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Why No Black Archivists?

The George Padmore Institute is seeking to recruit an Assistant Archivist to work with a new project for which it has recently been granted Heritage Lottery funding.

Est. read time: 4 min

Preserving the Heritage of the African Diaspora

The George Padmore Institute (GPI) website states:

The GPI was set up in 1991 by a group of people connected with New Beacon Books, Britain’s first black publisher and bookshop. Since being established in 1966 New Beacon Books, led by its founder (the late) John La Rose, has worked closely with and supported many educational, cultural and political initiatives in the black community and wider society in Britain and abroad’. Its website lists among its aims:

….to organise and sustain an archive, library, educational resource, research and information centre, to allow the materials in its care to be available for use by interested individuals and groups, both in person at the GPI and through the use of modern storage, retrieval and communication methods.

I congratulate GPI on another successful HLF application and the Citizens of a Common Future project that it will facilitate.

WATCH: Professor John explains the importance of black archivists

The closing date for applications for the post of Assistant Archivist for the project is given as 8 September 2017, with interviews being held during the week commencing 21 September.

I hope the GPI has been able to attract a good field of applicants. In anticipation of your interviews, however, permit me to make the following points.

It is well known that tertiary institutions offering courses in archiving and librarianship do not produce too many black graduates. Indeed, despite the fact that city and borough councils have established and maintained archives for decades, those have not been used as a training resource for the expanding black population in those very councils. By the time the Black Cultural Archives (BCA) was launched in July 2014, its trustees should have been able to recruit and select from among a large multi-ethnic pool of applicants with not only the qualifications but with the experience and developed skills to make them eligible for such appointments.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that one of the reasons for the lack of qualified archivists is that education and training, pay and employment opportunities have depended to a large extent on parents’/families’ capacity to support students and graduates both during training and while in employment and their ability ‘to open doors’ for them. This raises issues of equality of access to training and employment, gender, class and what training providers are themselves doing in order to increase the number of underrepresented groups on their courses. It is incumbent upon archives, therefore, both to campaign for better pay and training opportunities for archivists and to provide as much on the job training to students of whatever ethnicity as their resources allow.
Given the origins and ‘raison detre’ of GPI and the growing awareness of the importance of heritage and of archiving that GPI and other established archives are seeking to generate within communities generally and African Diaspora settler communities in particular, the GPI and BCA, among others, should be making a special effort to attract and train eligible black folk to become archivists and archive administrators.

The Knowledge and Experience section of the GPI job advert stipulates that an essential criterion to be met is:

‘Candidates should have a professional qualification in archives administration or equivalent
Candidates should demonstrate:

· Excellent communication and inter-personal skills

· Sound knowledge of archival standards, including ISAD(G)

· Sound knowledge of data protection legislation and copyright issues

· Strong IT skills using Microsoft Office


· A basic working knowledge of CALM.
Knowledge of 20th century black history, especially from 1960s onwards.

Given what the job actually requires and the capacity of the GPI’s long serving archivist to support the training and development of the successful candidate, I struggle to see why the GPI required a professional qualification in archives administration or equivalent, thus automatically limiting the field of potential applicants. Similarly, given the principles upon which the GPI was established and what it saw/sees as its purpose, I am puzzled as to why Knowledge of 20th century black history, especially from 1960s onwards should be only a ‘desirable’ criterion.

To put it bluntly, it would be anomalous and deeply worrying if the GPI were to end up with a body of paid white staff, supported by volunteers (white and black), whose purpose is to conserve/preserve/archive records of the struggles of the African Diaspora in Britain pre- and post-World War Two, while not taking steps to actively engage with the need to ensure that that section of the labour market and of the Arts does not remain almost exclusively white and middle class.

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