Perspective

Often, when I need to un-jumble to my all too often jumbled thoughts, when I need some guidance, I look to the wise philosophers from Spinal Tap.

Ahhhh, I knew they would give words to the confused feelings.

That is what this post is, really. I will be be talking about the perspective I have gained since I have essentially stopped writing this blog. Sometimes, it seems, that I do indeed have too much, too much fucking perspective. I will also be talking a lot about myself and my feelings and junk, something that I am not all that comfortable with and something that I am pretty sure not all that many people will be interested in reading. But that is OK. I feel as though NewArchivist needs some kind of wrap up, something more than just an abrupt ending. If I am to let it die from neglect, I at least want to write its obituary.

The Sound of Silence I have not written here in a really long time, and I have not written about employment issues in any meaningful way in even longer. There are a lot of reasons for that, including time and the fact that more and more of my interest is going in the direction of digital preservation. But there are other reasons too. When this blog started I wanted it to be a place where all sorts of folks could talk about how the field is changing, and how we new professionals are helping shape it. However, before long it started to focus on some specific employment issues facing new professionals. That is not a bad thing. In fact it is just the opposite. Even though I have moved this site to a cheaper hosting solution (the default banner and broken links are only a shadow of its once bloggy self) I remain very, very proud of the things that are written here by myself and a lot of other folks. I am proud of the discussions that took place here, and am especially proud of the small part I played to contribute to the atmosphere that helped create great new sources of dialogue like SAA’s SNAP Roundtable and the blog You Ought to be Ashamed.

I think I have pretty clearly laid out here what I believe are the problems that need to be addressed in the profession. My best articulations of these (at least as articulate as I get) is my post on archival employment and education and the summary of my ethical internship presentation from the 2011 SAA Annual Meeting. I still feel as strongly about these issues as when I wrote them. Maybe even stronger. But here is the thing: How many times can I say it? How many times can I stress the connection between the lack of diversity in our field, especially people from different economic backgrounds, and the amount of financial hurtles that bar people from the profession (expensive graduate programs, unpaid internships, low starting pay, etc.)? How many times can I say that low paying or unpaid internships and “volunteer” positions that do professional level work devalue all of our degrees and jobs? I know this may sound bitter. I do not mean it that way. Perhaps I am just not creative or energetic enough to find new ways to contribute to the discussion, but the fact is I grew tired of seemingly saying the same things in different ways over and  over.

Choose Your Echo Chamber I found the discussions here and elsewhere about these issues to be super valuable. Mostly, it was so heartening for me to learn that others feel the same way, are going through similar things, have similar fears. However, as far as actually changing anything for the better, I doubt that much moved in that area. I just don’t think many people who shared different perspectives on employment issues read this blog. At the least they certainly did not comment much. This fits into a larger context, as it is very hard to find forums where people feel comfortable voicing their views, especially when it goes against the generally held view on these forums. I used to subscribe to the Archives & Archivists listserv. It did not take me long to come to the conclusion that any time something of substance was broached on the list, the following pattern would be followed:

Person #1: Here is what I think of this nuanced issue

Person #2: Not only are you wrong, but you must have something wrong with you, character-wise, to even hold that view

***silence***

Person #2: What don’t more people have discussions on this list?

I am obviously NOT saying that everything was useless or everyone was mean, but I grew tired of hearing off the cuff, often mean spirited comments from a vocal few and happily unsubscribed. Recent activity has shown it has not improved in that area. I am active on Twitter, where I truly feel I have made some of my most important professional contacts. However, that has the same limitation as discussions on blogs. As a Twitter user I have the chance to curate the list of people I follow (I used that word just to see if you were still paying attention). I think it is human nature, or at least this human’s nature, to not follow a bunch of people that I totally disagree with. So, I think the same echo chamber happens there. People may disagree with each other on nuance or details but, at least in my small Twitter niche, when I say something about employment I am not really worried someone will tell me I am completely crazy. Mostly because those people do not follow me, nor I them. I still talk about this on Twitter and do not plan on stopping, but like this blog I doubt I am doing much beyond preaching to the choir. A very smart and engaged choir, but a choir nonetheless.

