Keeping up with the Archivists at the Richard Burton Archives, Swansea University

Due to the current COVID19 pandemic, the Richard Burton Archives temporarily closed its doors to the public on 19th March, and since then all staff have been working from home. The last month has been a bit of a blur of frantic messages to IT, getting to grips with remote working, and an increase in snacking. On campus there’s 7 flights of stairs to climb to the tea-room, at home there’s 7 steps to the biscuit tin.

But what can an archivist do without access to archives? Turns out- quite a lot! Here’s an insight into our new working day:

Daily Zoom Team Meeting
Generally the only real structure we have in the day. During the first week it seemed like half of us had audio but no video, and the other half had video but no audio. We all seem to have cracked it now. There’re always those awkward silences when no-one says a word, followed by a moment where everyone suddenly talks at once, but it’s become a really important part of the day. We share any updates, talk about anything new we’re working on, and ask each other how we are. I think we’d all feel a lot more isolated without it.

Answering Enquiries Remotely

Although we haven’t been as busy as usual via email or telephone, we’re glad people are contacting us with their enquiries. We don’t have access to the physical records, but we can access our online catalogues so are hopefully still proving helpful. We have assisted researchers by looking into where other online resources might be found, and in doing so, have been developing our own knowledge of sources too.

Work on Catalogue Data

In 2017 we imported a mass batch of data from an old cataloguing system (MODES) into the one we currently use (CALM). It requires a lot of editing so has just sat in draft form since then. It’s not a job any of us could dedicate substantial time to during our normal working day, but it would open up clearer descriptions to hundreds of records.

Repetitive and slightly tedious, it’s actually the perfect job for working from home, especially when you’re regularly interrupted by a 1 year old trying to climb on a table or chew on a laptop wire!

Centenary Work

Cataloguing the University records has had to go on hold, but enquiries about the collection are increasing during the centenary year. Project Archivist Emily Hewitt is busier than ever. Although a planned physical exhibition ‘Swansea University: Making Waves since 1920’ at Swansea’s Waterfront museum has been postponed for now, work to prepare for it continues. Emily has been interviewed by Dr Sam Blaxland for a series of podcasts on the University’s history and has also been coming up with a month of centenary related tweets for #Archives30, and has had to think creatively to make great use of previously scanned material. Have a look through our Twitter timeline @SwanUniArchives to find out more.

Students dancing in the Refectory, College House, c.1960s. Photo: John Maltby  Ltd, courtesy of Richard Burton Archives

Summarising Oral History

Our two Archive Assistants, Sarah Thompson and Stephanie Basford-Morris, have been creating interview summaries for the Voices of Swansea University, 1920-2020 oral history project. This forms part of the archival support we have been providing to Dr Sam Blaxland for the project, which recorded the memories and experiences of individuals who have studied and/or worked at Swansea University in the past.

Building Checks

Our Head of Service, Sian Williams, has been conducting regular site checks to ensure the building and collections remain safe.


Working from home has also given us the chance to spend some time catching up on emails, to look at applications for potential projects and funding, and to think about opportunities for the future. We have seen some brilliant examples from our colleagues in the archives’ world of ways to support digital learning and teaching at this time, and recognise that we’d love to be doing more.

But what it’s also brought home to us is that there is nothing quite like welcoming groups down to the Archives in person and hearing the occasional ‘wow’ when we show them the strong room shelving. We’re missing seeing students suddenly spark into conversation over an original document, and welcoming researchers from interesting places across the world.

We wish you all the best, and hope you’re staying safe and well. Looking forward to seeing you all back in the Archives soon!

p.s. if anyone wants to see what we’re missing, you can check out a 360 tour of one of our strong rooms here

Richard Burton Archives, Swansea University

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