A week ago I went along to Senate House’s annual History Day extravaganza: a workshop with talks about doing history, with representatives from archives offering advice on how they can help do history.

As a fresh-faced PGR and new historian, this was the first event of its kind I’d ever attended. I very much enjoyed the day, chatting to representatives from archives all over the country about their particular holdings and what could be beneficial for my own research. Consequently, I hope to make some trips to Kew in the new year to examine the Home Office material held in the National Archives, as well as the upcoming Radicals exhibition at Senate House.

The main focus of the event, however, were the three panels. Led by historians, archivists, and librarians, the talks on the practicalities of doing history were both engaging and accessible. Coming from a background of Linguistics and English Literature, I feel as though I’m going undercover when attending history events – although the material I use is centuries old and thus, by necessity, ‘historical’, when it comes to some history methodology I feel like a child trying on her mum’s shoes and finding that they’re far too big.

Public History

In this light, the first panel on ‘Public History’ with Dr. Alix Green (University of Essex) and Dr. Susannah Lipscomb (New College of the Humanities) was a wonderful discussion on what it means to be a historian of the public and to give historical work public meaning. Green borrowed John Tosh’s definition of the term as “history with a public purpose” and as a “public resource,” and drew upon her background in policy to call for closer collaboration between politicians and historians. Signing a petition, writing for the Guardian or the Conversation is all well and good, she noted, but called for a more direct impact of historical training to contribute to teams of experienced people to help solve policy issues with public concerns in mind, a ‘collective policy’ being the end goal.

Lipscomb continued in a similar vein, turning to the cultural impact of historians’ work. She contrasted the increasing fragmentation and specialisation of ‘professional history’ with the widening output of popular history including books, radio programmes, and television dramas and documentaries that indicate an upsurge of public interest. Lipscomb, who has previously presented several successful history documentaries for the BBC, noted that “a 45 minute television programme has only 30 pages of script” and that these stories are often limited to ‘big name’ figures such as royals and wars, heavily condensing historical debate in order to create a linear narrative perceived to be more engaging to audiences.

While historians have anxieties about ‘dumbing down’ complex analysis, she concluded with Dr. Green that historical research is of no use if it is not shared, both arguing for the historian to accept their place as negotiator between archives and the public.


Period dramas, such as the BBC’s Versailles, are a great way to engage the public with the past. For many, these adapted fictions are their only source of information on the topic. Image copyright BBC.

Libraries Vs. Archives

Panel two engaged more closely with the remainder of the day, pitting archivists Victoria Northwood (Hon. Sec. British Records Association) and Isobel Hunter (The National Archives) against librarians Dr Richard Espley (Senate House Library) and Lesley Ruthven (Goldsmiths) to defend the merits of their relative institutions – and how they can be used together in future research.

Tugging on the heartstrings, archivists Northwood and Hunter argued that archives are totally unique in both their combination of holdings and the materiality of each object, “waiting to be discovered” due to the notorious backlogs of cataloguing plaguing the industry. Hunter noted the emotional power of the archive too – that of bringing researchers to tears when stumbling upon an important artefact. Noting the real-wordliness of archives, Hunter cited the fall of the Berlin Wall as a striking example of the importance of documentation: newly freed East Berliners began to destroy the GDR’s offices in glee, before realising the necessity of the documents as evidence for bringing their injustices to account.

Comparatively, librarian Espley fought this by noting that libraries are also unique, as each collection is ‘curated’ by the librarian, and that these collections are the eventual the homes of work based on discoveries made in archives, or “promiscuously democratic” repositories of learning. Ruthven followed this by noting the range of libraries and their respective workloads, from helping young children to learn to read and share to special collections libraries that enable access to local history and “straddle the exclusivity between archives and libraries” through establishing a theme, citing the example of the Women’s Art Library at Goldsmiths. This unity, Ruthven argues, brings people together differently to an archive. Although an archive can unite people from across time and space via an object, libraries enable reading groups and discussion, and shared experiences – including the discussions of BME women artists at the Women’s Art Library through a student-organised reading group.

Graffiti on the east side of the Berlin Wall, taken on holiday last July. An archive in itself!

All panellists agreed upon the importance of libraries and archives used in conjunction, and the importance of widening access to all of these collections, following on from the previous panel’s conclusion that historical work must be an open and collective effort. Hunter noted the role of commercial partners in bringing this access to the forefront, through funding digitization projects that enable worldwide access to texts and objects, and Northwood noting the continual work of historians, as each publication of findings represents one individual’s take: “archives are open to interpretation and reinterpretation.” She noted some of the more individual findings and uses from archives, having discovered an extremely dead rat in a desk drawer on her first private archival job, and Hunger shared one output of the extremely varied M&S archive, most recently used to inspire a new design collection by fashionista Alexa Chung.

