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. Had to stop to comment within the first few paragraphs… “become an archivist with the thought it means they don’t have to deal with ‘technology’”

    People are still thinking that?! Lawd, my archives professor (Megan Sniffin-Marinoff) was warning people off back in the 20th century, when technology was nowhere near as ubiquitous as it is now, telling us that archives was not a safe haven from computers. I am appalled that this viewpoint still persists.

    Still, it is amusing to think about the last day of an internship at Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site when we were trying to get everything cleaned up in the database (dBase III+!), but there was a thunderstorm and we were ordered to shut the computer down for fear of power surges in that historic building. Frustrating to have to leave the handwritten notes instead.

    Looking forward to reading the rest of the post.

  2. Another thing I add is if you are going to become an archivist, you must not be afraid to ask questions. I am not just talking about in a reference interview either. This is the first thing I tell interns. Ask questions! Ask me them multiple times. Better to ask then do the thing wrong and have to do it again. You have to learn how to ask questions so you can do your job when you are on your own. Even after you are an intern, ask! None of us know all the answers.

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

    I think this advice is overstated. Yes, merely liking old stuff is not a proper qualification for an archivist. But then again, lots of jobs deal with information access. So if you do love “books/old stuff,” there are certainly avenues within the profession that allow you to follow your passion.

  4. Excellent post, Kate, one of your best! Really well done and needed saying. And a thumbs up to the members of the Twitter crowd who provided so much good advice so effectively. Would only add one thing which relates to not expecting perfection and goes directly to the human angle. It relates to living with ambiguity, something which can occur in various ways on multiple levels. You may have to deal with people as researchers or donors or lawyers or managers who are supposed to (but do not, cannot or will not always) support you. Moreover, you may work in an enviro with conflicting goals and objectives and an imbalance in pressures applied and intensity gaps among stakeholders.

    On top of that, that enviro may be challenging for outsiders to discuss or advocate for solutions in effectively. All sorts of elements to which they cannot or will not admit may hinder them when you seek discussion and solutions. That can be frustrating! So not only will you need to have an ear out for people and what they articulate and say directly, you’ll need to be attuned to unarticulated needs and indirect messages. And figure out workarounds or ways to draw them out, if necessary. And to accept that sometimes they will hide from you. That what the situation needs is beyond most peoples’ capacity to give. Archives and records management (especially) sometimes draw people who like control. Be prepared for not always having it!

    Look for the good people in your immediate enviro and out on the Web; align yourself with them. Be prepared for the fact that they won’t always be the majority. Only if you’re lucky will they be! Be nimble, be open, embrace learning not just in what you read but what you experience and see. Be ready to adjust and re-calibrate as needed. Giving up control can be liberating at times!

    Understanding people really is the number one requirement; using technology effectively a close number two.

  5. Ah, sorry. I got to thinking too much about the advice that I forgot about all your qualifications. But is it true that the number of dedicated tech services type non-public interaction jobs are decreasing?

  6. Not to clog up the comments, but another piece of advice: don’t be too cynical right off the bat. Like with any profession, your romantic ideals are eventually going to be dashed against the cliffs of reality, but let your own experiences be the guide for how that happens. There’s a lot of dark humor and snark in the archives world, but try not to get caught up in it prematurely.

  7. Great post, Kate! I totally agree about the technology part, but wanted to make a comment about something else. I was pleased to see the shout-out to Records Management in your list. I define my work in RM in the context of ensuring that the Archives gets records that are properly managed prior to transfer, in a suitable format, can be preserved, and ultimately, made available. Records Management is as integral to Archives as processing or preservation.

  8. I was greatly moved by your post that I felt compelled to respond. I think your post is extremely beneficial to those who are thinking of becoming archivist. It confirmed that I, as an archivist, was not an anomaly because I liked working with people. I thank my experience with Teaching American History in South Carolina for cultivating my people skills in an archival sense. I worked with teachers who had little to no experience conducing research in archives, special collections etc. It was my job to help them.

