MEET: Dr Ria van der Merwe, Assistant Archivist at UP

Posted on July 26, 2021

“Being able to provide relevant information that will make a difference” is just one of the reasons Dr Ria van der Merwe, Assistant Archivist at UP, loves what she does. She chats about her professional duties and personal interests.

Where did you work prior to joining UP?

UP has always been part of my life. My father was head of the African Languages Department, and as little girls, my sister and I referred to the University as “daddy’s house”. Music and languages were the main subjects that I studied at UP, but two extra subjects, History and Information Science, became the foundation of my work in the UP Archives.

What attracted you to UP?

I also studied at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam and realised that the care that students receive at UP and the close interaction between students and lecturers is unique. To be involved with students and to help them go out into the world with self-confidence is the key to UP’s success.

What does your day-to-day role entail?

Every day brings something new: from sorting out old documents and photographs, providing information, helping the Executive with decision-making to standing on the back of a truck moving large quantities of documents, teaching, receiving alumni and visitors on campus, designing and setting up exhibitions.

Why is the UP Archives important and how does the community benefit from them?

The UP Archives (UPA) is the memory bank of the University. Records of all activities at UP are kept in the archives, ranging from Council and Senate minutes of meetings, staff records and University publications to photographs and UP-related objects. These records are made accessible by the UPA staff through the compilation of inventories, uploading of finding aids on the University’s electronic database system and digitising key documents and photographs. The UPA plays an important part in keeping the University compliant with national legislation on access to information and the protection of private information. It also contributes to teaching and research, enabling students to do research on primary information sources, as well as assisting both local and international researchers.

What would you like to improve in your section/department and why?

The UPA deals with large quantities of records that need to be stored correctly to ensure their long-term preservation. Currently, our collections are kept in various storage areas, scattered over two campuses, which hampers our work. Ideally, we would like to consolidate our collections in a leak-free storage area, which will ensure that we serve the University community in a timeous fashion.

What do you enjoy most about your job and why?

Being able to provide relevant information that will make a difference. Earlier this year, we provided someone from the Netherlands with information on her grandmother, a UP alumna, who died in a Japanese concentration camp in 1944. A few years back, the UPA could supply the University with vital information in an international court case. 

What is your least favourite part of the job?

Mopping up after water leaks and flooding in the archives’ storage areas.

What do you do in your free time?

I play the violin and love hiking.

What is your advice to colleagues with regard to the pitfalls encountered in the workplace?

The often-used saying that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link is very true.  As part of the University, you will not succeed by making yourself stronger, but by helping those who you might perceive as the weaker link.

Quick quiz:

Favourite sport: Swimming and watching cricket.

Favourite food: Do I have to choose?

Favourite movies: Crossing Delancey, The Secret of Santa Vittoria

Favourite actors: Gregory Peck, Juliette Binoche

Favourite musicians: Josef Suk, Depeche Mode

All-time hero: My grandfather. Despite having had a very hard life, he never used it as an excuse to treat others with disrespect.

- Author Jimmy Masombuka

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