Archives aren’t usually places associated with digital technology but UK Parliamentary Archives Chief Archivist, Caroline Shenton, blows the dust off the myths and tells me a very different tale.
What would a typical day (if such a thing exists!) be like for you at work in the UK Parliamentary Archives?
I usually read my emails first thing with breakfast from the canteen, but then my day in the Parliamentary Archives is often a mixture of chairing boards (or representing the Archives on information or heritage projects across Parliament). I might have a catch-up with one of my deputies, or be hosting a visit from some VIPs. For example, a few weeks ago 25 Chinese archivists came on a fact finding tour. Today I was filmed for Parliament Week’s YouTube channel, talking about our records and democracy. Last week we hosted a reception for new inscriptions to the UNESCO UK Memory of the World register (similar to world heritage status, but for historic records).
Like most senior managers I spend quite a lot of time in front of budget spreadsheets and policy documents, but I still try to keep in touch with our amazing historic records and our users when I can.
You have a strategy in place to digitise the archives. What have you found to be the key challenges in implementing this strategy?
Our strategy focuses on records of interest to family and local historians which are
underused. Preparation is everything with digitisation; it’s not just about slinging stuff onto a scanner. So our work so far has been to install the right kit, get the metadata sorted out, and create a digital repository to preserve the images. All that is well underway, so the actual digitising will begin soon…
The Parliamentary Archives has incorporated social media into its communications strategy. What are the key objectives in using social media?
We’re trying to connect with an audience that otherwise we wouldn’t get to, and it’s also much easier and quicker to respond to topical stories using Facebook and Twitter than only using the web. We can also retweet tweets from our partners inside and outside Parliament, such as other archives. It’s all about developing a community of users interested in us and our work.
In what ways do policy within parliament or, indeed, policy specific to the archives inhibit your use of social media?
We can be more informal using @UKParlArchives (and I tweet personally from
@dustshoveller) than other channels, but the tweets have to be politically impartial. It’s
important that Parliamentary staff remain neutral so we can do our jobs effectively at
Westminster. Sometimes people don’t understand that.
What have been your personal career highs whilst working at the archives?
Well, I was delighted that President Obama enjoyed the display of documents about
American Independence we put on for him when he visited Parliament earlier this year. We got out the 1765 Stamp Act for him which kicked off all the trouble in those pesky colonies, and we also have a copy of the Declaration of Independence used in a Parliamentary debate at the time. We sent him a facsimile of that.
Do you have any particular favourite documents/anecdotes contained within documents you could share?
With three million records it’s hard to choose; our holdings include some of the most
important constitutional documents in the UK, including Charles I ‘s death warrant, the Bill of Rights and the Great Reform Act. But at the moment I’m just completing a book on the 1834 fire that burnt down the Houses of Parliament, so my favourite at present is a letter written at 3.30 in the morning by Frances Rickman, who lived in the Palace of Westminster, telling her sister about how the family survived the disaster. That’s a wonderful survival, in every sense.