    I still encounter this anti-people attitude among students, new archivists, and even professional archivists who have been in the field for years. Our job is not to just handle collection but also serve as an intemediary for people and collections. We can not forsake one for the other because in the end we don’t win. My boss from TAHSC made a really good point a few years ago, you could have beautifully processed collections but if there is no one to look at them or use them, then what’s the point? Providing access, I believe, is one of the end goals for all archivists.

    I think in graduate programs there should be a class for providing reference. There may be programs that do this but mine certainly didn’t. Not only that but graduate assistantships should include a component of providing reference services. I’m thinking along the lines of responding to requests sent by phone, email, fax, AND in person. I can see how some students have cultivated this worldview that archivists and archives as a profession is anti-people. If you only work on processing collections and nothing else, you’re only getting half of the picture.

  9. I’m always amazed at the archivists that don’t like their stuff. I couldn’t get up and function without a real interest in the materials I work with. To really give the best service to the people, those people need to believe that you love your stuff even more than they love your stuff. I will say that dead people are often much more interesting than the living. I will also admit to not really enjoying technology too much. I don’t get geeked out over pencils and acid-free folders. They are just tools. Often the proper tool, but nothing more profound than that.

  10. My number one piece of advice is to work with the most boring collection or repository you can possibly stand as an intern.

    I have serious concerns about the “anti-people” attitude in the profession, because the interpersonal interactions are incredibly vital to what I do. I don’t schlep around boxes – I do seriously collaboration-intensive work with parties within and outside my institution. These concerns in particular come from my experience teaching within an online archival education program. I’ve got a very strong opinion that new archivists (or new members of any profession) need a level of socialization that isn’t just possible through online teaching, no matter how interactive. I understand there are very pragmatic reasons for matriculating in an online program, and I’m all for better access to archival education. My concern is that the majority of online programs don’t do much to foster this socialization.

  11. Great post! I could not agree more. Without people archives are just storage areas for a bunch of old stuff. Archivists need to understand that their job is not hoarder-in-chief. I can’t stand when some archivists get possessive about their collections and don’t want to share them with anyone else. That’s not your job.

    One thing I would add to your list of things for potential new professionals to expect is to be prepared to spend more time not making money than doing so. If someone had bothered to tell me before I went to grad school (sorry, telling me after I already enrolled does not count) that most archives professionals work multiple part time and/or temporary positions just to make ends meet I probably would not have bothered enrolling. If you are the type of person who does not like never knowing from where or when their next paycheck will come then this isn’t the career for you. I simply cannot recommend this field to anyone who has to support themselves or has people that depend on them financially. If you love records so much, there are tons of opportunities to volunteer. If you need a paycheck, look elsewhere.

  12. I guess I’ll speak for the “going into archives/special collections to avoid people and tech” group, since I was one of them once upon a time. In my own defense, when I was in graduate school everyone used Pine; MOOs and MUDs, while no longer cutting edge, were still alive and kicking. Needless to say, things have moved on since then.

    But my plan when I left graduate school was to have a job that included as little interaction with people and technology as possible, which showed not only my blinding ignorance about the needs of the profession but also a lack of understanding of my own interests. As luck would have it my first job out of school offered exactly what I thought I wanted…and I was bored and miserable fairly quickly.

    I now have a job that I love which involves working with people and (to a lesser extent) technology, and while I think you’re totally right to give most of the advice that you have about both, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if someone had given me a list like this in graduate school. Maybe I wouldn’t have become an archivist because I thought I knew what I wanted and a lot of the things that you list were not what I wanted then? While I doubt that would have had any impact on the profession, it would have had a huge impact on my life because, as I said, I love what I do.

    So, at the risk of projecting my own situation on countless people I don’t know – to all of those perspective archivists who are now like I was then: you may think you’re sparing yourself risk, conflict, and failure by avoiding people and technology. You aren’t; instead all you’re doing is limiting your options. Embrace the stuff that challenges you – you might like it.

