After a year away from this blog, I've decided it's about time I return. Despite the fact that the new year begins in January, I have always felt that September is more a time of beginnings. Perhaps it's because I have spent the majority of my life in school, and have recently become a student once again.
My hiatus from writing was partly to do with a feeling that I had nothing to write about, and, in relation to that, a lack of self-confidence. Having graduated last fall with a Master's in Public History and satisfied with the completion of a book and a successful internship, I suddenly found myself unemployed and in the fruitless search for a job. Any job.
Like a few of my classmates, I wanted to stay in London. My partner was entering his second year of a four year program at Western, and I planned to pursue a degree in Library Science the following fall. So the goal was to find some kind of contract position to gain some experience before I embarked on further schooling.
Well, easier said than done. While I searched and applied for jobs I started volunteering at the Sunshine Foundation of Canada as a digital archivist. Their prospect researcher was looking to digitize the organization's donor files, and remove any unwanted paper records. As my former Archives prof Don Spanner used to say, an archivist needs to know when to throw things out. So this was great experience. In between that and job searching, I completed my application for an MLIS degree at the University of Western Ontario.
So, with the Christmas season approaching, and still no job, I signed up with a temp agency here in London. That's when things began to pick up. In a short time I was notified of a contract position at the at the Richard Ivey School of Business as a Faculty Assistant. I interviewed in January, and started work a couple of weeks later.
It wasn't in the field of Public History, but I have to say that without the Master's degree, I likely wouldn't have got the job. I had little in the way of administrative experience, but my boss was interested in my background in academia, and said how important it was to know the way a university works and what a professor might need in terms of assistance. I was hired for a contract of about four months, until the beginning of May.
The new year also brought an exciting new project in- finally!- the field of Public History. Back in December, the director of the Public History program had emailed her current and former students with an opportunity to assist in creating an exhibit for a law office in downtown London. The firm, Hassan Law Offices, had recently bought a heritage building and during the renovations had discovered artifacts and documents dating back to the 1860s. They were looking for individuals to create an exhibit in their lobby.
Of course, I jumped at the opportunity, and in January I met with Sharon Hassan and a then-current Public History student to discuss the project. It took some time to work out the details, particularly as Sharon was involved in a time-consuming renovation on the side of her work as a lawyer. But in April Joanna Dawson (whose blog you can find on this website!) and I signed a contract to complete the preservation side of the project. As the building was still a ways to completion, and technically still a construction site, the three of us decided to focus on keeping the fragile documents from further degradation.
I can honestly say this was the coolest job I've ever had. The first day, Joanna and I laid out the archival material on our long work table and just stood in awe at the amazing stuff before us. The majority of the documents were from 1867. And that was just the beginning of it: other artifacts included various memorabilia from the building's long history in the heart of London's downtown. Old signs, coins, spools of thread, clothing, and old dressmaker's dolly, the list goes on.
So how did a Public History student and a recent graduate of the program tackle this project? We began with the archival material. It was so fragile, and almost everything was covered in a layer of dust. Thanks to the archival supplier Carr McLean we had a nice fresh Hollinger Box and acid-free folders in which to place the finds. On Joanna's computer we created a simple catalogue in Microsoft Excel. As readers of this site might know already, most museums and archives use more comprehensive databases in which to catalogue their artifacts. For our purposes, however, we knew we were dealing with a different situation. Hassan Law Offices wasn't a huge corporation with a need for a large database, and it was unlikely they would be adding to their small collection. Nevertheless, we did follow proper museum practice by including the necessary fields in our catalogue, by making available a paper and digital copy, and by labeling each artifact.
I think Joanna would agree with me saying it was a fantastic and totally unique experience. While she had to leave the project at the beginning of May (for her internship at this very magazine!) I continued on and finished the cataloguing a month later. The building at 142 Dundas is still under construction, but readers can get some insight into the project by reading the London Free Press article found here: http://www.lfpress.com/news/london/2010/10/12/15663991.html
. Sharon still hopes to put on a display of the artifacts once the building has been completed.
So, what did I do then? My contract at Ivey had ended, along with my job with Hassan Law Offices. I have to admit that while I was aching for a job in the fall, after I had worked two simultaneously I was glad for the break. I knew I would be returning to Western for the library science program in the fall, and my partner and I had decided to take the summer to travel. After a year of some ups and downs we indulged ourselves in the sights and sounds of central Europe, visiting Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic. I drooled over some amazing baroque libraries, and dragged my science-major partner from one fabulous museum to another (in my defense, he does appreciate history). On my travels I did truly realize how the Public History program has been a wonderful education for me. I no longer step into a museum or heritage site like any other visitor but critically assess each one as part of a broader fabric of interpreting history to a global audience.
While it wasn't the last step in my academic career, it really was a crucial one in providing a solid foundation in the field and giving me an exposure to all facets of Public History so that I found a new direction for where I want to take my career. My interest in Archives has led me to the area of library science where I know that my Public History degree will serve me well.
So that's what I did with my year in between degrees. I hope that it hasn't discouraged those interested in the field or newly entering it, but rather shown you the broad range of things you may find yourself doing after you graduate. You might end up working in a job you thought was unrelated, but I found that I used some of the skills I learned in Public History when I was working at a business school.
And I think that, if you have a love of history, you'll always find a way to keep it in your life, whether it's in a career or volunteering or even blogging about it.