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Penny Wright - TNA Bootcamp

Penny Wright, Digital Preservation Trainee, National Records of Scotland

In November, the Scottish Council on Archives ‘Skills for the Future’ Trainees attended the TNA Basecamp at the National Archives in Kew.
This was an opportunity for the Scottish cohort to join the English trainees for a week of workshops, seminars and visits to working archives in London.

Basecamp week began on Monday with lunch, the delayed start time allowing for everyone to arrive from their various locations from across the UK. There are seven trainees in Scotland and twelve based in England. Furthest to travel was Shona, from the Western Isles, also known as the Outer Hebrides, in Scotland.

‘Archivist speed-dating’ was the first session, in which we met 15 staff members from The National Archives (TNA) for 3 minutes each before moving onto the next person. Despite the time constraints, there was a lot of information to be gained and useful contacts made for future research, and the TNA archivists were interested in hearing about the traineeship as well as explaining their particular role.

Later that evening all of the trainees went to dinner in a lovely old pub near Kew Bridge, and as we shared backgrounds and stories the beginning of a solid connection within the cohort started to form.

Tuesday had sessions on the Archives and Records Association (ARA) and how to make the most of the groups as a new professional, particularly with an eye on future employment. The ARA New Professional section and the mentoring scheme offer considerable support to new archivists, which will be especially useful to us at this stage of our careers.

Caroline Brown from the University of Dundee went through the format and content of the distance-learning modules available to the trainees in Archives and Records Management, putting them in the context of gaining the postgraduate qualification necessary for many (but not all) jobs in the profession.

Shona Lowe (pictured left), Media Manager at TNA, spoke on how archival material is used and promoted, using the Explore Your Archive campaign as an example. This demonstrated the variety of ways in which material can be showcased, including a popular article on babies named after famous WWI battles.  Shona highlighted how successful Twitter is in promoting the archives, which is something the trainees are hoping to use to best effect in our own roles.

Wednesday morning was an introduction to the life coaching which the trainees are given access to during our time on the Skills for the Future programme.  Life coach Steve Wood encouraged us all to be self-aware rather than self-analytical, and to take a holistic approach, as all aspects of our lifestyles contribute to being the best that we can in our work.

In the afternoon the trainees visited the National Theatre Archives, next door to the Old Vic Theatre in Lambeth. Pawel Jaskulski is one of last year’s Skills for the Future trainees and is now the National Theatre’s Digital Assistant Archivist, proving that employment is definitely possible post-traineeship. Pawel is responsible for accessioning and cataloguing digital records such as photographs and videos. Erin Lee, the archive manager, took us around the store rooms and told us some of the stories behind the collections. The archive contains treasures from performances with Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith, as well as set designs, posters and masks from a performance of the famous Greek masked play Oresteia. Pawel then took us backstage at the current theatre to see sets being built which brought us back to the present of the National Theatre as a living cultural institution.

Thursday began with a basic-to-basics seminar with Melinda Haunton on the principles of archives, discussing the arrangement and description of collections, the ten agents of deterioration and how vital it is simply to put items in a box. As St Andrew’s trainee Catherine Hollebrandse observed, particularly helpful for the cohort were Melinda’s pithy distillations of what makes an archive and what are the key questions, such as: ‘What is the purpose of having that knowledge? How much of this do we want to keep? How do we manage the stuff?’ (On a personal note, I have been thrilled to find out how commonly archivists use the imprecise word ‘stuff’.)  

In the afternoon everyone travelled into the City again to visit the Guildhall Library and the new City of London Police Museum. The Police museum has recently been moved to Guildhall from Scotland Yard and reopened with a new exhibition covering thematic aspects of women in the police force, cyber terrorism and an eye-catching display of uniforms. 

The Guildhall Library includes books from the 15th century, part of their collection of Incunabula (printed documents from before 1501), which were brought up for the trainees to examine.

More medieval books and manuscripts were on show the next morning back at Kew with the TNA Medieval manuscript team. Most of documents were in Latin but by using diplomatic skills we were able to pick out various pieces of information, including that one was a record of sodomites in a monastery at the time of the Reformation – information that was likely to have been recorded in order to press a political advantage over the monasteries.

We then had a tour of the labyrinth that is the repository at TNA.  We followed a document from the point of request, as it was taken from the shelf through to arrival and delivery to the reader in the reading room, and then the return journey back to the shelf. The repository is run with military precision, necessary for an establishment that produces over 600, 000 documents a year.

Friday was the 11th day of November and at 11am there was a two-minute silence for Armistice Day, so it was appropriate that during our tour of the repository, the staff located and showed us original maps of the Somme, complete with battle lines, that would have been used by senior military in the field. Later during lunch in the canteen some of us were sitting next to members of the public who had come in to search for information on family members who had been in the first and second world wars.

Later, during a presentation of a digital project, Chris Day from the Modern Domestic Team showed us another commemoration of the first world war, a project called Great Wharton, a fictional village incorporating real stories where audiences can soak up an alternative view of the war, based on the home front. Video games are increasingly being used by archival projects to bring collections to life. 

Melinda Haunton led a fun session on designing a record office to finish off the week. Then it was time to head back to our host placements all over the country, leaving Kew with vast quantities of information to ingest and a tangible network of teammates in the rest of the trainees. 

Photo: Opening Up Scotland's Archives and Transforming Archives Cohort Three