  13. @Rebecca: You write that “I simply cannot recommend this field to anyone who has to support themselves or has people that depend on them financially. If you love records so much, there are tons of opportunities to volunteer. If you need a paycheck, look elsewhere.” True in some areas — in enough areas that you cautionary words make some sense. But still, not all areas. When I worked at the National Archvies and Records Administration (NARA), the journeyman level for archivist was civil service grade GS-11. In the early or mid-1990s, it was raised to GS-12. With federal pay frozen, and without taking locality pay into account, GS-12 presently is in the range of $60,274. to $78,355. per year. It is possible to support oneself on such a salary, which is what one would make at NARA before becoming a more highly paid manager or, of course, an executive. Fed jobs are hard to come by, often require security clearances and depend on a number of often very complex and different job skills. But there are a small number of decently paying archivist and archives specialist jobs out there. Very few openings right now, unfortunately. That’s unlikely to change. But there are some people making a decent salary doing archival work.

  14. “Loving the stuff” can pose a danger to being a good archivist. Becoming too personally invested in a collection can lead losing time in analyzing documents rather than arranging them. Working with a boring collection helps you find out how passionate you are about solving the technical and day-to-day problems of the field regardless of the content.

  15. Another thing to keep in mind for those who are looking to working in archives as a career change: consider what skills and experience you can bring to the table from your ‘prior life’. My first career in software development and databases have opened doors for me in combination with my MLS/archives coursework. If my goal had been to get away from tech – I suspect I would have had a much longer road to a job in archives.

    +1 to the folks who mentioned records management. Especially with born digital material — if you don’t think about it soon enough, those records will never make it into the archives.

    Full disclosure: I like tech and I like helping people find stuff.

  16. @MK My comment was not about salaries, it was about the temporary and often part time nature of the work. I don’t know anyone who decided to become an archivist with the intention of getting rich! Some people are not comfortable with the lack of job security in having to work on a temporary, grant-funded position. Unfortunately, the majority of job openings in the field today are temporary, grant-funded positions. Therefore, if your lifestyle requires the security of a full time, permanent job, then I can’t recommend you seek employment as an archivist. This is not unique to the archival profession, but it still a point one should consider when weighing career options.

  17. I “love” the stuff of archives–the photos, the correspondence, the old marketing materials. But, I *love* sharing them even more. Seeing how my customers/patrons/co-workers/users/students react to the items and use them in their research or promotional or personal lives is just the best. I got attracted to this business, but stayed because of the people.

  18. Good post and good comments.

    I think to be successful as an archivist, you need to have both a passion for the materials and a passion for helping provide access to and use of the materials. It’s not either-or, but both-and. Archivists need to understand the materials to be able to adequately collect, describe, and provide access to the materials. So I’ll propose a corollary to “passion for the materials.” Archivists should be intellectually curious about a wide range of subjects. I’ve worked in very different archives (photography, regional history, culture, government); I found the records fascinating in each case, even though the subjects were not always of interest when I started.

    Many of the tips are good advice regardless of what kind of job you have. Every job I’ve had included aspects that were onerous and tedious. Being willing to do what’s needed to be done rather than just what I wanted to do helped me progress. I think the trick – again, for any job – is to recognize when the balance between the desirable and undesirable aspects of a particular job is so unfavorable that it’s time to move on.

    Regarding salary, my personal experience has been that one gets significant raises by changing jobs (employers). If you keep the same job, merit raises won’t likely mean much in the way of progression. This also means that as you get promoted, you’ll work less directly with records as you move towards administration. To echo the above, as you become an administrator, you may not work directly with the records, but the problems can be just as interesting. (Also, I absolutely agree that geographic flexibility makes it much easier to find a good job, hence the ability to get promotions.)

    Finally, I concur with Mark Matienzo that inter-personal skills are very important. I can appreciate why he thinks it’s hard to teach these skills in an online environment. At the same time, I received virtually no training in these skills in two graduate programs. I did learn a lot through a workshop that had nothing to do with archives. I believe grad programs should emphasize the importance of these skills. It may be better for grad programs to concentrate on what students can’t easily get elsewhere (archival studies) and leave things that can be acquired elsewhere to other channels.

  19. As an addendum to my comment, I’ve noticed that a lot of folks on Twitter think that internships are the solution to the idea of going into archives to avoid people/tech. But how many internships involve reference or technology? If all your internship requires of you is data entry or arrangement/description, is it not logical that you’d think that was all that working in an archive is? If you’re sequestered away from other staff (as often happens with interns) so that you don’t see what archivists are doing as part of their daily job, then how are you supposed to know what their jobs are like?

