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My job is actually impossible!  Or, to put it another way, it’s open-ended.

In some jobs I’ve had, I could realistically expect to achieve everything: factory work, retail, clerical jobs.  You have an intray to get through, or a certain set of customers coming in, or Mr Kipling cakes coming down the production line: you deal with them.   I’ve also worked in professional roles that were achievable in this way:  managing book cataloguing, enquiry work.

Not so in Special Collections.  There is no way I can ever have all our Special Collections perfectly preserved, catalogued in detail, and marketed at the intensity that our star collections get.  I’m supposed to have proper documentation and understand the copyright situation for all materials, and to have detailed knowledge of each collection and related materials elsewhere.  Not possible!  The constraints of funding, time, space and staff are just too great.

This isn’t a question of readers being unrealistic in their expectations or those who manage me expecting too much.  It’s the nature of the job.  The fact that the University was collecting these materials for over 40 years but has only had specialist staff for 10 years hasn’t helped of course.  But we are not unique: ask any archivist about their backlog (if they will admit to it) …  I once calculated (using Logjam if you are interested) that it would take 600 person years to catalogue all our archives to item level!

This used to trouble me, until I realised that it really was impossible to achieve everything.  I now find it liberating.  If I could just about achieve these things by working silly hours, it would be tempting to try.  But I can’t.   So instead, I try to get maximum value from the staff, time and resources I have: setting priorities, taking opportunities, trying new things, and being selective in accepting new material.

About those archives … many of our archives may never be catalogued in detail, but that doesn’t mean we don’t take care of them.  They are properly stored, mapped, described at collection level, we know why they are lower priority, and if there was a sudden surge in interest, we would make them a higher priority in our cataloguing plans.  In any case, item level description is not always helpful: I often find that file level is easier for people to understand.