Closing Thoughts

While I have no regrets in going, and very much enjoyed the day, it still left me with some doubts and questions. Still feeling somewhat of a pretend historian, I would have enjoyed a little about employability: if historical training is so richly varied and transferable, what can I apply it to? How does one apply to work on a BBC programme or offer findings to improve public policy? If we are to eliminate the perception that there are no jobs for arts and humanities graduates, can we not start leading by example and bringing historians to the public eye? (For the record, I have been told four times in two months that there are no jobs in academia. I am aware of this.) Talking about the various ins and outs and defences of libraries and archives is all well and good to a public audience, but for current postgraduate students who have opted to attend an event to find resources for research, it felt a little wasted. While I enjoyed the day, it has made me wonder where it’s all leading to.


I was able to attend this event thanks to small award funding from WRoCAH.


Post-grad-grad Employability: What Next? (part 1)

As a keen bean doing duty as PGT School Rep for my cohort of MA English Studies students, I recently held an employability event. I’ve been to various careers talks targeted at English Literature and Language students throughout my academic career and come away with the following messages:

  1. Getting a job within the publishing, art, library, or heritage sectors is really hard.
  2. Getting a job in academia is really hard.
  3. Be a Teacher.

There’s a perception that arts degrees are useless, and with continual cuts to funding for libraries, galleries and museums, and performing arts programmes, graduates increasingly find themselves in a world that seems to confirm it. This feeling of dread is emphasised when you are told “you’ll never get a job” by a drunk uncle at somebody else’s wedding.

Obviously there are huge obstacles to Arts graduate employment. That said, there is still hope.

Image: Mad Men, ©AMC TV

Steve Bone from the Careers Service kicked off the afternoon with his ‘Decide, Plan, Compete’ workshop, a guide on choosing and securing your dream grad job from start to finish.

Decide: what do you value in a career?

“Ask yourself why did you choose to do your particular degree? What have you learned from it? What did you enjoy about it?”

The first step to applying for graduate jobs is deciding what to apply for – English, especially, is a great degree to have because it is so versatile – but it can be difficult if you don’t know where to start. Thinking about what you most enjoy (or don’t enjoy) about your degree is a brilliant starting point: you might find that working with books or making a positive difference is really important to you, or that you love the research aspect of your course. You may well hate public speaking and want something quiet, or alternately find that you vastly prefer the group environment of seminars to sitting alone in the library.

If you’re really stuck, or you enjoy taking quizzes, the Prospects Career Planner is a helpful tool for matching your preferences and skills to potential job roles. Remember that over half of graduate jobs are not subject specific, so don’t feel held back.

Plan: how do you find it?

“Approximately 60% of jobs are advertised on social media or through personal connections before they go live.”

Get out there and look for the job you want. Many graduate employers will attend university job fairs and put on events to attract fresh talent, so attend whatever you can. Do your research to find out the industry names and subscribe to mailing lists, and follow them on social media to get the first look at careers events and job vacancies. This works in conjunction with Googling, job centre vacancies etc. If you are already working in a company, most new vacancies are advertised internally first, so keep your eyes peeled for any opportunities to move departments or be promoted.

Browse some vacancies and identify the key words used and the skills required of applicants – you can then tailor your CV and LinkedIn to match.

Compete: how do you stand out?

“The drive and vigour of a postgraduate degree can be a real selling point to employers, showing dedication and ambition.”

Sadly, “I’ve got two degrees” is not enough. However, using your excellent writing skills to make a cracking CV is a good start. For finding your first job, Steve advises drafting a skills-based CV to highlight your achievements and capabilities from your educational and co-curricular experiences that can be transferred into a professional environment.

An employer will read your CV for about 30 seconds before making a snap judgement – so make it easy for them. It should:
1. Be well structured – it should be in reverse chronological order, use headings to separate sections, and make your contact details clearly visible.
2. Include references – obviously ask them first and give a heads up, but including referees’ details demonstrates confidence in yourself and your abilities.
3. Cite real-life examples of your achievements – overcoming obstacles, being trusted with leadership, events you’ve organised. Bonus points if you can include a hyperlink to digital evidence (e.g. conference website, volunteer blog)!

You can find more CV tips on the Leeds University Careers Website.

Finally, Steve said to use your social media presence to further your good impression – Google yourself and remove any ~undesirable~ results away by upping your privacy settings or deleting content. Most employers will Google you during your application, so be sure they’ll find something good. Twitter is a great way to engage with industry contacts, and blogging is especially useful for those entering creative industries to create an online portfolio and advertise your work.

That’s all from the Careers Service workshops – stay tuned for part two of this series later in the week!


Image: Mad Men, ©AMC TV