    Internships may help, but not all internships help equally.

  20. @Ashley: In my last job, I worked with a lot of interns, who mostly did processing and reference. I tried to get them interested in the digital stuff I was doing…didn’t work.

  21. @Rebecca – Do you have a theory as to why? And at least you made the effort; I suspect too often we get so busy with our own jobs that we forget that internships are supposed to be educational experiences, that we can use them to show interns all the things that an archivist can be rather than focusing on just completing a task.

  22. Great post, great discussion. I was at RBMS and reacted to the sentiment much the way that Kate does, not because I think loving the stuff isn’t important but because it’s just not enough. One trend we talk about a lot in research libraries (where I’ve always worked) generally is that there’s a shift going on from emphasizing collections to emphasizing services. This largely reflects the reality of mass digitization of print collections, online access to journals, and effective interlibrary loan networks that mean collections are no longer necessarily localized. Working with rare and unique materials in archives and special collections mitigates this trend some but there now exists a much greater emphasis on how you can provide access to your holdings and how they are used for research, learning, and teaching. This is even more important in a time of ever more scarce resources, where arguing what you have (i.e. collections) is much less effective than demonstrating the impact you can make on students, teachers, researchers, and society-at-large with your materials. Combining the two is golden–RPM has this right above.

    I also want to give a counterpoint to the email Kate quotes extensively above. I very much look for our student workers to engage with the work critically and to share new perspectives on how we can improve. In fact, it’s this quality that the best professionals I know have, and they’ve always had it. While often there are good reasons for doing things the way we’ve always done them, just as often we can’t see new ideas because we’ve become accustomed to the old routines. As the field continues to evolve, we desperately need new eyes and ideas to help us. A good supervisor of students and new professionals should encourage dialogue, critical engagement, and suggestions for improvement from all quarters. Students and new professionals should speak up and engage respectfully, knowing that, as in all work situations, you’ll win some and you’ll lose some, but it takes many perspectives and types to forge an effective team.

  23. This post, and subsequent comments, reinforce my belief that one of the challenges of entering this profession is that no two repositories are the same. You may have courses and complete internships, but for nearly every rule there is an exception or an equally valid alternate approach. Vary the types of organizations you intern with and you’ll have a better sense of the huge range of duties that a position in the archives may include.

    I find the stuff/people debate interesting as well. I see archivists (and curators) as ambassadors of the stuff. The whole point of preserving it is to demonstrate the relevance of the past to the present. I know that I immediately have something in common with anyone who wants to use our collections- they care about our stuff, they view it as relevant to their lives. It’s a starting point for a positive interaction. Through use, the collection will receive more attention which can lead to more funding, more processing, more available online and on and on.

    One other myth that I feel should have been shattered by now is this idea that online programs lack socialization. I can’t speak for them all, but the program I participated in (10+ years ago) LEEP at UIUC, was phenomenal. Students were required to begin with a two week on campus session. For every subsequent class, one on campus day per semester was required. Group work was the norm, in fact I can’t think of a class that didn’t require a group project. The online synchronous class sessions even had a “whisper” feature where one student could send comments to another without the whole class viewing it. Could you “whisper” across the room to your friend in an in person class? Isn’t the biggest “social network” online? Opportunities for socialization are everywhere, and you are right that aspiring archivists definitely need to take advantage of them. But please don’t assume they aren’t available in an online environment.

  24. @ Rebecca and Ashley
    I’m actually interning with two repositories right now and both are digital archives. This is a great plus in the tech side of this argument. I’m very comfortable with metadata and quickly reading/looking over a record and then creating a precise description. I’m also getting use to the idea that not all collections/records are exciting and I do get bored with some materials, but I continue to catalog.
    Now both of these internships are remote which is a negative in the social category. However, I’ll soon be reaching out to and interacting with local repositories on behalf of one of the archives. Which is a new experience for me. I’ve conversed with donors before when their material is in the middle of being processed, but I’ve never reached out to potential partners/donors.

    I don’t know why interns wouldn’t jump at the chance of working with digital materials and services (it seems like common sense to get a wide diversity of experiences). Also thank you for reminding me to quiz my supervisors about their daily routine. Asking such questions should be required of all interns.

