What is an archivist?
20th October 2016
Catriona Cannon explains what it's like working in the archive at the Royal Opera House.
Catriona Cannon grew up in Galway, on the west coast of Ireland and is now an archivist. She looks after set designs, costumes, photographs, film, programmes, posters, and paper records at the Royal Opera House and helps them to be enjoyed by a wide range of people.
What does a typical day or week involve?
Every week is different. Today I’m going to see a donor in Birmingham to receive a donation of material from her late father’s estate, collected when he worked at the Royal Opera House in the 1940s. On other days I deal with enquiries from internal departments and members of the public relating to the three theatres that have stood on this site since 1732, as well as the different companies based here.
The items in the collection are hugely varied and are often used in live cinema streams, programmes, events and online articles. There is also a huge external demand for access to and use of items from our collections so every day new enquiries are distributed among the team.
I also identify and acquire material, manage the collections at one of our off-site stores in Surrey, catalogue new and existing collections, oversee the upgrade of our environmental management system across all stores, take part in public events, write blogs and magazine articles and contribute to social media campaigns.
What do you enjoy most and least about your work?
I love taking part in our public events programme. With such an exciting collection, I am very eager for material to be enjoyed by new and existing audiences. Over my career, my roles in archives have given me the opportunity to work overseas in a wide variety of institutions with fascinating archives, so you can really carve your own path and learn a great deal about many exciting and varied areas.
Archival work can be tedious at times, and there are times when large departmental transfers or donations contain material that does not belong in an archive but still needs to be carefully weeded and assessed.
What makes you suited to your job?
I’m enthusiastic about other people discovering the treasure trove of material in our collections, excited about the endless possibilities for academic and artistic research, and open to new and innovative ways of increasing access to and visibility of collections.
I enjoy having the opportunity to work with people of all ages and backgrounds. I like working as part of a team and learning from my immediate colleagues, as well as from those across the organisation.
Attention to detail, good handling skills, care and patience are important, as is a knowledge of copyright law as we regularly deal with image requests.
How did you get into your current line of work?
I studied music and Italian at university, followed by an MA in Italian language and translation studies which led me to conduct a lot of research in archives in Ireland and Italy.
I then decided to volunteer in the university archive to see if I enjoyed the archive from a professional point of view, which I did, so I went on to spend a year working with collections at a traditional music archive, before studying for a second MA in archives and records management.
Afterwards, I worked on a political and folklore collection based in Kerry, Ireland. I then did a traineeship at the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, where I learned all about other aspects of archives such as records management, accountability and transparency. Having finished that I got a job as an assistant archivist at the Royal Opera House, which was a perfect marriage of my interests in music, Italian and archives, and was later promoted to my current role as archivist.
What advice would you give someone starting out?
Work experience is essential and a requirement for most MAs in archives and records management. It is important to have a real passion for heritage and a care and respect for the documents and items in collections. Good handling skills and patience are key, as is an enthusiasm for the work and an ability to transmit that enthusiasm to all age groups.
What are your future career plans?
I would like to gain more experience of managing staff in a professional capacity as an archivist. I hugely enjoy the outreach aspect of my job and I would like to have the opportunity to increase my knowledge in this area, particularly in the digital realm. I have family in Ireland and Italy and the cost of living here may take me out of London in the future but I hope to make the most of my time working in such an artistically vibrant area of cultural heritage.
What do you like doing outside of work?
I’m a musician and play Irish harp, accordion and piano. I enjoy travelling, theatre, kayaking, cycling, cinema and live music.
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