Have you ever wondered what an archivist does? Here’s a hint: their work is essential for the study of history. Without archivists, many historical documents, records, and objects would be lost or damaged beyond repair.
Today, we’re exploring what it’s like to be an archivist with our guest Dr. Alexa Frost. Alexa works at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, England. This grand, 18th-century home is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and renowned for its architectural style. It was also the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill. Now over 300 years old, the palace boasts impressive archives. You can just imagine the kind of history Dr. Frost gets to see every day! She has kindly answered all our questions about her work at the historic country home.
Left: Dr. Alexa Frost. Right: View of Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill and a World Heritage Site with over 300 years of history. Image credit: Wikimedia by Dreilly95, CC BY-SA 4.0.
What is an archivist? What kind of work do you do day-to-day?
An archivist is responsible for preserving important documents, pictures, maps, artifacts, films, and computer records. These are often, but not always, very old and valuable either because they are worth a lot of money or have historic value, for example being unique.
Archivists make sure that these items are properly stored in materials which won’t cause damage so that they will last for the longest time possible.
I have to prepare documents for long term preservation and rehouse them in boxes which are fire retardant, water resistant and made from acid free materials to prevent chemical reactions with paper which would damage them. For example, I remove staples which get rusty over time and stain the papers and replace them with brass paperclips. The rubber in elastic bands perishes as it gets old and also stains paper, so these have to be replaced with cotton tape or placed together in special cardboard folders.
A look inside the Blenheim Palace Archives. Image courtesy of Alexa Frost, Blenheim Palace Archives.
I check items for mold, dirt, and insects and send them to a specialist to clean them if needed. I spend the majority of my time cataloging material (making lists of all the items in the collection) so we know what we have and where it is. I also make notes about the condition of items including whether they need special care and if they are too fragile for people to look at.
I make digital copies of material so that they can be more widely accessed. These images are used when items are too fragile for people to view, or for exhibitions, or for teaching resources. I give specialist talks about our collections to members of the public and work with radio and television companies to share information about our archives.
I work closely with our Education Officer to support children’s workshops and when we are preparing exhibitions, I work as part of a team to include as much historical material as we can to make the visits exciting and interesting. I also help the restoration team with information about when and how building and alterations were made on Blenheim Palace.
How does someone become an archivist? Do you need special training?
To become an Archivist, you need special training, usually a postgraduate qualification. Many people have a degree in history first, though there are now Apprenticeship courses available. You also need to have experience working in Archives which many people obtain from volunteering in local community archives or museums.
What kind of items are stored in the Blenheim Palace’s archives?
We have three rooms full of books and boxes in the Archives at Blenheim Palace. The material largely consists of:
- Private and personal papers of the Spencer-Churchill family at Blenheim including letters, journals, drawings, photographs, military records, and accounts books.
- Daily transactions and records reflecting the administrative organization of the Estate, including Estate Ledgers, Cash Books, correspondence, invoices, and receipts.
- Manor Court Rolls for legal proceedings in parts of Oxfordshire from 1608-1950.
- Land and property documents, maps and plans of the Estates in Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Surrey, and Wiltshire.
- Records of those working and living on the Estates in the form of Wage Books, Cottage Rentals, and correspondence, etc.
Some of our items are 600 years old and others are letters from the Royal Family dating back as far as King William III.
Image courtesy of Alexa Frost, Blenheim Palace Archives.
What would you say is the coolest part of your job?
The most exciting part of my job is being able to share exciting discoveries with other people so that we learn more about the past–sometimes these feature in news stories, radio, and television programs.
Have you ever found something unusual or surprising in the archives?
One of the most exciting items I found in the Archives was a signed accounts book of Queen Anne which is the only copy in the country.
It documents [Queen Anne's] expenditure in 1708-1711 and we learn that she often spent nearly £50 on chocolate, which would equate to over £9,000 today!
We have this book in the Archives at Blenheim because Sarah Churchill, 1st Duchess of Marlborough was Keeper of the Privy Purse to Anne, which meant she supervised all the Queen’s expenditure; even including Anne’s supply of pocket-money, play-money, and charity-money.
Queen Anne, studio of John Closterman,
oil on canvas, circa 1702, based on a work of circa 1702, 49 1/4 in. x 40 1/2 in.
(1251 mm x 1029 mm), Purchased, 1866, Primary Collection, NPG 215.
Image credit: The National Portrait Gallery, London. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Do you receive new items or donations? If so, where do these items typically come from?
Sometimes we purchase special items, such as those relating to the Spencer-Churchill family but most of our new items are donations from members of the public. We also receive new items in the Archives which have been ‘found’ in the Palace.
Many archivists have to organize some pretty old and delicate items. How do you handle documents and artifacts to make sure they don’t get damaged?
Generally, we don’t use cotton gloves when we are touching material because they make your hands less dexterous which means that we can’t handle the items as easily, and they are more at risk of being dropped or torn when turning over the pages. We do use gloves when holding material which can easily damage, such as photographs or papers that are very dirty.
All staff and researchers have to make sure that their hands are clean and dry and are not wearing hand cream. We also ask people not to lick their fingers when they are turning pages!
We don’t have pens around archival material: we use pencils. We remove watches and jewelry so that they don’t get caught on the papers. There is no food or drink allowed in the Archives.
Do you have a favorite item or collection in the archives?
My favorite document in the Archives is a ‘Commonplace Book’ by Sarah Churchill, 1st Duchess of Marlborough. This is a journal where she has written all her thoughts about life such as friendship, family, love, justice, and other major themes. It is my favorite because in it we learn a lot about what is important to Sarah and also because she mentions lots of ancient philosophers, which I studied for my PhD. It was quite rare when Sarah Churchill was alive for women to be so well-read as they were not educated in the same way boys and girls are today.
Sarah Churchill (née Jenyns (Jennings)), Duchess of Marlborough after Sir Godfrey Kneller,
Bt oil on canvas, circa 1702, based on a work of circa 1702, 41 1/2 in. x 35 in.
(1054 mm x 889 mm) overall, Purchased, 1948, Primary Collection, NPG 3634.
Image Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London, CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.
Can kids visit the archives? If not, are there other ways they can learn about the palace’s history, either in person or online?
Blenheim Archives are closed to members of the public and researchers have to have special permission to visit. However, we use archival material for our exhibitions and plan to include more original material and digital copies of items for our education workshops. You can arrange school trips to Blenheim through our Education Officer where you can have workshops with our staff or have information which your teacher can talk you through as you wander around the Palace and Grounds. (Information and Resources for Teachers | Blenheim Palace). If you are visiting with your family, we have seasonal activities and trails to enjoy while you are at Blenheim.
Do you have any advice to give kids who might be interested in becoming an archivist someday?
Keep being excited about history! When you visit museums and exhibitions you will often see archival material on display for short periods of time – ask the curators for more information, they would love to explain more about the items. The National Archives in Kew have lots of events for children, many online where you can learn more about the subject and get the opportunity to work with original material. We are hoping to run something similar in the future at Blenheim.
Start creating your own Archives by collecting family photographs, keeping diaries, and making memory boxes containing things which show parts of your daily life, such as tickets for days out, school books, and letters.
Just make sure that if you are putting them in the loft, they are in sturdy plastic boxes as they can get damaged in cardboard ones by insects and mice!
Did you enjoy this interview? Check out our kids magazine for more interviews showcasing different careers. Young historians can learn all about being an archaeologist, an Olympic athlete, a postal worker, or an astronaut!