  25. This is a great list! We also jokingly (sort of) tell our interns they should always make sure their tetanus shots are up to date.

    Contrary to the discussions here and on Twitter, I’ve actually come across interns who seem to be afraid of paper. I think they assume that if they become electronic records archivists (or “digital curators”), they don’t have to deal with paper. In reality, they need to understand how the electronic records relate to the digital records, not to mention handling paper records during the digitization process.

    To varying degrees, I work with interns who are processing paper records as well as those who are doing digital preservation. Each semester I meet with each group to discuss the appraisal, acquisitions, and accessioning processes in detail so that they understand what happens to the records before and after they work on them. I recently tried bringing the interns from both divisions into the same room, comparing and contrasting the processes for paper and electronic records and encouraging them to talk to each other about their work. I felt that the meeting was a success and the interns gained a much broader perspective on archival work. I plan on trying this again this summer.

  26. Just to add a detail: It’s Kevin Graffagnino from the Clements Library in MI being quoted about loving the stuff. He said he has had people apply who are extremely qualified but in interviews seem indifferent, so in interviews be sure to make it clear that you want the job and love the stuff! (He tells it better…).

  27. @Ashley and @Sarah: These were interns who didn’t like computers, so of course they didn’t want to work on digital projects.

    In my archives program, the professors either teach traditional topics (A&D, appraisal) or tech-centered topics (dig pres, electronic records) and no one does both. So maybe students come out thinking they’ll focus on paper collections or digital collections, not realizing they’ll probably have to deal with both.

  28. Archives (and by extension, new archivists) direly need to learn self-promotion. Archivists like to complain about how poorly understood the profession is, but they’re also not beating their own drum. Instead of focusing on the usual archival spheres – historians, researchers, other archivists – it’d be wonderful to do what libraries have done and make the world understand why we matter. Bringing in people that like people will go a long way to making this happen.

  29. I agree with just about everything that Richard Pearce Moses says above–intellectual curiosity is one of the most important requirements for this kind of job. I also think the “people” thing is about maturity. If I had my absolute pick of jobs, my stuff/people ratio would probably be different than it is now, and perhaps my use of technology as well. But I have to balance my own skills and interests with the needs of the job and the organization, and it’s not really so horrible in the end.

  30. @Rebecca & @Sarah – Don’t like computers? How is it possible to work in any area of Archives and not interact with a computer at some point? At a certain level, whether you like them or not is irrelevant, isn’t it?

    @Tom Hyry – Thank you for saying that. While I understand the frustration expressed in the email and I understand there are situations where the wrong words at the wrong time can undo years worth of work, people supervising interns or new archivists should create an environment where they feel comfortable asking questions and expressing opinions. It’s not that everything that they say will be golden or that you have to change everything to fit the ideas or desires of your newer staff; but, as you said, they can see things that you’ve stopped seeing because you’ve been in the organization or the profession for a while. And sometimes they can find solutions to issues that have flummoxed you because they have a fresh perspective. You hired these people for a reason, after all – let them help you.

  31. I really think the blog was great! It has given me some very useful insight into becoming an archivist. I am currently working on my masters in history and then proceeding onto my archival certification. I work at the library on campus and absolutely love it. I interact with everyone. I get to help them find things as well as help them do research. I believe in myself and the profession. I can’t wait to reallly get my feet wet!!

