Academy Job Shadow Days Report

Marieke Polhout at IISH

Marieke Polhout, data manager at DANS (Data Archiving and Networked Services, the Netherlands Institute for Permanent Access to Digital Research Resources) shadowed Esther Nijland, a catalographer/archivist at the International Institute of Social History (IISH). We call Marieke the afternoon after her visit.

Marieke visits Esther

What did you expect beforehand?

A blank page. I knew that the IISH had a physical collection with repositories, whereas at DANS the research data are all digital. I used to work in physical archives myself, so I was curious. And sure enough, when I entered the repository, there was that old familiar archives smell –the scent of old paper and cardboard boxes. Delicious.

Had you met before?

No, but we hit it off immediately. IISH was very hospitable. The screens in the reception area welcomed all the job shadowers that day by name, so I felt right at home. I spoke to many of Esther’s colleagues about their work and my own. And it was fun to discover that Esther and I actually do the same work, only in very different subject areas. As it happens, we’re both pregnant too, so right away we had something to talk about. When we entered the Meertens Institute archives later that day – and I didn’t even know that they were located at IISH – we spotted a book of baby names. We said to each other, ‘if we can’t find inspiration elsewhere, we can always look through this book’.

What have you learned about Esther’s work?

We compared our working methods, how we do certain things. We both deal with metadata, with descriptions, with privacy issues, and so on. So there was plenty for us to discuss. We discovered that we’re both extremely meticulous and that we both like to give archive items detailed descriptions so that they’re easily traceable, but that we sometimes struggle to balance efficiency and result. It was funny that we both experience it the same way.

What differences did you notice?

The biggest difference is that IISH receives visitors who come to inspect the archive items. At DANS, almost all our contact with clients is by e-mail or phone. That’s very different. It’s noticeable in the IISH cafeteria, where visitors also have lunch. We usually lunch at NWO, which also serves staff members from DANS, NWO, the Rathenau Institute and so on. That makes for a very different atmosphere.

Has your visit given you any new ideas?

Not directly, but I found myself enjoying walking around in a physical archive again. It felt like I was getting back to my ‘roots’. I spotted some letters by Karl Marx in a display case. It made me stop and think: Wow! I’m only thirty centimetres away from history! It’s possible that some day, I’ll want to work at an institute with a physical collection again.

Did you enjoy yourself?

Absolutely. It was really instructive. I’d like to see a repeat of the Job Shadow Days. My compliments to whoever came up with the idea!

A bit of DANS at IISG

The DANS Data Prize, awarded to Kees Mandemakers in 2010 for the Historical Sample of the Netherlands.