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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18 Comments

Filed under By-Lance

18 responses to “My Unsolicited Advice

  1. Eira Tansey (@eiratansey)

    A bit of a side note, but I work in an archive where all of us take a rotation at the reference desk. I’m bewildered that this is ever presented as a novel idea. My primary job duties are in the arrangement and description end of things, but my daily 1-2 hours with the public give me insight as to how researchers use things. It can be very easy to go into our archivist bubble and not understand why researchers don’t see finding aids the same way we do. Working directly with researchers several hours a week helps in developing the reality check needed to ensure all aspects of our work are ultimately for the public good.

    • Lance

      Yep, I like your characterization of the “archivist bubble” and agree that time directly with researchers can act as a reality check. At last year’s SAA there was a presentation on research done on finding aid use. One of the things that they found was that people don’t read the bio/hist. Part of me was like “no kidding, I never saw a patron read those.” Not dissing the research at all here, just pointing out how insightful actual interaction can be. We actually used these observations, together with that research, and decided when we were reformatting legacy finding aids we would not focus on the bio/hist, allowing us to get more usable container lists produced with limited resources.

  2. Amy

    At my current place of employment the reference department is completely separate from the processing archivists. We do not share shifts or do each other’s work except on very rare occasions when we processors are called upon for “reference backup.” Because of this I very rarely work directly with the public anymore.

    I am seeing a lot of issues with this approach. Personally, I have become more reclusive than I ever was in other positions. Not just with my desire to work directly with patrons but in my interactions with co-workers. It’s a disturbing trend.

    Professionally, there is a huge gap in knowledge between the reference staff and processing archivists. They don’t always know every available collection or what has been processed and we don’t get that understanding of how our finding aids are being used/whether they are even useful.

    I certainly hope this is the exception to the norm. I would like to figure out a way to create a more cohesive team here, but it is a daunting prospect.

    • Lance

      Wow, I could see how that gap could be very challenging. I would love to know the reasoning behind this sharp separation. Do you think the other processors share your desire to have more interaction? Also, I can see how isolation can beget isolation. I would think that starts having a negative effect on moral and general productivity. I hope things get better! Either way I would encourage you to get involved (if you are not already) with things like Twitter, blogs, or local/national professional organizations. This would not make up for the less than ideal work situation, but might help with the lack of interaction among professionals? Apparently I cannot stop giving unsolicited advice 🙂

    • amc

      This is how it is where I work too. The reference staff is completely separate from the people doing processing, digitization, etc. To make matters worse, we don’t even have full staff meetings, so no one knows what anyone else is doing. This lack of communication is a problem and leads to unncessary confusion and frustration. Unfortunately, the organizational structure is not likely to change.

    • S

      I have worked at a couple of places like this. At both places – for both cross-training and more mundane scheduling reasons – administrators tried to set up a reference rotation. I, as a processing archivist, was excited about this opportunity and chance for diversity in my job. Therefore, I was surprised to hear most non-reference archivists complain vociferously about it. My own humble opinion was that people didn’t like feeling incompetent on the reference desk. Yes, there is no way we could ever be as good as the full-time reference people, but these folks were usually somewhere in the building if a difficult question came up, and what a great opportunity to get free training from these extremely talented reference archivists.

      People would also complain about the fact that the reference duties made them fall behind in their other projects. This is definitely true, but I think workers need to look at the big picture of the organization. Supervisors also need to make sure that they extend project timelines when people start getting assigned additional duties. But I also think we sometimes place too much importance on our own specific work rather than looking at the big picture of the organization. I mean, this stuff has often been sitting unprocessed for years – what’s another week or two?

      So. . . perhaps more larger archives don’t do this sort of reference rotation because the supervisors just don’t feel like dealing with push-back from staff. And many archives do have staff that maybe aren’t the best faces to show the public.

  3. Cassie Schmitt

    So eloquently said Lance! I held back on commenting on Kate’s post as well, but I would echo all your comments (and Mark’s!). One of the things I’ve included in job talks at the end of my presentation is: “…that archivists must put our users first as I’ve said throughout this
    talk. I know many people are attracted to the field because of the “stuff”, actually
    working with the documents. While this is still true for many archivists, I think the
    more exciting moment comes when we help people find the material that meets their
    information need.” I don’t want to work for an institution that doesn’t agree with this idea.

    Thanks for posting.

    • Lance

      Thanks for the comment Cassie! I am so glad to hear that others are talking about this, and I totally agree with you on not wanting to work for an institution that that does not derive its mission from helping people find the information they need. It seems crazy to me that there are places out there that still want to preserve but not provide access.

  4. JoAnna

    As a recent MLS grad, I can attest to the fact that many students either actively avoid or are very ambivalent about developing outreach, advocacy, or presentation skills. I am absolutely confounded by this, since so many library and archives programs/projects depend on grant funding and virtually every organization has some sort of governing/administrative body that determines its funding, whether that be a single manager or a board of trustees. Where do they think the support from their jobs comes from? If you cannot build and maintain relations with such entities and are not able to effectively and consistently demonstrate your value/work, they are not likely to continue paying your salary. As someone who now works in a corporate archive, I cannot emphasize enough that these skills are absolutely vital.

    Honestly, I think that many MLS students get away with being delusional because MLS programs let them-they are happy as long as they get the tuition money. Most MLS students can get away with not engaging in classes or activities that are rigorous enough to develop these skills, although I doubt these individuals generally have luck holding down student archival jobs, let alone landing professional positions.

