Going GLAM: A Historian in a Digital Library

By James Baker

In March I went GLAM; or, to explain the acronym, I joined the galleries, libraries, archives, and museums sector, specifically the British Library, where I am now a Digital Curator—a historian among librarians in the Digital Research team.

The year has flown by. I’ve helped researchers get at our digital stuff, hosted hack days, trained librarians and postgraduates in digital research methods, given papers of various kinds, attended a Digital Humanities Summer School, helped publish clear information on open access, organised a series of panel discussions, hatched plans to release just over one million images (and counting) into the Public Domain, been awarded a year of free cloud storage and compute, written two collaborative grant applications, got on with some historical research using our digital stuff, and had innumerable conversations with interesting, creative and forward-thinking people about all things digital research. All told, it’s been a blast.

But given that I have a background in eighteenth-century satirical prints, a research interest I’m able to keep up alongside my job, how did I get here?

I became interested in the ‘digital’ as a preface to the ‘humanities’ around four years ago. I couldn’t programme, I had never used ‘data’ in my research, and I’d never worked on a digital project, but I wanted to know more. I started following a bunch of people on Twitter and I starting reading blogs about digitally driven research. In summer 2010, I was invited by Professor David Ormrod to join the City and Region project, first to scan 500 or so beautiful maps from the Rochester Bridge Trust archive, then to help wrangle the project data into shape, and later to project manage the website build. A few months after I joined this project, I took on another part-time role, this time in the Templeman Library at the University of Kent, becoming Academic Repository Coordinator. This role brought me into the world of open access, a keen interest of the digital humanities community. Between the two roles, I began embedding digital elements into my teaching: assessed blogging, communication through tweeting, some simple exercises built around digital research tools such as Google Ngram and Voyant Tools. In sum, I was the classic postdoc: combining various roles, seemingly disparate roles with some sense of cohesion but little overall plan.

The change came in July 2011 when at an interview (this time for a short-term archive cataloguer role to cover that ever troublesome gap between sessional teaching) my interviewer looked at my CV and asked me: “So, you’ve been building a portfolio career?”. Up until that point I had thought of my postdoctoral activities as driven by survival, not as career building. But she was right, I had managed to build a portfolio of roles around something approximating digital research. This revelation was a key part of what followed: a successful application for a Postdoctoral Fellowship with the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, a fellowship which gave me the time and space to develop my digital research skills and to apply them to my research. Data now forms a key part of my research and I can muck about with bits of code (though never as well as I’d like to) to get new perspectives on historical phenomena.

So what, on reflection, have I learnt from this that I can meaningfully share?

Well, to start with a negative, as everyone who comes out of the end of the tricky postdoctoral years will say, I got lucky. The right job came up at the right time, and I had happened—somehow—to put together the relevant experience to get the job; in particular, though something of a Catch-22—libraries like people to have worked in libraries previously.

More positively, I’ve discovered how enjoyable working outside of higher education can be. Yes, I miss teaching and the experience of watching students develop across a term (though not marking the work that confirms that development), but there is something terrifically liberating about looking at higher education from the outside, of performing a non-academic, or alt-ac, role that supports a variety and breadth of research, and of being an independent scholar, of taking real pleasure again from my own research. For whilst I once saw an academic career as the only thing I could do and find satisfying, I now realise it is just one of a number of things I can and find satisfying.

And so I guess sharing my somewhat accidental experience of getting into the GLAM sector is an important part of what History Lab Plus is about: empowering early-career historians to cast their gazes beyond the academy and to ascribe value to the alt-ac activities they will inevitably get involved in after their doctoral study ends.


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