The Breakup When I first started writing and discussing these issues, I really had high hopes for the roles professional organizations could play, especially SAA. As previously mentioned, I presented on one of the topics I feel strongly about at an SAA annual meeting, and was very engaged in discussions with members and leaders. I was also involved in other areas of the organization including serving on a committee. Then, in the fall of 2012, the Great Volunteer Guide Meltdown happened. I do not want to rehash that thing here, at all. But if you are not familiar with it I will provide you with a super-biased summary. Here is the timeline: SAA posted a guide on internships written by NARA, some of us took issue with some language that we felt encouraged professional level work by non-professional staff, a discussion happened on Twitter that included folks from SAA elected leadership, most everyone lost their minds. It was like the fight in the first Anchorman, when all of a sudden Brick through a spear at that guy.

I made some mistakes in that discussion, for sure, but I also left it with the feeling that some of the elected leadership would not listen to valid points. I still think that, in fact. I had fallen head over heels for SAA, but when I saw it was holding hands with the class bully (that bully’s name: Devaluation of Professional Level Work) I got mad, told SAA I never wanted to see it again, and took my books out of its locker as I tearfully remembered when I stood outside its window and played “In Your Eyes” on my kick-ass boombox.

Now for the disclaimer, I do not think SAA is “bad” or anything like that. The professional staff does an amazing amount of work and its commitment to providing education to archivists is impressive and filling a much needed space. However, I do not feel it will lead us to the place we have to go in this area. Professional organizations are simply not well suited for that kind of thing in general. It is, at its core, a reflection of its membership, and I just do not see the membership on the same page in this area. That is not to say that it cannot provide leadership, in fact the new crop of leaders are approaching some of these problems in really constructive ways. But I think the change must ultimately come from the other direction with SAA responding to demands from a community that has already shifted to a widely held position, similar to its work to advocate on copyright (Community: “We all think current copyright laws suck!” SAA: “To the advocacy-mobile!”). Unfortunately, we are far from that right now in the area of employment.

What Are You Trying to Do Again? So, if there is anyone still actually reading this, I am sure you are thinking “OK, this guy sure has outlined all of the areas he has withdrawn from. What a old-movie-referencing jerk.” Right around the time my writing started to wane, I found myself in a position at my job where I was actually engaged in having to deal with some of these employment issues. I found it is not hard to say things like “unpaid professional level work in unethical,” but it is hard to argue that you need to let work sit, work that a volunteer could be found to complete, while you struggle to find funding for a position. Or, harder yet, funding cannot be found and that works does not get done. It is easy to say “all job postings should state the salary range,” it is hard to argue with the HR department of a large organization to make that happen. I am not saying that these issues are hard because the ethics behind them have somehow changed, what is hard is the fact that you are not arguing against some wanker on a list or Twitter, but are advocating for things to people that are affected by very real-world constraints and are doing what they believe is in the best interest of the organization. The organization that pays their bills and protects the history they love. That is hard.

Here is the thing though, by far the most valuable perspective I have gained in my short career is it is not me against the world. Every time I was part of an argument for or against something in the area of employment ethics, I was part of a team that believed this was an important thing to fight for. I was not the only one who would rather see work not get done than see it done by someone not qualified to do it, or create a position that requires too much and pays too little. The people joining me in these fights were not all newer professionals like me, not by a long shot. Many of them were people with decades of experience and who have done more to directly affect things like this than I could imagine doing. They are people who have been fighting this fight for years, quietly, and often directed at people who where their bosses. The belief that needs of people outweigh the needs of archives is not something that is limited by age, or position, or years in the field. The fight may be louder right now and involving more people, but it sure as hell ain’t new.

And that is what I have been trying to do these past few years. As my responsibilities grow I try to follow the example of my mentors to do what I can to better my little corner. I do not win every fight, but hopefully as my corner grows I will be able to affect more. While this is, by necessity, quiet work, I also want to regain my public voice on these issues as well. Not so much by saying what I think, but by sharing what I do. My wins and losses. We have seen some great examples recently of professionals sharing things like internship and student employment models and I would like to add to that discussion. Also, we really need to address the employment issues tied up with the current state of graduate education in the archives and LIS fields. Blog, tweet, or call your school and tell them that you are concerned about these issues and are watching their performance. One call or visit or blog post probably will not do much, but several calls from several people might. I have the naive view that most schools actually want to educate their students and are concerned about their employment, and I also have the cynical view that they understand that lost reputation can and will result in lost revenue. Our feedback is valued for one or both of those reasons.

