My first job was at the Cambridge Group for the History of Population. The Group’s founder, Peter Laslett (still then an active presence), had the vision that everyone who worked there, including IT support and admin staff, would be doing some research into historical demography. I suspect this was an ideal that was never attained in practice, but there was nevertheless an expectation that if you worked there you would develop an understanding of what the Group’s research was about. I attended seminars and we had (frequently) learned discussions when we assembled over morning coffee and afternoon tea.
Something of this expectation was there when I worked at Manchester University’s computing centre, supporting the use of contemporary Census data. I was encouraged to do a bit of Census research of my own, on the way student populations affected migration statistics, in conjunction with the Census Microdata Unit, and I gave a talk at the Unit’s research seminar about my previous work at the Cambridge Group.
But in the years since then, the ethos of Universities and their IT departments has got more corporate. Every minute of time has to be accounted for and assigned to a project, and one’s value is only evaluated against a set number of attributes on a job description. ‘Academics’ are regarded almost as an alien species by support staff and if I was assigned to do IT development work on an academic project, I was assumed to take no interest in its subject matter. There was a brief flashback to former times just before I left Bristol University, when I worked on what is now the Historical Photographs of China site. I was able to contribute a blog post on a topic relating to some of the photographs, on which I happened to have some expertise.
What I saw at the Cambridge Group was a continuity between academic researchers and academic-related support staff, which has been broken. When I started out, you could find around Cambridge University people in academic-related posts who were not (or no longer) officially doing research, but whose wide interests, high level of general knowledge and ability to make interdisciplinary connexions made them valuable to those who were. They had been in contact with academics enough to have much of their mindset and were productive because they loved what they did. Their names might not have appeared on the spines of academic monographs, but they often featured in the acknowledgements. And yet I fear such people are an endangered species in Universities now. I expect a reader might protest ‘Oh I know of so-and-so who is just like that’, and I’d ask when they were appointed; most likely in the days when the continuity still existed. Its loss can only be to the detriment of University research.