Career reflections

A series of articles where we invite leaders and managers from the record-keeping sector to reflect on their careers so far. In this edition Chris Sheridan chats to Gillian Cooke RMARA, Group Archivist at Cambridge Assessment.

What was your first job in this sector?

I decided that I wanted to work in record-keeping when researching my undergraduate History dissertation. Some years later this led to my Archives Assistant position at Humberside County Record Office.

Did your career take the path you had envisaged when you first started out in the sector?

Pretty much, yes. I started out in local authority archives services but always wanted to move to the education sector. I worked in two county record offices and one borough local studies library as the lone archivist amongst librarians. The library helped me to understand library philosophy and practice and is where I learnt about good management and mentoring. Moving to an examination board has provided many more opportunities than I envisaged. As Cambridge Assessment has grown, so I have been able to develop a team, with trainee archivists keeping us all in check. The untapped collections have proved unexpectedly diverse and my place on the Senior Management Team of the Research department gives the archives a strong voice.

What has been the highlight of your career?

Probably co-ordinating the publication of a history of the organisation for our 150th anniversary, (Examining the World, edited by Sandra Raban, in 2008). I ended up having to write one of the chapters as well as supporting the authors and there was a buzz about the archives for months as documents were uncovered for a new and sustained audience.

How much have the early years in your career influenced how you work today?

I was very aware of a hierarchy of archive work and have tried not to replicate this pattern as my career progressed – why, for example, should one person in a team do all the document production work? So, in a bid for a little more diversity and equality, we all do some document production and reading room duties. It helps avert hubris and keeps the service running when staffing is short!

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned over your career?

There are many ways to be advocates for the archives and the collections we manage – I have found success in unlikely collaborations, unpromising displays and unorthodox pieces of writing. I’ve also learnt that sometimes things just don’t work well and you have to try a different approach. Trying out new tactics can be scary, but if you are curious and enthusiastic, there are always people who are willing to help.

What is the best piece of career advice you have ever been given?

In recruitment and delegation, don’t focus too heavily on skills. If someone is enthusiastic and has the right mindset, they will acquire the necessary skills.

If you could turn back time and give your younger self career guidance, what advice would you give? Not to take setbacks too seriously – you can only do your best and sometimes external forces seem to win the day – take a longer view!

How important a role has continuing professional development played throughout your career?

For me, it’s like a clock ticking in the background, I rarely notice it but sometimes it chimes and I’m aware that I need to take action to embrace something new.

RMARA is a professional qualification that recognises achievement. How important has this been to you in your career?

I have spent most of my professional career working for managers who are not from the sector and this qualification has undoubtedly given me a stronger professional voice.

The Professional Development Programme is the next stage in developing professional standards across the sector. How important are professional standards to the archives and records management sector?

If we are to advocate effectively for archives and archive management then we have to work with, and for, people who have no background in the sector. Our continuing professional development must therefore be easy to relate to and supported by high profile and respected organisations.

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