Profile: Dr Robin Darwall-Smith
Robin has been Univ’s archivist since 1998 and is also the archivist of Jesus College, Oxford. He has written two books about Univ: A History of University College, Oxford, and Early Records of University College.
How do you think you changed in the time between your matriculation and graduation?
I’m going to cheat, and think about the time between my matriculation and my graduation as a D.Phil., which makes for nine years in all. I think I grew up: as a fresher I was probably rather a difficult fellow, and various corners got rubbed off me. I came to terms with aspects of my character. I was lucky too that in the term before Finals I met the person who has since become my lifetime partner. Perhaps I learned too what I was and was not capable of: it was good to experiment in that regard as a student.
How did you come to work at Univ?
Luck. In 1993 I was working at the Oxfordshire County Record Office, and the College realised that an Old Member who was a professional archivist was in town (we’d never had one in the College before). So it was agreed that I should be rented out from the County Council to Univ for one day a fortnight. Then, in 1998, the College decided to “buy me out” from the Council, and make me a direct employee for two days a week. It’s been that way ever since.
What does being an archivist at various colleges involve?
It involves a great many things! There are always enquiries to answer, both from inside College and from external researchers. I process new material as it comes into the archives, whether it’s from elsewhere within College, or from an outside donor. There’s always lots of cataloguing to do. You can see the sort of things which I’ve been cataloguing over the last quarter of a century on the website. I was much involved in discussions about the new GDPR regulations, and I’m thinking about the preservation of digital archives now. There are also “outreach” activities: I helped curate the exhibition assembled for the 40th anniversary of women last year, and I help do “Treasures of the Month” for the website. So being an archivist involves a great deal of variety. It’s interesting working for different Colleges: although the nature of my work is very similar, each College has its own little ways and traditions. So, over at Jesus College, it’s been fascinating to explore that College’s remarkable Welsh heritage.
What was the process of writing A History of University College, Oxford like?
I thoroughly enjoyed it! One doesn’t often get the chance to write the history of an institution whose origins go back almost 800 years. It was a long haul, in that it took me ten years, on top of my archival duties at Univ and Magdalen (and, in the latter stages, helping Magdalen write their own history). It also mattered to me to give people at Univ a sense of where they had come from: as a student, I knew nothing about our history. So it was a tremendous journey – sometimes, quite literally so, for I tried to visit every place in England with Univ. links. 12 years on, I’m still pleased with it. The most difficult thing, perhaps, was trying to keep the book within bounds. My history is certainly not short; but you don’t know how much ended up on the cutting-room floor.
Do you have any advice for students at Univ?
This is your chance to explore who you are. Try to have a good (but not too all-consuming!) interest outside work. Enjoy your friends: you could well be making friends for life here. Accept difference; try to find things in common with those around you, even if you don’t agree on everything.
What are your favourite books?
I have a great many! I am very fond of 19th century fiction (especially Austen, Dickens, Eliot and Trollope); I am an unashamed lover of The Lord of the Rings; but I also enjoy books on history and classical music. I’ve just been reading an excellent new biography of Michael Tippett, for example.
Describe Univ in three words.
When I was a student, I would have said: friendly; unassuming; tolerant. May it always be so!
What is your favourite part of Univ?
Either the van Linge windows in the Chapel, or the Radcliffe Quad, when the wisteria is out.
Published: 2 March 2020