Archivist is very proud to help preserve history of Irish distilling

Carol Quinn, archivist with Irish Distillers, reflects on the vital role of public and corporate archivists. She talks to Colette Sheridan
Archivist is very proud to help preserve history of Irish distilling

Carol Quinn, archivist with Irish Distillers.

One of only about 200 archivists in Ireland, Carol Quinn is head of archives at Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard. 

Based in the Distillers Cottage in Midleton (which is actually a large Georgian villa that originally had 26 rooms in it), half of the building is now a corporate archive. 

It includes the records created by the firms of John Jameson & Sons, John Power & Sons and the Cork Distilleries Company. And, after they merged in 1966, the records of Irish Distillers itself, dating back to the eighteenth century, are also housed in the archive.

Carol has always been interested in history. She has a degree in history and archaeology from UCC. She went on to study for a higher diploma in archival studies at UCD. Her previous jobs were working for the Cork Archives in the Christchurch building, which is now part of the Triskel. (That archive has since moved to Blackpool). Carol also worked as the UCC archivist for sixteen years.

“I worked in the Boole Library. It was brilliant. There are so many opportunities when you’re working in the university sector. There is so much going on and so many different research interests. I worked in particular on a lot of records relating to the Cork author, Frank O’Connor, which I really enjoyed. I got to meet some of his family. That’s always wonderful because a written record can only tell you so much. It’s lovely to connect with someone who can remember a person.” 

 In her current role, where she has been working for the last ten years, Carol is very aware of the importance of talking to former colleagues of Irish Distillers. 

“We have an oral history programme in which I interview retired colleagues about their memories and what it was actually like to work in one of our distilleries. Sometimes, the memories mightn’t necessarily make it into the official record.” 

 Carol’s job involves managing the physical housing and maintenance of the archives. The individual items, once cleaned and assessed, are transferred to one of five purpose-built strong rooms in the repository. Carol alerts her colleagues to the information in the records and how it may be relevant to the current business workings of the company. 

To this end, she works with various brand teams, Irish Distillers’ legal department and the brand homes. She adds to the brand histories, as she uncovers new material. Irish Distillers has two brand homes; Midleton and Bow Street in Dublin.

The archive itself isn’t open to the public. It’s an internal resource. Carol supplies a lot of the information that the public receives in the visitors’ centre where they learn about the Jameson Experience.

“There’s material in our archive that is of wider public interest such as genealogical interest. It’s about allowing access to that. Last year, we partnered with and digitised over 100 years of Jameson wage books. They’re available online via the Ancestry portal.” 

 Carol says that the company is very proud of its history. 

“They wanted to know how best to preserve this legacy, all the fantastic achievements down through the generations that brought the company to where it is now. So in 2012, they established the first Irish whiskey archive.” 

 While a lot of Irish Distillers’ history “has survived by chance, we didn’t want to take any more chances. The company has invested heavily in the physical infrastructure for the storage and maintenance of the records”. 

Extended family of John Power & Son visiting  Jameson Distillery Midleton, the Irish Whiskey Archive. Irish Distillers archivist Carol Quinn welcomed members of the O'Reilly family, the children of the late Frank O'Reilly, and their families to the Master Distiller's Cottage.
Extended family of John Power & Son visiting  Jameson Distillery Midleton, the Irish Whiskey Archive. Irish Distillers archivist Carol Quinn welcomed members of the O'Reilly family, the children of the late Frank O'Reilly, and their families to the Master Distiller's Cottage.

 The graduate programme with Irish Distillers has been very popular for about 20 years. 

“Graduates come in and work both in the marketing and production departments. It’s great to see all the new entrants interested in distillation. They generally work in our micro-distillery on the Midleton and learn a very hands-on process before moving up to the main plant which is much more automated. The graduates want a career within the drinks industry. Sometimes they come from food science backgrounds or chemical engineering.” 

 As well as an interest in history, what drew Carol to archival work was a wish to help others by supplying the information they need. 

“That’s at the core of what an archivist does. You’re preserving archives but you’re also helping people.” 

 Carol says that people underestimate how hard it actually is to read handwriting.

 “A researcher comes into me and says they have half an hour to look up something. I’m thinking to myself they won’t do it in half an hour. Our eyes are now so used to looking at typescript. People in the past had as bad handwriting as we do today. I’m surrounded by this all the time. I’m used to it.” 

 Most archivists in this country work in the public sector; in local authorities and universities. 

“There is only a small group working in the corporate sector. I would be one of the very few. But it’s an area that is growing. More and more companies are seeing the benefit of understanding their own history and building upon that. It is your history that distinguishes you from other companies who are perhaps doing a similar product. If you can talk about your history in an authoritative or factual way, it’s a great way to reach your consumer base.” 

 Carol, who is a mentor on the Archives and Records Association Registration Scheme, is passionate about her work. She says that up-skilling and networking are important for archivists. 

“Where I worked throughout my career, it has always been in quite small staff numbers. Very often, you’re the solo archivist. So networking is of huge importance as well as joining an association like the Archives and Records Association. You can meet up with colleagues and stay up-to-date, especially with changes in technology. In the last few years, there has been such an amount of information that’s available online. People don’t realise the amount of work that goes into preparing material for scanning and digitisation.” 

 Asked what advice she’d give to people interested in archival work, Carol says it’s important to get practical experience, even if it’s on a voluntary basis. In Ireland, the route to becoming an archivist is through the MA in archival studies at UCD. There are also online courses from the University of Liverpool and the University of Dundee.

Carol says there are a lot of opportunities out there for archivists.

 “Certainly in the corporate sector, I can see an awful lot of opportunity. In the UK, most large companies have an archivist. Whether it’s Marks & Spencer, Jaguar or Sainsburys, you name it, they have archivists. It’s something that Irish companies are waking up to...You don’t need to have 200 years of history to have an historical archive. If a company was established last year, their foundation base is important. Just monitoring anniversaries is important. I find that a fantastic source of information for a company is the internal staff newsletter.” 

 Like in most professions, technology is constantly changing for archivists. 

“You have to be at least aware of what the changes are. It doesn’t mean you have to be on top of every new type of software. You just have to be aware of the possibilities it offers. The pace of change is daunting. That’s why I like to keep in touch with bodies such as the Digital Repository of Ireland which offers training and support in this area,” says Carol.

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