If you’ve been to an archives conference recently, you’ll have heard all about the importance of diversity and inclusion in archive services, the records we collect, and the archive profession as a whole. The need for representative services and collections is talked about extensively, and for good reasons – however, often these terms are banded about like buzzwords with not enough transformative change happening to enable us to work towards these goals.
I’m a working class, white, queer, able bodied, cisgendered woman. I have intersections of identities that lead me to experience oppression on a daily basis, and others which mean that I benefit from a level of systematic privilege. I started working in archives six years ago as a nearly full time Photographic Assistant at a national museum, and I’m now a qualified Archivist currently more than two years post-qualification. As I graduated about two years ago now, I thought this might be an interesting point in time to reflect upon the journey I took to get here, and the implications of that journey on the goal of achieving a more diverse workforce.
At this point in time, to become an Archivist you need to have an undergraduate degree (in order to be accepted onto a postgrad course), at least a year (ish, this varies) entry level work experience, followed by a vocational postgraduate MA qualification. Twenty years ago, when tuition fees didn’t exist (and helpful grant funding did), this was arguably a more achievable goal. However, over those twenty years, tuition fees have been introduced, and increased from £1,000 to £9,000 a year (due to increase again next year). To apply alone to UCL, you now need to pay £75, which is an amount I would have found hard to find when I applied in 2011.
At the same time, postgraduate funding for MA qualifications has dwindled to virtually non-existent. The funding which is and has been available is inaccessible to anyone who has dependants or debts or other circumstances which make living on national minimum wage harder. There is often a stubborn lack of flexibility around taking funding on anything less than a full time basis (which often excludes those with dependants and/or caring responsibilities, or disabilities which make full time study harder, as well as those only able to enrol on distance learning courses).
Here’s an itemised list of costs I’ve incurred in order to become an archivist:
2005-2008 Undergraduate degree, c. £24,000
2009-2010 First entry level job in archives, which paid £1k less than national minimum wage, £1,000
2010-2011 Cross-country move to take up a contract post, £1,500
2012 Cross-country move to start MA at UCL, £2,000
2012-2013 MA qualification, c. £20,000 (funded by AHRC scholarship, fees + maintenance)
2009 – 2014 Periods of no work due to contracts finishing, c. £6,400 (estimate based on equivalent benefits)
By my reckoning, that’s £54,900 (and counting). This is without having had to volunteer or do unpaid labour, which many of my peers have done and would undoubtedly push this up quite a lot.
My journey to qualification was tough, and I think I lost count of the amount of hoops I had to jump through in order to get my study paid for (because I couldn’t do so myself). Alongside needing to fund every academic move I’ve made, I’ve also been unable to do volunteering and unpaid work (like many of my contemporaries) because I’ve needed to earn a wage to pay my bills. The assumption that we are all able to find spare time (especially alongside full time paid work) to bolster our skill set and acceptability by volunteering is unfair. This logic fosters the idea that working class people should be capable and willing to “go the extra mile” or work harder than their more affluent peers, in order to achieve goals and reach an equivalent point in their career, which is massively problematic, not to mention impossible if you have other reasons for not being able to work 60 hour weeks in which you juggle paid work, unpaid work, scholarship applications, conferences and professional development, and sleeping!
I enjoyed my MA study, and I have benefited from discussion and prolonged research time. At some point in time I would like to go back to education again to continue the work I started. However, professionally, I would say that I have benefited and developed as much (if not more) through participation in peer networks, through my involvement with radical spaces and activist and community groups, and my exposure to an alternative information politics which is not centred around the concept of qualification and the acquisition of authority (through qualification), which is something I disagree with in the first place. These networks of informal skills and knowledge sharing have helped me to develop my professional skills and my understanding of the diverse user groups and communities that the sector wants to engage with more.
As qualified professionals in institutions, we need to re-examine the role that qualification via MA plays in our recruitment and profession. If we want to diversify our profession (and going by the conferences I’ve been to, I think we do) then we need to make it possible for people from different backgrounds to enter the profession. It is not possible to do that and insist upon postgrad qualification as the minimum entry requirement to professional roles. We need to de-centre academic knowledge as the only valid route to qualification, and reposition it as one of the routes to becoming an archivist. This does not devalue the knowledge gained in postgrad study, but rather creates the necessary space and flexibility to open the profession to other modes of knowledge, particularly that gained through learning on the job itself.
We can do this by:
- Changing personal specifications so that the MA is not mandatory (“or equivalent professional experience”)
- Changing funding criteria for scholarships and traineeships to include support for part time and distance learning applicants.
- Adapting our traineeships to incorporate funding for study (alongside part time work perhaps).
- Using our qualification (if you have it) to disperse our knowledge and skills (about things like cataloguing, preservation, packaging, collections management and development, and digital preservation particularly) to those who need it – here I’m thinking about schemes like the anti-university of London. If you don’t have the time to do this, your institution might have space you can provide to groups who can.
These are steps we can take to diversify our workforce and share our knowledge and skills without devaluing the work we do (which is important in a climate of austerity measures). The ringfencing of qualified archivists and non-qualified archivists is something I see and hear constantly (especially on social media) – it’s time to revisit this and think about how questioning this concept of authority and qualification can lead to a more suitable workforce for the archive services we are aspiring to create. Talking about diversifying archives is not enough – it’s time to see our aspirations shaped into practical steps and routes into the profession, even if these are done a tiny step at a time.