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Coffee, the essential communications tool for the embedded archivist and colleagues.  Other beverages are available.   Photo by infomastern, licence cc-by-sa, via freeforcommercialuse.org.

  • It restricts the role the archivist can play in supporting the Special Collections service, as they are not to hand for little bits of cover or dealing with unexpected visitors, parcels, etc.  But we will make the effort to involve James with our reading room service, teaching slots etc. whenever practical.
  • The archivist could be caught between the expectations of two very different working cultures.  We recruited with this concern in mind, looking for someone with similar project experience, excellent communication skills, and confidence.  The archivist is clearly part of the Special Collections team and follows our working patterns and norms, so there can be no confusion.
  • Security and collections care.  We are treating the project office as an outpost of Special Collections with the same policies around access, food and so on.  We’ve also incorporated it into our emergency planning processes e.g. arranging for checks when no staff are in.  The presence of staff with skills and understanding is what keeps collections safe, and we certainly have that.

Two teams are better than one

I think that what matters most is that the project is a genuine partnership, with enthusiasts in both areas and active support from senior managers in both areas.  If you have these, then the other challenges can be overcome by planning and creative thinking.  I’m happy that the Bradford project has these essential features.  The project was conceived by archaeologist Jo Buckberry, and is being run by Jo, me, our University Librarian (Grace Hudson), and our archaeology subject librarian (Sarah George).  This gives us the spread of expertise, experience and knowledge required to deliver the project.

P.S. You can find some more information and references in the Handbook.  I’ll be writing more about the embedding experience as we go along, and sharing new links and publications.

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