Case study

Digital archivist — Frederick Alexander

Frederick emphasises the importance of getting practical archives' experience while studying. Find out more about his role as a digital archivist working on records over 100 years old

How did you get your job?

I studied English literature as an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh. I went on to study an MSc Information Management and Preservation (Digital) at the University of Glasgow.

I applied to work as a digital archivist at Historic Environment Scotland as maternity cover, and internally applied for work on an investment-funded project as an archivist specialising in the mass digitisation of archive collections.

What's a typical working day like?

My work is project based, so I have very clearly defined annual and quarterly targets. I coordinate the appraisal and cataloguing of collections marked for digitisation, which involves data handling and manipulation.

I also support my project manager through providing performance statistics and writing progress reports. I line manage an archives assistant, ensuring that both of our work is conducted to high standards.

What do you enjoy about your job?

I enjoy applying new skills to solve problems. One of our challenges is handling terabytes of digital files and preparing these for long-term preservation. I have picked up basic skills in Python and PowerShell in order to tackle these issues, which has allowed us to free up staff time for other challenges.

What are the challenges?

One of our main challenges is handling the legacy of an archive that is over 100 years old. A lot of my work involves identifying what minimum standards can be applied across the cataloguing of this archive in order to make it useable in a digital landscape. Working with database developers has been enormously important, as they have taught me how to create thorough and coherent datasets.

In what way is your degree relevant?

My postgraduate degree has given me a strong foundation in archives management, digital preservation and the legal frameworks governing intellectual property in the UK. This has been enormously useful in my current role, but I feel like I am always learning.

How has your role developed?

My role hasn't developed much yet, as I have only been in this job for around five months. Having said that, one of our future goals is to strengthen our digital assets and promote their use both nationally and internationally.

My ambition is to work alongside other digital preservation specialists across the UK in advocating for the sector and gaining knowledge for my colleagues across the world.

What are your top tips for choosing a Masters?

If you're choosing a vocational Masters, I would recommend looking into what work opportunities are available during your studies. My postgraduate degree gave me a two-week placement at the National Theatre Archives, as well as an assessment based on work in the University of Glasgow archives service. This was essential in giving me some practical experience to talk about in my first interviews.

What advice can you give to aspiring archivists?

  • Always challenge yourself to learn new things, either through digital preservation blogs, articles or social media. Take every opportunity to attend events and meet people.
  • Try to apply your skills in a practical environment, either through work experience or through using digital preservation software at home.
  • Take a flexible approach to information management. The archives and heritage sector can be very competitive, but having skills in digital preservation, governance, and copyright or data protection legislation can open up a lot of opportunities in a variety of sectors.

Find out more

  • Gain an insight into the role of an archivist.

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