So, I guess the point of all this is, engage when and where and with whom you feel comfortable. I want to stress I do not think discussion is useless. I would LOVE for me to be wrong and see SAA lead in this area. I would LOVE for productive discussions to happen on any forum. And I LOVE that so many new voices are emerging in this discussion. I particularly appreciate what Sam Winn has contributed, she even does, like research and stuff. Please keep up the discussions, and contribute in ways that you think have value. But know that the sometimes maddening quiet and the seeming lack of support in public does not mean that a large part of this community does not get it, does not understand, and is not doing anything. The lack of supporting views on lists or twitter does not mean that the vast majority of people are not appalled by the few rude ones, most are just choosing to show them the indifference they deserve.

If you feel strongly about this stuff, please keep fighting. And remember that sometimes the hottest fires do not produce smoke.

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My Unsolicited Advice

I am writing in response to Kate Theimer’s great post over at ArchivesNext, Honest tips for wannabe archivists out there, where she discusses some advice given to people thinking about becoming archivists via Twitter and email. I encourage you to go over and read it along with the great comments. I started to write a comment and it grew and grew until no comment section could contain it.  The thing I want to focus on here, is something Kate mentions early on:

[The comment: “If you love "the stuff,” you’re closer to getting a job in archives and special collections”] 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.

To be perfectly honest, when I first read this I thought that some folks were building a straw man here. I mean, who thinks archives are a place to hide from technology and people? How is this possible? Well, my initial query on Twitter got me some very eye-opening responses (like this on, and this one, and this one). Turns out, people are actually thinking that this is true. Not only that, some are even able to cling to this falsehood through grad school. I find this so appalling and shocking, that I have to say something on it (although no one asked me to, hence the “unsolicited” part).

The Balance Part of what people are saying on ArchivesNext has to do with the balance between loving the stuff in an archive and loving making that stuff accessible. To me, this is an interesting question and one I have thought on a bit (mostly while waiting for corn dogs to cook in my toaster oven). I fall on one extreme of the argument in that I think there is so much to know in the field of archives and libraries that having those skills far outweigh the advantage of “loving the stuff.” Yes, I initially entered the profession because of my love of history, especially after working at the Chicago History Museum and being around things like letters written by Lincoln. But very early into grad school I was introduced to the challenges and opportunities of digital material, the importance of public service, and the role archives play in accountability and social justice. I still personally love history. A colleague at my last position would show me awesome things like letters written by Washington and Franklin before he would scan them. Again, this is really cool to me on a personal level. But on a professional level, coolness is defined by providing access to those documents for someone who could not possibly travel to see it, or ensure that digital documents created today are just as accessible as that Washington letter hundreds of years from now.

Before I get someone telling me that you need to have deep subject knowledge for some archives positions, I completely agree. Just like the case with subject librarians, it would be hard to build archival collections in a certain subject field without any knowledge of that subject. There is one caveat to that though. I do not see many entry level positions that are geared toward building that kind of expertise. My previous positions were 18 and 24 month grant funded jobs that were focused on the technical expertise of preserving and making accessible digital collections. In positions like that, what am I going to be more focused on, building my technical skills or learning about the history of the automobile? Where is my motivation to build subject knowledge in this environment? What subjects do I even concentrate on? So, if you are one of those archivists contending that successful archivists have a lot of subject knowledge, I hope you are creating entry level permanent positions that allow for that kind knowledge development. And by the looks of the job postings over the last three years, not a lot of you are.

OK, sorry, that was a bit of a diversionary rant there. On to the whole “dealing with people” thing.

