Back to School: Archives & Adult Learning

Archives Assistant Stephanie Basford-Morris reflects on her experience of going ‘back to school’ as an adult with a distance learning MA Archives Administration course, and highlights material giving an insight into adult learning over the decades in the Richard Burton Archive collections.

Do you remember the particular joy of buying new stationary for back to school?  This childhood feeling came back to me in a rush lately while in WHSmith, happily surveying their notebook and pencil selection before starting my new ‘school’ (well University) term.  Getting the right tools for the job can be seen as an important part of the process of starting a new venture, helping with moving into that space of something new, exciting, and maybe scary as you push yourself from your comfort zone, and open new doors.  

When I saw the #ExploreYourArchive theme ‘back to school’ I wanted to write about my experience of education as an adult undertaking a distance learning Masters course during a pandemic.  It got me thinking about all those who, like me, begin a structured course of study when an adult. What does it mean for us, making that decision and commitment – maybe a fresh start, a new/better career, a change of thinking about our lives and ourselves, or simply the fortunate opportunity to study something you love.  As a serial course taker, education as an adult has meant all that and more to me.

My journey to studying a masters in Archive Administration, was a long one, having first considered it in 1988 after leaving university! Then after a few different work directions (and courses!), I volunteered as an archive assistant in 2008-2009 with the National Trust. My interest sparked again, I followed on with various volunteer roles in my annual holidays, until in 2017 I got a job as an archive assistant at the Richard Burton Archives, Swansea University. Two years later, there I was, September 2019 at the first study school in Aberystwyth! To find out more about the qualifications and routes to becoming an archivist, see ARA’s guide to Careers in Archives.

So what is it like doing a Masters, distance learning, in a pandemic? 

Confidence – As it was, I had a rocky start, and I decided to take a period of withdrawal, eventually coming back to study in October 2020.  Distance learning, without structured tutorials, or taught classes, takes a bit of getting used to, and initially I was overwhelmed.  Aside from that, my brain is older, and I was plagued with self-doubt about whether I was capable of producing anything to Masters standards.  Someone I met at study school who had made it to the final year, told me that things got easier as the assignments came back, but I couldn’t even see how I would get to submit one!  Anyway, I forced myself to write something, it was torturous, and the result pretty awful!  Thankfully the team at Aber were really supportive, and offered feedback if I submitted a short piece of my work.  This was a turning point, and confirmation that my standard was good enough was a brilliant day, I think I danced around the kitchen!  Three assignments on, I can confirm that distance learning does get easier especially as you improve study skills and your confidence grows.

Connection – Surprisingly, the pandemic has helped foster better communication methods for distance learners, who are spread around the country, and we just had the second study school on TEAMS.  There were only 5 of us, and we managed to make a great connection as a group, benefiting enormously from time to chat with peers and a tutor ‘face to face’, the relief and enjoyment was palpable.  On finishing we said we would meet again on TEAMS, just to chat to someone else going through the same worries, and pressures and assessments.  This is invaluable for motivation, and lessening feelings of isolation and disconnection, and we agreed that the pandemic and the use of platforms like TEAMS should improve the kinds of communication systems students can have in future. 

In the last year, I have learnt that for me, though it’s nice to have good stationary, the key to keeping going under pressure is connection with peers and also complete faith that this is what I want to be doing (lockdown gave me that).  In moments of doubting myself, I also look to a postcard my sister sent me which says simply ‘Actually I can.’

Working as an Archives Assistant at the Richard Burton Archives has enabled me to put some of the theory of the MA course into practice. Working on oral history summaries, supervising the Archives’ reading room and creating box lists of collections has provided me with useful experience in which to supplement my education and understanding of archives.

Adult learning in the Archives

The Richard Burton Archives holds material which gives an insight into adult learning across different backgrounds, and how things might have changed over the years. This includes –


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