    • Lance

      You bring up a great point with the grant funding. If you read an application, most of these grants are all about access. Those who do not encourage it through the things you mention will not be able to get funding. The thing that troubles me the most about this whole thing is that graduate programs are not setting the record straight, but I have certainly seen this lack of engagement myself. In this job market, people will not be able to exist like that, I am afraid.

  5. MK

    You make some excellent points. I am a little uneasy, however, by some of the vibe that surrounds the “I can’t believe people still think. . .” meme I’ve seen on Twitter and in blog comments. Not in your essay, as such, more so on Twitter. Because working successfully with people and liking them includes understanding why people form mistaken impressions or conclusions you would not. The best way to approach that is not with belittiling but with tolerance of its existence (which differs from accepting that it is the best way to look at it. As a coach and mentor, it’s the more experienced person’s obligation to find a way to nudge others along, not to beat them over the head with their “wrongheadedness.”) Its not as if the assumption, where it exists that you won’t have to work with people is based in most cases on anything meanspirited. Its just a misconception or misperception. I know when I have a misconception, I cringe when people react by piling on. And respond well to being drawn out on why I formed that view and the sharing of other perspectives.

    As much as I and most of the people commenting believe you have to be able to work with people as an archivist, I’m not going to say it always is easy or comes naturally. Many archivists are Introverts, after all. AOTUS David Ferriero has admitted at his blog that he is one! But Introverts, and as we’ve seen, even Introvert leaders, can accustom themselves and train themselves to handle well a wide arrange of mission critical duties. Including ones that require development of Extrovert skills.

    I’m 61, have been working in the archives and history related fields for over 35 years, and I STILL get nervous or feel shy about some things I have to do at times! You learn to mask or overcome those feelings. As several commenters have said, you do what’s needed for the job, it is your duty to do so. But there’s nothing wrong with admitting that your natural leaning is to Introversion or even that you enjoy working on tasks in solitude. As Jonathan Rausch pointed out in his famous article on caring for your introvert, its easier for Introverts to understand Extroverts than the other way around. Maybe we have an edge in adjusting, picking up Extrovert skills and adding them into our toolkit too, I don’t know!

    • Lance

      I am with you on wanting to avoid belittling people and the desire to provide positive mentorship. I think being nice to people is always the best way to go and I hope I have not come off in any forum as being mean. I also am hesitant to group people together willy-nilly. However, I am also happy that some have reacted so strongly to this whole thing. One of the reasons I am so appalled by the notion of archivists entering the profession with a desire to avoid people is that is a stereotype that is perpetuated everywhere. The meek librarian/archivist happier reading a book or manuscript than dealing with people. We need to get rid of that and I am OK with people maybe getting a little riled about it 🙂

      Also, I don’t think it is required to switch who we are as people. We can be introverted and still, as you said, do what’s needed for the job. In fact, I think you are a great example of that. You clearly feel comfortable enough advocating (and not to mention stand up to bullies from time to time) when it is something you feel passionate about. I also bet you did not let your introvertedness (don’t think that is a word) get in the way of your work either. I don’t think it is bad to do things that make us nervous, leaving our comfort zone is good from time to time. I think the bad thing is never pushing yourself, and never trying to grow.

  6. Melissa McCarthy

    I will never forget my first experience of archives as a profession: a small conference some time around 2005 where one of the presenters was (still!) urging archivists to allow email reference. And one of the archivists sitting behind me, after the presentation ended, said to another in so many words, “Well, that’s never going to happen. I’ve been doing this for twenty years and I’m not changing. I wasn’t hired to do email, I don’t want to do email, and that’s that. Besides, we get too many researchers as it is, we don’t need any more.”

    Now, I’m fairly certain this person worked for a small archives and probably wasn’t a professional archivist, but still, the fact that there is this attitude of “my job didn’t involve this when I was hired, so I’m not going to do it,” combined with the attitude of “who needs researchers anyway,” really appalled me. In the intervening seven years I’ve seen more of this attitude, mostly in smaller archives but also in the course of getting my MLIS, and frankly I just don’t understand how it continues.

    I take MK’s point that you get nervous about some of these things and that there’s nothing wrong with that, but as she rightly pointed out, that doesn’t exempt you from trying to do them, from understanding that it’s part of the job.

    Maybe this is changing – I sure hope so!

    • Lance

      I hope so too. And I am with you, I don’t understand how this attitude can continue. It seems to me that, in this era of ever tightening budgets and having to demonstrate value, this “who needs researches” attitude will die. Either people that hold that view will retire, move on, adapt, or those places will just go under. In the end, who is going to support a place that no one uses?

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  8. long time grant funded archivist

    I will admit that because I’ve only worked on grant funded processing projects, I have gotten very accustomed to immersing myself in the stuff and at times forgetting about the people who will use it later. I’d love to sit on the desk, but I’m not allowed to. I see this isolation as a huge problem with some of these temporary entry level positions. The duties are so narrow that it’s hard to see how your job fits in with the large operation.

    I’ve also experienced the lack of communication about what others in my institution are doing. I’ve pondered whether a subject-based division of labor might be more appropriate, where the staff member with subject A knowledge does processing, reference, outreach/instruction the staff member with subject B knowledge does the same. Staff could participate in the range of duties involved in the profession and maybe there would be less silos based on title and function.

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