External People I used to work retail. It is hard to work retail and retain your love of the public. Believe me. I know. However, the idea that you can avoid interaction with people by being an archivist is laughable. In my previous position, I worked the reference desk until someone in upper management (non-archivist/librarian) pulled me off so I can have more time to work on a project. While I will admit there were times I was happy not having to stop working on something to do my reference shift, I have no doubt that the time on the desk made me a better archivist. This is mostly because it was my damn job to make material accessible to the public, and my time on the desk was part of that obligation. However, there are also specific areas where interacting with users really helped my work. At the 2010 SAA conference, I went to a session on MPLP and reference where Dennis Meissner said something to the effect that he requires all staff involved in creating description to work reference shifts so they can see the results of their work. I completely agree with this. Seeing users interacting with a finding aid has taught me more about description than any class, article, or standard. This is also true of virtual access to digital materials. How can you build a usable website or access system without having a deep understanding of how your users will search, use, and reuse the material? Avoiding the users of archival material would make you a pretty poor archivist, even if avoiding them were possible.

Internal People My favorite comment to Kate’s post is the one made by Mark Matienzo, where he states:

I have serious concerns about the “anti-people” attitude in the profession, because the interpersonal interactions are incredibly vital to what I do…

I could not agree with this more. The single most important factor determining the success or failure of my professional work to date is my ability to build partnerships and work with others. Yep, that sentence got italicized AND bolded. I cannot stress this enough. Unless you are the only archivist/librarian, IT person, conservator, CFO, and a bunch more, you will have to interact successfully with colleagues to get stuff done. I know us information professionals can be an awkward bunch, but we have to overcome some of our introverted ways to build partnerships, express concerns, and most importantly advocate for accessible and ethically constructed archival collections. If you don’t think you have good people skills, improve them. If you think you have people skills, improve them. The era of the lonely archivist is the dusty back room fiddling with papers that no one will see is dead. And I for one am happy to dance on that particular corpse (and just for the record, I am not one to advocate corpse dancing).

In conclusion (now do you see why I did not leave this as a comment), I can’t help but wonder about the role of graduate programs in allowing this kind of thinking to continue. Some people on Twitter think a lot of it is due to the students’ ability to delude themselves, and I am sure that is true. It is, however, up to these graduate programs to give an honest assessment of the skills necessary to get a job in this already hyper-competitive market. This is especially true of technical skills. If you are a person looking at a grad school, ask them how they will prepare you for the highly technical environment of the field. If they do not hit that question out of the ballpark, may I suggest you keep looking. If you are currently in grad school and the faculty is not addressing the technical aspects of the profession (which apparently is actually happening!), ask for your tuition back and go somewhere where they have a clue.

And, if you are becoming an archivist because you have been told it is a place to hide from people or technology, you have received some pretty bad advice.

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Thankful Archivist: 2011

So here we are, once again ready to do what has become a holiday tradition here at NewArchivist, the celebration of that which makes the cockles of my archivist heart glow warm and fuzzy (confession: I just wanted to write “cockles”).

Archival Grassroots I have written more than once on what an awesome group of archivists are on web 2.0, but man, there are a lot of awesome archivists on web 2.0 right now. A case in point: Kate Theimer suggested that archivists should band together and provide Spontaneous Scholarships for folks who needed some assistance attending the 2011 SAA conference. Well, we banded together and provided money to help 26 archivists engage in the profession, many of the donations coming from people on Facebook or Twitter. Getting an early start on next year, Alison Smith and Rebecca Goldman put together Closed Stacks, Open Shutters: An Archivist Photobook with all of the proceeds going to the scholarship fund.

Besides illustrating that archivist are willing to show some skin for a good cause, this grassroots effort also illustrates how archivists engaging each other on social media are beginning to band together to not only point out concerns with the profession, but to provide some real solutions. This is an exciting time to be involved with such a great group.

Deviled Eggs Remain Freakin' Awesome

Deviled Eggs courtesy of Flickr member Andrew Scrivani / CC-BY-NC-ND

Digital Preservation Doers The world of digital preservation is developing by leaps and bounds. There are currently countless projects focusing on the further development of policy, software, and best practice solutions to providing long-term access to important digital assets. Many of these projects are funded by large grants and are hosted at universities and government agencies. For archivists grappling with preserving digital content for the first time, there are some great opportunities to learn about these solutions. Conferences now abound with sessions dealing with digital preservation. The Library of Congress’s digital preservation collaborative NDIPP provides a lot of great resources, including its very active blog The Signal. There is also the Digital Preservation Management Workshop, which I had the pleasure of working on as part of my first professional position.