  32. Great post, Kate – and great discussion all around. So many points I would like to respond to, but will pick a few.
    I will start with a caveat. I teach in a mostly online program – and while I am getting better at it, it is far more difficult and time consuming than teaching face-to-face. Part of that lies in getting the students engaged, which again is far more difficult and time-consuming that accomplishing the same task in an oncampus classroom. Of course, students sit silently in the back of the room there as well. Online programs are not going away, and it is better to have a good online program than none at all. People have lives and are not always able to move wherever a bricks and mortar program might be. I do think the programs can do a better job of engaging the online students, but student chapters of professional associations (ALA, SAA, SLA) tend to operate as if everyone is on campus. Webcasting a talk does not accomplish the same socialization and networking as something interactive. The problem lies both in the sponsoring programs and the students who tend to bury themselves in their coursework (a necessity to a certain extent) and not take pursue networking opportunities until they are ready to graduate. And by networking opportunities I mean connecting to the college, to the professors, and to their classmates. I have a lot harder time writing recommendations for someone I have never met, unless we have engaged in a lot of “conversation” along the way. My hope is that SNAP will be a bridge to a more effective approach.
    On to another facet of this discussion. I still see students who don’t realize that archival jobs require technology skills. The profession has changed dramatically, and we don’t always do a good job of getting this across – which is one of the reasons this discussion is so important. But, if we get to the point where we don’t value the stuff, we might as well close up shop. The stuff is great, be it analog, digitized or born digital. My fear is that we get so tied up in worshiping the tools that we forget why these tools were designed, which is to provide access to the stuff.
    I’ll stop for now….

  33. Just to follow up on Susan’s last point, and clarify, I suppose. I don’t think we have to worry about people becoming archivists just because they love technology or working with people. I think it’s safe to assume that anyone who pursues this career will do so because of their interest in “the stuff” (analog, digitized, or born digital). (And goodness knows, so sane person will go into it for the money!) So for me the issue is to make sure that people considering a career in archives understand what the job is really about. In almost all cases, it’s not a solitary document-focused job anymore. You have to work with donors, with students, interns, administrators, and other people in your organization, as well as with researchers. You have to constantly think about outreach, advocacy, and how to improve your services. And you have to use technology to do all of the above, as well as to preserve materials that are born digital. I don’t want people to enter an archival program (or God forbid, graduate from one) thinking that they will be working by themselves in a room full of old papers every day.

    And if you have two candidates for a job, one of whom talks about how much she loves working closely with the materials herself and another who talks about how much she loves helping researchers get answers to their questions, which one is going to get the job? I’m putting my money on candidate #2.

  34. Excellent post! I started out on an archival career thirty years ago, and am now on the cusp of retiring from an executive position in public service, so my comments are the result of experience on “both sides” of the search room desk. Over the years, I’ve come to view the archivist’s role as “midwife.” Some may see that as derogatory, but it’s not. The archivist’s role is primarily to educate, advise, encourage, and assist those who are giving birth to the “babies.” True, many midwives have their own “babies,” but the delight that comes from discovering the stories and patterns of the past that lie within the archival record (regardless of the medium) is what motivates a good archivist, as well as a good archival researcher. I ultimately left an archival career because there were few positions that offered opportunities to do the research and writing necessary to support good archival description, and too many duties that centered on the technical aspects. Arrangement and access is important, but so is putting the records in their proper context. Although I’ve been on the “other side” of the desk for quite some time, my archival education and sensibilities remain intact, and have been offended more times than delighted by the lack of appreciation in both the public and private sectors for archival records preservation. Of course archivists must “put people” first! After all, that’s who left the record in the first place, and if we don’t engage professionally with people, there will be little left that warrants preservation.

  35. The only thing I would add to this is: Be aware that as an archivist, copyright law will be a big part of your job. You will be responsible for keeping up with an ever-changing legal landscape regarding the reuse of information.

    I still can’t believe how much time I spend on copyright issues.

  36. Aaaahh, Kate–you inspire such fantastic conversation. 🙂 About the tweets that you transcribed in your message: when I see lists like this describing the work of archivists I immediately wonder whether there’s ANY profession about which you couldn’t say a lot of this same “real world” stuff. The jobs of lawyers, doctors, police, teachers [etc.] all have tedious, dull aspects, all include duties that aren’t taught in grad school, and on and on. There aren’t enough good jobs open to employ everybody who graduates from a professional or academic program in many (most?) fields, not just ours. A big difficulty that we face, as all recognize, is that our salaries are at the lower end for professions that are based on master’s level grad degrees.

    I too am amazed when I read about students who go into a grad program in archives not realizing how basic technology is to what we do for a living. My question is: what’s the collective sense of the extent to which archival grad programs are filling the need for tech/digital skills? I’ve heard stories from students who WANT to learn this stuff but find that the curriculum in their program doesn’t include enough courses on the technical side.

