Archives & Libraries, Politics & Law, Republished
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Life as a parliamentary archivist

Mari Takayanagi has worked in the Parliamentary Archives in London in various roles including public services, outreach, preservation and access, since 2000. She has a particular interest in the history of women and parliament, and is currently involved in projects to mark 100 years of women and the vote in 2018, and women in the law in 2019.

How do you describe your work to people who know nothing about it?
As an archivist, I look after archives – historic records. I’ve worked in the Parliamentary Archives since 2000, part of a team looking after the historic records of the House of Commons and House of Lords, dating from 1497 to present day.

Archive work means you have to worry about records from the moment they’re created, or even before that. In parliament our Information and Records Management Service makes sure that records – both paper and digital – are managed properly in offices, and that things worthy of permanent preservation are transferred to the archives.

Once they’re in the archives, if they’re physical records our collection care team ensures they are stored in the right environment and packaged in the right packaging so they will survive as long as possible – possibly hundreds or thousands of years! If they’re digital records (emails, Word documents, spreadsheets, databases…) our digital archivists ingest them into the digital repository, where they can be properly managed for the long term.

All the archives, physical and digital, are then catalogued, meaning they are described on our online catalogue Portcullis so anyone can search and find them. We make them available to the public in our searchroom in the Houses of Parliament. We have about 1,000 research visits a year from people all over the world, researching every topic under the sun.

If you can’t visit, we can’t do your research for you but we can answer straightforward questions by email, or quote you the cost of copying the documents you want to see; we get about 5000 email enquiries a year from people. We also have a small Imaging team with an active digitisation programme to put our most popular documents online. This is a complicated and time-consuming process though, so paper records are going to be with us for a very long time to come!

To make sure people know we’re here and can find us if they need us, we do a lot of public engagement and outreach work, which I have been particularly involved with. This includes exhibitions and displays, websites (we do online displays on parliament’s Living Heritage website) and social media, leaflets and publications, working with the media, loaning items to external exhibitions, and community engagement projects. There’s lots more information on our website.

What do you like most about your current work?
Currently I am the joint project manager for Parliament’s Vote 100 Exhibition Project, which is very exciting indeed. Vote 100 is parliament’s project to celebrate the 2018 anniversaries next year. Before 1918, no women and about 40 per cent of men couldn’t vote. The Representation of the People Act 1918 gave the vote to virtually all men, and to some women over the age of 30 – about 8.4 million women.

Later the same year, the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act allowed women to stand as MPs, and women voted and stood as candidates for the first time in the general election of December 1918. As well as these centenaries, 2018 also marks 90 years of equal franchise (when women finally got the vote on the same terms as men); and 60 years since women first sat in the House of Lords.

To celebrate all this, the Vote 100 Exhibition Project is delivering a big public exhibition which will be in Westminster Hall, July–October 2018. It will tell the story of parliament, women and the vote from the 18th century to the present day, using archives and works of art from the parliamentary collections, and immersive spaces re-creating some of the historic spaces in the Palace of Westminster used by women. We’re been delivering lots of smaller displays and activities along the way over the last couple of years, and building an active social media presence including Twitter and a curator’s blog.

Can you describe what your ‘typical’ day might involve?
There are so many things going on I can hardly keep track. Typically there will be some work to do for the big 2018 Westminster Hall exhibition – we are currently in the middle of appointing the exhibition designer, which will be a big step forward in turning our concept and ideas into reality.

There will also be some work for whatever current smaller display or activity is ongoing. At the moment this is the Burning Question, marking the 100th anniversary of the Speaker’s Conference on Electoral Reform 1916–17. The Speaker’s Conference was really important – it was the parliamentary body which recommended votes for all men and some women, which was accepted by the government and led directly to the Representation of the People Act a year later. It reported on 27 January 1917, so the centenary is right now.

It’s been a lot of work but people have been really engaged – Mr Speaker visited the display to find out about it, and we’ve had coverage on Radio 4 and hopefully BBC Parliament. There’s more on the Vote 100 blog.

What’s the workload like?
It can be frantic one minute and quiet the next, but I anticipate it getting busier and busier all the time in the run up to the Vote 100 anniversary. We started work on this back in 2014 when 2018 seemed a long way away. It seems very close now…

What made you interested in archives?
I did a history degree, and wanted a career that used history; came across archives, did a traineeship, got an MA in Archives and Records Management, and became a professional archivist. After I’d been working in the Parliamentary Archives for a few years I wanted to further my historical knowledge in an area that I could use our archival material in, so I did a history PhD on Parliament and Women, c.1900-1945 – part-time while working full-time, over 7 years. It was hard work but very worthwhile, and proving invaluable now while working on Vote 100.

Why do you think the law is important? And/or why is it important to you?
For my PhD I looked at various pieces of legislation affecting women’s lives and gender equality, and one of those was the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which among other things enabled women to become barristers, solicitors, magistrates and jurors.

Although there has been a lot of work done on women and the law, including the campaign by many women such as Helena Normanton to enter the legal profession, I found that nobody had ever really looked into the parliamentary side of things – how the Act came to pass when it did, and in the form that it did.

I traced the passage of the Act from its origins as a private member’s bill, the much more radical Women’s Emancipation Bill; how the Act was drafted to kill that bill, the areas it covered (and didn’t cover) and tracked the successful and unsuccessful amendments as it went through first the House of Lords and then the House of Commons.

It’s a fascinating story and as we approach the 100th anniversary of this Act, it has led me to become involved with various projects marking 100 years of women in the law in 2019. I am a champion of the First 100 Years project, a contributor to the Women’s Legal Landmarks project, and a participant in the First Women Lawyers symposia. All these projects are already doing lots of really interesting work and I’m looking forward to it all culminating in 2019.

 

 

This article first appeared on the WordstoDeeds blog, and has been reproduced with kind permission

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