While I am thankful for all of these wonderful projects and training opportunities, I am REALLY appreciative for are the folks who do this kind of thing as part of their normal work then share either the knowledge or tools with others. One example of this is the Data Accessioner tool from Duke University Archives. Designed by archivist Seth Shaw, the program packages together several other tools for doing things like checksum and file format validation, among others. The Data Accessioner is free for download, and the source code has also been made available. We implemented it in our own workflow and are very happy with the results, even developing some of our own tools for using the XML generated from the Accessioner to get information into our institutional CMS.

A great example of someone sharing knowledge is Chris Prom from the University of Illinois who, among other things, is co-director of the Archon project and is currently a member of the technical team for ArchiveSpace. His blog Practical E-Records shares his knowledge of digital records management and archives. Even though I think of myself as being well-versed in the area of digital preservation, I consult Practical E-Records often for tool evaluations and general advice on implementation. Most importantly, Chris applies his recommendations to small shops and folks without a ton of technical knowledge or resources. In my book, the ability to outline a “rudimentary” OAIS compliant system based on a simple Windows directory structure and open-source tools is a thing of beauty.

Thanks to Seth, Chris, and the many others who are committed to helping create and share solutions for the entire archival community.

Grandma So, those of you who usually read my blog will know that I don’t usually talk about personal stuff. But this time I am going to indulge myself a bit, as I just can’t write about what I am thankful for in my life and not mention my grandma, Helen Fowler. Grandma passed away over Thanksgiving weekend at the age of 93. I learned a lot from her, including how those of us in a position to lend a helping hand should do so, whether that hand extends to family, friends, neighbors, or strangers. She also taught me the valuable lesson that a day that does not start with a nice cup of coffee, will not be much of a day.

Grandma’s love was unconditional and her support was unwavering. In thinking about her this past week, I could not help also thinking about how important the support of my family has been in my life and my profession. Grandma, my parents, brother, nephews, and especially my wife’s support was so vital in giving me the confidence and ability to go back to school and become an archivist. You and I are in a field where fame and fortune are hard to come by. I have had times (about the time student loans are payed, coincidentally) when I wonder why the hell I did not become some type of business-dude or programer, where the jobs pay better and are more stable. But, I have people to tell me that I am an archivist because I am following my passion, because I get to do something I love every day. I bet many of us have those kind of people in our lives, and I know you are as thankful for them as I am, even if some of them are no longer with us.

 

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Wanted, Free Labor: The Impact and Ethics of Unpaid Work

The following is an expanded version of a presentation I gave in Session 105, “Pay It Forward: Interns, Volunteers, and the Development of New Archivists and the Archives Profession” at the 2011 Society of American Archivists Annual Meeting (slides embedded below and on SlideShare). My initial presentation was WAY longer than my allotted time, and because of this I talk about some things in this post that are not included in the embedded presentation.

Thanks to my fellow presenters, Linda Sellars, Taffey Hall, and Laura K. Starratt. I learned a lot from your presentations. A special thanks to session chair Erin Lawrimore, who invited me to speak without having ever met me. Also, thanks to all those in the Twitterverse who helped share our session with those who could not be there.

Invariably, someone will tell a student or person thinking about entering the archival profession some version of the following: “Oh, you need to get some experience, you should volunteer at an archive!” Also, more and more graduate programs are requiring internships and practical engagement as a requirement to graduation. The benefits of gaining experience in a working archive are obvious. My first position upon graduation directly stemmed from an unpaid internship. However, have we as a profession really thought through the consequences and ethics of requiring unpaid work? How does unpaid work compound serious issues facing the profession? This presentation and blog post are my effort to discuss some these questions.

The Financial Issue: I think most readers of this blog will have intimate experience with the financial challenges faced by many of us. We as a profession have basically stated that to be a professional archivist, you must obtain a Masters degree (A*CENSUS, pg. 406). Graduate school is an expensive proposition, with many of the top programs costing upwards of $40,000 for instate tuition alone. Also, most programs have a very limited number of scholarship opportunities. This means that most of us have or will be paying for graduate school with loans, the burden of which weighs heavily right after we graduate. While in school, it can become very difficult to find relevant paid experience. Many programs require that students earn “practical” credit, and it certainly helps the resume. This leads many students to have to choose between relevant experience and positions that pay, requiring even more loans and debt which makes saving for lean times during a job search nearly impossible.