  37. Oh I love this. This whole conversation. I work with many extremely talented people, but some, no matter how knowledgeable and experienced they are when working with materials, absolutely dislike working with people (whether patrons or coworkers). It’s always seemed so odd to me that someone can have such love for objects and history and yet resist sharing that love with others. That, for me, is the whole point of our profession.

    For my part, I kind of gradually fell into archival work. I think things might have turned out differently if I had set out with the specific goal of finding work in an archive. Once I started grad school, even though I had always been interested in rare books, special collections, and archives, I was very realistic and accepted that chances were slim that I would ever end up working in that area. Instead of forcing my future into a box, I decided to keep my options open and see what professional experience I gained- I would let that dictate where my career went. I *almost* went the path of science/engineering research librarian, but a lucky call at the last minute one summer got me an internship in the archives of one of the national libraries. After that I found practica and volunteer opportunities in Special Collections and local museums, and eventually an archives internship that rolled over into a full-time position. It’s still early in my career, so I don’t know that I’ll stay in archives long-term, but I’m grateful I started with an openness to whatever experiences I could find.

  38. Wow – this post, and the reactions to it, really remind me of a comment made by my undergraduate faculty advisor. It was the late 1970s and she had taken time during her ambitious academic career to have her first child. She sounded so surprised when I stopped by to visit her and she said, “everyone tells you how hard it will be, and how it will take you away from your work. But no one ever told me how wonderful it would be!” So – yes, there are many things to be wary of and prepared for when entering the archives field. But there’s also the joy in introducing new users to the excitement of discovering friends from the past, delighting in old expressions, finding the perfect document for a report, etc. And, there is the pride in knowing that your reference work facilitated their finding all of that!

    On a slightly less positive note, SAA’s reference workshop has always been a really hard sell, for a variety of reasons. Lots of people may think that public service is what archives is all about – but they’re not willing to participate in formal education on that topic. Why is that?

  39. I am one of those archivists who are introverts, and yes I was attracted to the field partly because I liked the idea of hiding behind the shelves, working behind the scenes, something that is apparently frowned upon by folks here. I work with a limited number of researchers a day and able to give them my full attention and glad to do so, but I feel my role in archiving is to focus on the object(s) in front of me, to preserve it, to describe it, to both make it findable and to find it. This requires a personality – at least in my line of work – that can work alone for long periods of time. That isn’t to say you don’t need to have a certain level of people skills, especially when working with a researchers and when fundraising, but I disagree that the loner archivist is a myth, or that it should be. There is room for a lot of different personality types in the field.

  40. Working in archives has really forced me to get my people skills together. I am very introverted and very quiet but without users I wouldn’t really be aware of what collections we have (I am who has to get them) and I definitely take a “That looks interesting” approach to items now.

    I am not sure I agree about liking your items; I’ve worked in a range of archives and I haven’t always (ever) be knowledgeable about the specialist stuff because I am there (at an Archives assistant level) to learn to be an archivist, first anf foremost. If I wanted too specialise I would be an academic. I think respect for the items is more important, an acknowledgement that whilst you might find it very, very dull it might be an important piece of evidence for a researcher.

  41. Bit late to the party on this one, but I so strongly agree with Kate’s thoughts on this. I’ve had a blog post brewing myself for some time, and reading this has prompted me to put it out there. My perspective is from someone who works with technology – managing an online service – and I do quite a bit of teaching and training. I do think many students are still shy of technology and I worry that they are looking for a profession that is in effect ‘old-fashioned’, when in actual fact, our profession is (or should be!) anything but. I’ve written a bit about this on the Hub blog: http://archiveshub.ac.uk/blog/2012/07/the-modern-archivist-working-with-people-and-technology/

  42. Nice post and comments, I couldn’t agree more with your statement: “You have to love using technology to help provide access to that cool old stuff.” I see the future of archives as being digital discovery. We are moving quickly into an era of mass digitization and researchers will have millions of digital files to work with. People who can program, write apps, and write and analyze search algorithms are going to be essential and in high demand. Originals will be retained and traditional archival skills necessary, but those jobs will be fewer (which is saying something).

  43. Pingback: The Lazy Librarian

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