This Cambridge Life

The collector of
future memories

Alice Oates by Nick Saffell

Alice Oates by Nick Saffell

Alice Oates by Nick Saffell

College Recorder Alice Oates is passionate about Pembroke, its community and capturing the latest instalment in the College’s 670-year history.

There’s always been a sense in my family of the value of personal stories and so record keeping is a family trait. One of my earliest memories of personal histories was when I was 6 years old and my Grandad came to our primary school to talk about being in the Second World War. My Dad especially loves to keep a record of everything… photo albums, home videos, newspapers, letters.

I keep a box of mementos I’ve collected throughout the year at home. Every now and then I’ll go through it and put the photos, ticket stubs and event brochures into a scrapbook. The physical artefacts of life are a wonderful way of storing moments and triggering memories.

When you’re in the moment, you don’t always know what’s important; sometimes it’s only when it’s gone or time has moved on that you realise how special that person, place or period of your life was to you. That’s why I think it’s so valuable to keep a record and remember.

The Pembroke College community is, in a way, just a bigger version of a family. So as part of my role as College Recorder, I’m trying to make the home videos and update the photo albums that will be the College's future memories – that’s how I see it.

The idea is to create a true record of Pembroke from the ground up. I’m trying to record College life so that people looking back can get a sense of what the College and people were like, what we valued, what our achievements were and how we contributed to wider society.

I call it pre-emptive archiving. When I began the role, I spent a lot of time with the College Librarians and Collections Cataloguer to make sure that I was organising material in a way that would be helpful to archivists of the future.

Exploring the old records was fascinating. I found the minutes of a College Debating Society meeting, written by Aubrey Attwater (Pembroke 1911), in which the society held a séance after a ghost sighting in Ivy Court. Apparently the ghost was of a previous Debating Society president who was angry at the way the current committee were running the society…

I realised that people have always been people. They’ve always had silly concerns like whether there are teabags in the Graduate Parlour and more serious concerns like being a student and a parent. We’re not so different today.

But what is very different is the change from paper to digital records. Whereas in the past students would have been writing letters, today they are tweeting. It’s been vital to transform these online interactions into physical documents for the archive. In practice this means printing off copies of online blogs, news stories and social media content which I compile into a book to sit alongside the posters, flyers and brochures.

I love the independence and variation of my role. On any one day I may be out taking a photo of the College gardens to upload to Instagram, interviewing a Fellow about their latest research or filming a talk from a visiting speaker. Whenever I photograph something or write a blog I’m always thinking: “what will this tell people about Pembroke in 2019?”

I keep my ear to the ground and try to record as much as possible. The approach I take is that nothing that a Pembroke person is interested in, has achieved or is working on, is insignificant to me.

There’s nothing I love more than having a conversation with someone who is really passionate about their work. I hope I can capture a little bit of the enthusiasm that we have in the student body.

There are big changes under way at Pembroke which are essential to document like ‘The Time and the Place’, the College’s campaign for the redevelopment of the Mill Lane site. But what’s equally important to record is the little things like tweets, Facebook posts and everyday social events. These show what our students are interested in and what they’re talking about.

It all part of contributing to and recording a sense of College community: shouting to the world that Pembroke is a great place, filled with amazing people – which I fully believe.

As the College Recorder I put together an exhibition every June, featuring objects, photos and videos, that showcases the last year at Pembroke. This is so much fun to create and such a great opportunity to look over the last year, remember all the wonderful things that have happened, and celebrate the people of Pembroke.

If I had to sum up the identity of Pembroke in one word I’d say ‘community’. There’s so much going on to keep the place ticking over and to make it an exceptional place to live and work.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series, which opens a window on to the people that make Cambridge University unique. Cooks, gardeners, students, archivists, professors, alumni: all have a story to share.