The time frame of that job search poses another challenge, as many new professionals face a prolonged job search. In her excellent presentation at the 2009 SAA conference, “Professional Sustainability: The Elephant in the Archives,” Dana Miller states that the average job search for a new graduate lasts 6-months. One of the causes of this prolonged search, Miller states, is there are currently many more job seekers than positions. This situation will probably not change anytime soon. The feeling by some that there will be a plethora of job openings when the current generation of senior management retires (what I like to call the “Great Retirement” Myth) has not proved true. With the current state of the economy encouraging people to work past retirement age and institutions not replacing exiting staff, this feeling will likely stay in the realm of the make believe.

It is a valid question to ask if unpaid positions are actually compounding the job situation. This concern was wonderfully expressed by Beth, in her comment to the Manifesto post on this blog:

“[Volunteering] can create a troubling cycle where less paid positions are available because others are doing the work for free. It creates this Catch-22. As a new archivist, you need to do volunteer work/internships to be competitive, but this work may actually limit the amount of paid positions that are offered.”

This profession seems to have a large gulf between paid and unpaid positions, with no real middle ground for paraprofessionals or others seeking experience with pay. I think Beth’s concerns speak to the fact that perhaps putting more and more duties in the unpaid category widens this gulf and makes entry level positions even more scarce.

Upon graduation, many job seekers are advised to get additional experience by volunteering while searching for that elusive professional position. While this makes sense, it also makes an assumption that people can actually afford to work for free for what could be an extended time period. I will talk more of the possible effects of this later, but it is clear that we could be losing valuable people during this time period.

The Diversity Issue: While I have outlined some of the things at may be stopping people from joining our ranks, my other concern is who those people are. Following on the heels of the findings that we are not a racially diverse  profession (A*CENSUS, pg. 482). SAA made a clear statement that diversity is a core value for which we must strive:

“The relevance of archives to society and the completeness of the documentary record hinge on the profession’s success in ensuring that its members, the holdings that they collect and manage, and the users that they serve reflect the diversity of society as a whole” (SAA Statement on Diversity).

I think most people will agree that diversity includes not only people of different racial and ethic backgrounds, but people of different economic backgrounds and experiences. However, at the same time we are giving a lot of lip service to diversity, we are also constructing roadblocks to achieving those goals. As I have already mentioned, expensive educational costs and the prolonged job search are financial roadblocks for many. In addition, we are saying as a profession that experience, much of it in the form of unpaid work, is also a requirement. My questions is: are we making the price of admission into the archival field too expensive? By trying to build a perfect mix of education and experience requirements for professional positions, are we making the candidate pool less diverse? Are we doing more harm than good here?

Other fields are facing these same challenges and questions. In a general critique of the internship system in higher education, an opinion piece from the New York Times states:

“… the internship boom gives the well-to-do a foot in the door while consigning the less well-off to dead-end temporary jobs. Colleges have turned internships into a prerequisite for the professional world but have neither ensured equal access to these opportunities, nor insisted on fair wages for honest work” (Ross Perlin, “Unpaid Interns, Complicit Colleges,” New York Times, April 2, 2011).

While this quote is probably a bit more inflammatory than I would go with, I do agree with the general point. I would really like to see more research done in this area, addressing if indeed these economic roadblocks are pushing people out of the profession, and how this effects our diversity. In my opinion, these questions are too critical to continue to ignore, as a less diverse profession hurts our central mission of understanding and preserving our history.

The Value Issue I did not have time to address this in my presentation, but I think ways that unpaid positions can reflect on the perceived value of archival work creates a third challenge. This is well illustrated by a 2010 Ethicist column. A person asks the following question about volunteering at their local library:

“Community members have responded to our town’s tight budget by volunteering at the library, so much so that the library laid off several long-term full-time employees, people who are our friends and neighbors… Should town residents consider that before volunteering?”

Randy Cohen’s answer:

“Consider it? Certainly. I’m pro-thought. But not even those unfortunate and unintended consequences you cite should automatically forestall volunteers.

