When you’ve just graduated and are still looking for a job, it’s easy to feel like getting that first job will solve all your problems. Then you get the job offer and it comes with a whole new set of adventures to tackle. If you’re like me, you plan and implement your move half way across the country in the span of three weeks. If you’re really adventurous, desperate, or the job is just awesome, you might find yourself moving to a place where you don’t know anyone.
During and for the first month after my move, I enjoyed the challenges that were coming my way. The people in my office are simply amazing. They’re really good at answering my questions about things like where I should look for curtains and how cold I can expect it to get in Boston this winter. I actually found my apartment because my boss has a friend who is a realtor. You have to love the boss who meets you when you get off the bus from the airport and presents you with a city map. (I have to say this is probably one of my favorite gifts ever because it is useful and expresses confidence in my abilities, sort of like when Dad gave me a car jack the Valentine’s Day after I turned 16). During this time, I had fun pretending that I was a pioneer, striking out on my own to make my way in the world. As Dad pointed out before I left, it’s not like things were two hundred years ago when people left home and never came back, when it could take weeks or months to get a letter half way across the country. For a while, it was fun to wander around and buy new things, building my professional wardrobe and decorating my new apartment.
Then the adrenaline rush wore off. It hit home that there wasn’t anyone in this city that I’d known longer than six weeks. I felt (and often still feel) lonely and isolated. There are many days when I wake up and just want to see the familiar face of someone, anyone that I have history with. (Even if it was someone I hadn’t talked to often or maybe even actually liked when I knew them previously, I would love them just for being in this city at this time.)
I know that feeling at-home in Boston is largely dependent on me. I won’t feel completely comfortable here until I have commitments (outside of getting up and going to work every day) and friends that I can call at the last minute when I suddenly decide that I absolutely must go out for pizza or who will help me sneak snacks into the movie theater and then make fun of me while I talk to the characters on screen. This weekend I joined a brunch group that I found on meetup.com. I figure that brunch is a nice, safe way to meet new people. In the spring I’m planning to take some sort of lessons that involve boats; I’m not sure whether it will focus on rowing or sails, but regardless, it will not be an activity I could easily pursue in Missouri. And until I have memories in Boston, I still have my phone and friends all over the country who are going through the same thing.
The summer before I left for grad school, I found myself working at a tractor parts warehouse. It was not my preferred type of employment, but had the advantages of paying well for the area and providing the opportunity for plenty of overtime. (An unforeseen perk was that I learned to drive a variant of a forklift. I still list this as a relevant skill on my resume and have high hopes that one day it will actually prove useful.) That summer, I had decided that making money was more important than having a social life so I regularly spent 60+ hours a week finding the correct parts and packing them in boxes for shipment. Most of my interaction with the other employees occurred during breaks or when we happened to be looking for parts in the same aisle. As a result, I had plenty of opportunity for reflection. One of my common reflections included similarities between my current job and the career training I would be receiving the following fall.
There were several similarities between the tractor parts warehouse and the archives and libraries where I worked during grad school.
- Shelving. They had the same institutional gray shelving. The shelves in the warehouse were definitely much dustier, but I’m relatively certain that the same company produces both warehouse shelving and that used in libraries and archives.
- Missing items. Sometimes things got lost. Regardless of whether the missing item was a gasket or a book, it was always darned inconvenient when it wasn’t where it was supposed to be.
- Cataloging. Each part had a number and was assigned another number that corresponded to a place on a shelf. Often, metadata explaining the weight and/or size of the item was included.
- Content Management Systems. I’ve decided these suckers run everything. In the tractor parts warehouse, it tracked everything from the order number, items that had been ordered, merchandise available in the warehouse, and whether or not an order had been shipped. In school, I had exposure to systems for managing books (Aleph), websites (Drupal), and documents (CONTENTdm, PastPerfect, and others).
Toward the end of the summer, when I had announced my last day and reason for my departure, many people asked me about the degree I would be pursuing in the fall. Invariably, there was always a moment when the person asked some variation of the question, “What exactly is an archive?”
I have to admit that the first time someone asked me this question, I didn’t have a good answer. I’m sure that there are many people who are much better than me at explaining exactly what an archive is. In the years since then, I’ve come to realize that this question is a symptom of one of the biggest challenges facing archives today. How can an archive be relevant and useful if potential users don’t know what it is or that it actually exists?
I think that the archival profession has a lot of improvement to do in this area. The people I worked with were familiar with and enjoyed visiting other cultural heritage institutions such as libraries and museums. I think that if archivists want to continue to exist as a profession unto themselves and not be absorbed by some combination of the library, museum and records management professions, it will be increasingly important for them to communicate what they do and the value of their institutions to the public.