A year in the life of an archives assistant

Coming to the end of my time as the Archives Assistant at Eton, I find myself divided between feelings of excitement for the future, gratitude for everything I have been able to see and learn, and sadness at leaving a Collections team that made it such an enjoyable experience, and one in which my consumption of cake has tripled.

The position is a trainee role, allowing me to learn what it takes to be an archivist, gain hands on experience, and (hopefully) help contribute to the work of the College Archives along the way. Over the year I have certainly been kept busy, working upon a range of projects including: cataloguing records of an island owned by the College; running a session as part of a challenge day at a local primary school, allowing 8 and 9 year old pupils to get hands-on with our records and investigate the life of Dr John Keate, a 19th century Eton Head Master; and assisting researchers using our records. The majority of my time has been spent cataloguing around 3300 letters sent to the College bursars between 1775 and 1900, which discuss day to day business – from food orders to the income from the College’s estates and the construction of new buildings to meet the needs of the ever expanding school.

When I started this job I thought that being a successful archivist was all about having a good eye for detail and an ability to order things, I now know that there is so much more to it than just that. You must have the confidence to trust in your knowledge and skills, knowing that a mistake could impact upon a researcher in the future. Be versatile enough to deal with the wide range of material in your collection, from wax seals, parchment rolls and boxes upon boxes of handwritten letters; to magazines, books and even emails. If I had my time again, I would certainly brush up on my non-existent Latin and Greek! Not to forget being willing and determined to spend hours removing rusted pins, paperclips and staples from documents they would otherwise damage.

I remember being unsure before I started of what to expect from the College Archives. What I have found is a place in which I was given the opportunity to ask questions, work within a fantastic archive on amazing records, and learn from excellent people.

By Josh Insley, Archives Assistant

Incunable fragments

One of my recent tasks has been the identification and cataloguing of just over twenty loose sheets of printed material, found as fragments at ECL. Most of these are from ‘incunables’, books printed before 1500, when the printing process was in its infancy.  The rarity of printed books surviving from the 15th century means that even single sheets and fragments have been kept by collectors.

Although the ECL fragments are small and imperfect, they are each unique. For instance, most have had rubrics painted in by hand, so that they look more like the manuscripts fifteenth century readers were used to.  Some, like the fragment from Alphonso de Spina’s Fortaliter Fidei, even have beautiful decorated initials (whilst others, like the Dante, have gaps where painted initials should have been).

A list from the late 19th century identified some of the fragments, and I visited the Bodleian and Cambridge University Library to compare our fragments with complete copies there, and confirm each identification.  The remaining fragments involved more guesswork, identifying the text (the Bible was easy – bits of Plutarch and St Augustine much less so!) and working through the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue and the Bodleian Incunable Catalogue to seek out likely candidates.  Again, I went to see complete copies in other libraries, and managed to identify most of our fragments this way.  A few still have me completely foxed!  I will put up photos of these some time, to see if anyone can help.

After identifying them, of course, I had to tackle the difficulty of cataloguing fragments. But that’s a whole different blogpost…

By Lucy Gwynn, Deputy Librarian