Many library jobs require trained professionals, work no mere civilian can do. But for those tasks an amateur can handle, go to it. There is no shortage of work to be done by skilled municipal employees… All your community needs are the will and the funds to undertake such things. My optimistic view is that the money that library volunteers save will be applied to the infinite number of things to be done only by trained professionals or those workers who perform difficult or unpleasant jobs nobody will do without pay. And not just at the library. Ideally, volunteers are not eliminating a job but transferring it. The money saved by a volunteer who shelves books can pay a sanitation worker to help keep you and your neighbors healthy. I suspect that few of your fellow citizens are volunteering to work the garbage trucks, that demanding and essential task… There are winners and losers here. And it would be unfortunate if this upsurge of civic virtue resulted in only a tiny reduction in some people’s property taxes, an outcome that thwarts the noble motives of those volunteers: to promote civic betterment by reallocating limited resources” (Randy Cohen, “The Ethicist: Library Volunteers,” New York Times, August 27, 2010).

Hmmm, I get his point. By having volunteers do work, a municipality is free to use those resources to fund less desirable but equally important tasks. He also acknowledges that some jobs can only be done by library professionals. What I find troubling here is the seemingly strong connection between unpaid and unprofessional. Any “amateur” can shelve books, so why should a city be paying for a professional to do it when a volunteer is willing, right? This leads me to wonder if the skills that we are delegating to unpaid workers are being devalued in the process. Why are we paying to have someone create a finding aid when this place over here is having a volunteer do it? Again, volunteers play a vital role in libraries and archives, but I am damn sure the work I do requires the set of developed skills and experience of a career track professional. I bet your job is the same. We need to do a much better job of communicating that, as well as stop tolerating volunteer or internship positions that require professional level work and credentials. If not, down the road it may be our positions that are traded in for more efficient garbage service.*

What Can We Do So I have outlined a lot of problems here, most of them requiring much more thought than a couple of SAA presentations and a blog post. However, I think there are some things we can implement right away that can at least help the situation and create “ethical” internships that are helpful to both the intern and the profession.

I told the people who saw my presentation that if there was one thing I hope they took away was the idea that unpaid positions do not equal profession positions without pay. Budget cuts or other challenges are not an excuse to strip a position of its pay and slap the word “intern” on it. This does a disservice to the intern by lacking key mentorship and learning components, and does a disservice to the profession by devaluing our education and skills. Don’t do it. If you see it done, call it out.

Some additional guidance for creating quality internships:

  • Ensure work is appropriate for an internship
    • Is it archival in nature? Just because the work takes place in an archive does not mean it has skills that are transferable to professional positions
    • If it requires a lot of training, it is probably better suited for a part-time paid position and not a student
  • Internships must have educational component
    • This is not only ethical, but most minimum wage laws require it. Check your local laws to make sure you are following the  rules!
  • If possible, work with educational institutions
    • Universities must provide resources for those placing interns
  • Provide Mentorship activities
    • Resume reviews and mock interviews are very helpful for students
    • Make sure to include honest critique and guidance

See slides 10 and 11 of the imbedded presentation below for an example on how to improve a volunteer position. Sadly, the posting I used for this example is based on an all-to-real posting that was posted to the listserv. I changed some of the wording to protect the innocent (and by innocent I mean horribly guilty). We all have a role in creating internships and volunteer opportunities that are fair. Here is my take on the responsibilities of  those employers providing internships, educators giving credit for them, and students looking for them (I did not have time to include most of these in my presentation):

Employer responsibilities

  • Ensure intern/volunteers are gaining marketable experience and learning
  • Encourage feedback from interns on how to improve your internship program
  • Work with schools to find a good match and ensure you are proving a good educational experience
  • Remember, a tight budget is not an excuse for short-changing new professionals and students!

Educator responsibilities

  • Institutions need help!
    • Guidance on credit requirements
    • Help match students with opportunities
  • Offer classroom components
    • Guide students through any problems or questions
    • Can catch early signs of trouble and ensure a successful experience for both students and employers
  • Vet internships and discourage students from taking inappropriate work
    • Let employers know why you are recommending students not take their positions

Student and new professional responsibilities

  • Remember, interviews are two way streets
    • Ask what will you be learning
    • Ask what mentorship opportunities are provided?
  • Ask placement office/other students about opportunities
    • Have past internships from this employer been successful?
  • Ask yourself how will this make me more marketable?
  • Do not take inappropriate work!

