Honest tips for wannabe archivists out there

This post was inspired by an exchange on Twitter last week which followed up on a tweet regarding something said at #rbms12 (that’s this year’s meeting of ACRL’s Rare Book and Manuscripts Section).  A conference attendee summarized a speaker as saying:

If you love “the stuff,” you’re closer to getting a job in archives and special collections.

This kicked off a wave of responses about how it’s more important to love people and helping people than it is to love “the stuff.” And following on from that were observations about how some people still want to become archivists because they 1) don’t want to deal with people or 2) don’t like using technology. And for some reason they see archives (and special collections) as safe havens in which they can escape from pesky people and annoying computers. So I’m here to burst your bubble if you happen to be one of those people. Here’s  my advice for you (as shared first on Twitter): 

If you love books/old stuff, collect them. If you love helping people have access to information, become a librarian/archivist.

It’s true that having an interest in (or passion for) the subject matter your organization collects will help inspire you to want to share it, but I think it’s the sharing that you really have to love, not the stuff. Or you have to love “the stuff” so much that it becomes your passion to share it with others. But just wanting to commune by yourself with the old documents isn’t really a promising foundation for becoming a a good archivist. (Although I expect many people to disagree with me in the comments.)

Here are my second two pieces of advice, as shared last week on Twitter:

You have to love using technology to help provide access to that cool old stuff.

Some of that “cool old stuff”–guess what? It’s born digital now.

I’m being a bit harsh, I know. But honestly, this idea that anyone would become an archivist with the thought it means they don’t have to deal with “technology” just gets my goat. It’s unrealistic, I think, in our current environment and will only lead to frustration (for both you and your employer). So, to any wannabe archivists reading this post, it’s great if you love the “old stuff.” Really, it is. But understand that a big part of your job–probably most of it, in many cases–will be interacting with people and using technology. So be prepared for that too, and I’d advise you to embrace those aspects of your future.

But that’s just me. When I put out the call on Twitter for other pieces of advice, people were eager to share. Here, verbatim, is the advice from the Twarchivists last week:

  • Be prepared for tedious
  • Be willing to do whatever job is needed, even if it isn’t what you planned on when you went to/graduated from grad school.
  • You won’t work with your dream collection(s) overnight. And maybe you never will.
  • Be prepared to move. Possibly very far away from where you are now. Possibly very far away from everything.
  • Be a jack of multiple trades and try to master a few…
  • Keep learning even when you’re out of grad school!
  • PROFESSIONALISM. Get comfortable w/ the professional identity/culture of archivists, and work actively to develop it.
  • You have to love learning, experimentation and failure. Or at least have made your peace with them.
  • Willingly take on new tasks in which you don’t have experience; it’s good prep for a constantly evolving profession/world.
  •  I have always seen archivist as a mixture of teacher/sharer, researcher, historian, curator, preserver * tech guru.#dreamjob
  • Be prepared to work for people who know less than you do.
  • Be prepared to learn more in your first six months of work than all of grad school.
  • Beware archivists’ lung! Use appropriate mask protection when dealing with mould damaged material.
  •  If you have your heart set on working in an archives, you may be disappointed.
  • MLS doesn’t prep you for budgets.
  •  Don’t be afraid to look at the unconventional. Not all jobs are found in more traditional places. Expand your comfort zone.
  •  Be creative and be a creator. Approach your work as a craft to be learned and honed.
  • You have to love the future as much or more than the past. Absent that, drink beer and get a tattoo.
  • With tedious work it helps to love the collections. Really you need to love at least one aspect of what you do…..Whether that’s the collections, the people you work with, the users you help, or the tools you create…preferably all of the above, of course.
  • Do not get into this field b/c you want to hide in the stacks & avoid people. Talking to people is both necessary & important.
  • Don’t be afraid of records management. It can (and should) be an archivist’s best friend.
  • You are going to be very, very cold all the time. [Updated: Tip: learn to love drinking hot water. Ladies should stash a pair of leggings/tights in their desk.]
  • Recognize that you might work with material you don’t agree with, and you need to provide a non biased description.
  • No archives does everything perfectly. Learn to prioritize, and don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
  • The hardest part is articulating archival science to stakeholders using similar-sounding words w/ totally different meanings.
  • Context is key. Always provide context.
  • Be prepared to work in an archives that’s completely unorganized!
  • Embrace working alone!
  • You don’t have to work directly with archival collections to support their preservation & use.
  • Don’t be afraid of genealogists. Realize that all users of archives have an equal right to the records and to your help.
  • There are no hard and fast rules. Do the best you can with what you have. (And the never getting rich thing.)
  • You have to be passionate about the work you’re doing and interested in (most of) the collections or you’ll be bored to death.
  •  Must be willing to succeed/fail and then TALK about that success/failure with community so that everyone is on same page.
  • You have to like talking about your collections, why they and your professional skills matter to anyone who will listen

More than one person joked “don’t,” referring to the lack of jobs out there. And one person sent me an email with some lengthier advice:

I recommend that wannabe archivists exercise the utmost caution when taking initiative as a student worker, intern, or paraprofessional. While this is often considered a “positive” attribute, they need to be aware of how their actions might be perceived by the professionals. Also, they should learn as much as they can about the procedural and relational norms of that organization.

If they are fortunate enough to have a really good mentor or supervisor, they should be very aware of anything they do or say which might be interpreted as disrespectful or undermining. Be very conscious of which channels are appropriate for sharing ideas, brainstorming, and initiating projects. Intentions are a lot less important than perceptions, and the pre-professional period is a good time to practice thinking about other people’s perceptions. Its also a good time to practice thinking about how other people might be affected by any projects you want to undertake.

Above all, remember that the professionals you meet generally have a lot of expertise which they are happy to share with you.  Never miss out on an opportunity to demonstrate to them how much you value their knowledge and willingness to share their experiences with you.


Well, you now have a lot of perspectives on what people should know before they become an archivist. I’m sure many of you will have more to add and others will take issue with some of what’s been said. So the comments are open to you. Do you think any of this advice is on target? What else should prospective archivists know before they head down this career path? 

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57 thoughts on “Honest tips for wannabe archivists out there”

  1. This isn’t harsh. It’s the truth, and it’s filled with good advice. Every budding archivist now in library school needs to read this and take it seriously.

  2. Hello,

    Really helpful read, thank you.

    So, I know this is a very silly question and it focuses on maybe one of if not the least important statements that you listed, but when you say ‘absent that, drink beer and get a tattoo’ what exactly do you mean / imply?

    I ask because I do have a few tattoos, one that is visible if I do not wear sleeves, and I have worried to myself that this career maybe is one that does not generally encourage visible tattoos. Would you say that it is generally okay or even common to have visible tattoos in the career field? I know every institution is different, but like I said just in general.

    It is something that has been in the back of the mind for a while. If there is no clear answer, that is okay. I have been looking for someone to ask this for a while and your statement reminded me. Thank you for your response in advance!

  3. I was thinking of becoming an archivist because I have high functioning autism and find it painful trying to navigate in a work place where you must be interacting with others a lot. This was on my list of things I might be able to cope with, not any longer ha ha. Oh, life.

  4. Thank you so much for this! I am currently in social work but my heart lies in historical artifacts and helping others. I am excited to explore more about archiving. I had read on a previous post recommended books about archiving, I am wondering if you have a favorite? Thanks!

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