Finally, more than any other profession I can think of, we are concerned with the longevity of our work. Ensuring that we have a robust workforce to continue our work is vital. In light of this, let’s commit ourselves to better understanding the costs associated with unpaid work, to provide ethical internships that provide real value, and make any unethical employment or educational practice unacceptable. Furthermore, let’s make it part of our core function as a profession to properly provide for the training and encouragement of our new professionals, and continue to pay it forward.

*Sorry, that was kind of catty.

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The Bitch Is Back

Well hello, Internet, I have missed you! I am sure you have forgotten all about little ol’ me. I am that dude that sometimes (like every 8 months or so) writes something about being a new archivist. As you may have noticed, I have been kinda blog-MIA lately. While I have been super busy, that has not been the only reason for my lack of posting. I have also been suffering from part blogger-block and part identity crisis. Well, a blogging identity crisis anyway.

You see, I just don’t feel that new anymore. Oh sure, I have only been out of grad school for a little over two years, and I know I have a lot, a ton, to learn about our complex profession. However, I have also recently found myself thinking a lot more about general archival questions than questions specific to just us new professionals. I think a lot of this is based on how rewarding I am finding my current job, and the fact that I am working on some complicated questions and treated as a colleague, not a newbie.

To be honest, this has made me feel a bit guilty about writing blog posts. Even though I mentioned earlier that I want to write about some wider issues, I was not sure what the reaction would be. “Who does this guy think he is,” I had you saying in my head. But, I had an epiphany while working on my presentation for SAA on internships. I realized that I was not viewing my presentation as one aimed at new professionals or students, but all archivists. Issues that face new archivists are issues that face the profession as a whole, and vice versa. So what is my problem?

So, I want to get back to writing on this blog. I find it so rewarding, and I miss it greatly. If something comes into my head, I am going to write about it and leave it up to you, readers, if you read it or not. That is what this is all about in the first place, right? I will also continue to write about challenges facing students and new professionals. In fact, in addition to presenting at SAA on the impacts and ethics of internships and unpaid labor, I am also part of a team working on getting your feedback on starting a SAA roundtable for new archivists. Please check our blog! And, as always, I encourage anyone and everyone to contact me if you are interested in writing a guest post.

Thank you for reading, and for sticking with me during my downtime.

*For you young’uns out there, the title of this post is in reference to this song. And, just as Sir Elton says, it is not referring to anyone in the audience, but me :)

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SAA2011 Tweetup

Last year’s inaugural SAA Tweetup was a huge success, with Zoo Bar in D.C. taken over by archivists. Yes, I know that sounds awkward, but it was a blast! Mark Matienzo (@anarchivist) and Hillel Arnold (@helrond) have generously taken over the planning of the 2011 version. Here are the details, via Mark’s post:

We’re holding this year’s Tweetup on Thursday, August 25, starting at 9 PM, at the Clark Street Ale House, which is about a mile from the conference hotel and easily walkable and accessible by public transportation. Feel free to join us after the alumni mixers – and please join us even if you don’t use Twitter.

Please RSVP at http://twtvite.com/saa11tweetup; while RSVPs are not required, they will help us and the bar plan ahead.

See you there!

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What Do You Do

I tried to get this story to fit in a tweet and could not make it in 140, so I am writing it here. My wife and I went to the local credit union to open an account. Everything went smoothly until the account manager, who was very nice, asked the following:

Bank Person: What do you do, Lance?
Me: I am an archivist.
Bank Person: A what?
Me: I am an archivist at The Henry Ford.
Bank Person: Could you spell that?
Me: A-R-C-H-I-V-I-S-T.
Bank Person: Oh, just like it sounds.
Me: Yeah.
Bank Person: So, what do you do, put small parts in cars?
Me: Yes, yes I do.

I actually did explain what I do for real, and she said that it sounded very interesting, but I think she was covering at that point. We archivists need a good PR firm…

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