Tag Archives: archival education

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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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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My Little Manifesto

This post is my attempt to add to the already wonderful discussion sparked by Rebecca Goldman’s Howl. If you have not read it, I strongly urge you to, as well as her followup here on NewArchivist. We hope the contribution by NewArchivist to be one of suggested improvements that we can discuss and perhaps get on the table to address some of the issues Rebecca and her commentors bring up. I really hope we can continue this important discussion. Thanks to Rebecca and Emi Hastings for their invaluable help with this post.

It seems to me that the least we can do is attempt to create a baseline of what we expect from our profession. This post is an attempt to get that discussion off the ground. I am focusing on two areas here, education and employment. There have been other important points raised as well, such as the level of engagement and cost of the SAA conference. I have been working on a post about that and will try to get it up soon.

At the end of each section, I identify groups that I think can be agents of change in this area. This is not an issue for just educators, or new professionals, or students, or SAA, but the profession as a whole. It will take all of us to advocate for change.

Education

Clearly, there is a feeling right now that master’s degree-granting institutions are contributing to the difficulty of finding employment, especially early in a person’s career, in two ways: by graduating more archivists than the current job market can support, and by not providing enough practical training. I propose that schools devoted to archival training do the following to address these concerns:

Give an Accurate Picture of the Archival Job Market Many schools tout their placement numbers. However, they do not qualify those numbers by telling people how many graduates will be looking for employment again in 1 or 2 years because they are in grant-funded or other short-term positions. Turning to my own experience and that of my graduate cohort, I would think that number would be quite high, perhaps well over half. Incoming students should have this information. While this may make it harder to recruit, it will create a more informed incoming class of students that will be aware of the challenges facing them. My alma mater puts out annual employment reports that have a lot of good information, but do not include the number or percentage of archives students receiving short-term employment. Lets give incoming students all the information they need to decide if the archives profession is indeed for them.

Address How Schools Factor the Job Market vs. Recruitment What is recruitment based on? Do people look at the positions available when determining incoming class size? These might be naive questions, but part of me does think that our schools are concerned with more than money, new buildings, and tenure. I believe most are very concerned with their students getting employment. I know my professors were. I just wonder what it will take to have a school actually reduce the number of students it enrolls due to the job market (you still think I am naive, don’t you).

Provide Managed Practical Experience This is an applied profession and we need more than theory. Most schools provide credit for and/or require some sort of experience in the “real world.” However, they should not stop at making students find internships. When I was in school I took a practicum, which was part internship and part class and discussion managed by working archivists. It was invaluable to me to be placed in a working archive and then have a chance to discuss issues that arose with my fellow students and other experienced archivists. This class is no longer offered in that format, which I think is a shame.  I know it takes a lot of resources to find local opportunities for your students. However, if you cannot provide this level of experience and education to your students, perhaps it is because you have too many students!

Agents of Change: Alumni Those of us that are alums of these schools should be able to leverage that status to at least open a dialog on these matters. Recently, a colleague and I had a very productive sit down with the dean of our alma mater. We were able to raise concerns about the job market, giving incoming students all the needed information, and designing a practical curriculum, among other things.  I urge you all to talk to your deans and alumni groups about the issues you feel they need to address. They need to hear from the front lines of the professional job hunt, and you are the best people to give them that information.

Agents of Change: Students Ask your prospective school how they are addressing these issues. If they do not tell you, demand it. If they still do not tell you, I would have serious doubts about going there. If you are a current student, ask the same questions and give them feedback as to the difficulty you are finding in the job market. Then tell them again.

Agents of Change: Hiring Archivists If you are a professional archivist who sees a huge number of applications for one position, or thinks that the applicants are not as strong as they should be, let the schools know. As the people who give graduates jobs, you have a lot of juice with the schools: use it!

Agents of Change: ALA/SAA Like it or not, ALA is the de facto accrediting body for graduate archival education programs. If you are like me, you will find it quite odd that the accreditation standards used to certify archival training programs do not contain the words archivist or archive. However, this is all we have, as currently SAA provides only Guidelines for Archival Continuing Education, not accreditation (there is a report out there as to why but the link was dead on the SAA site; if you know where it is please let me know in the comments). ALA can use its power as the accrediting body to force the schools to follow a set of community agreed upon recommendations. I think we will need to get a pretty good head of steam at the grass roots level before we can get the behemoth that is ALA to take this up. In the meantime, we can yell at SAA to get off the sidelines.

Employment

The job situation is the most difficult one facing us as a profession. The lack of positions, and the tenuous funding for existing positions, is at the core why so many archivists, new and established, are howling.

You will notice that in the following list I do not address the fact that we are underpaid as a profession. I believe that is very true. However, I think as far as employment goes, the lack of fairly paid professional positions with benefits far outweighs the overall underpayment issue. I also think it is a bit unfair to compare us with other professions, like technical or records management. People in the for-profit sector will make more than those of us in the non-profit cultural sector every time. I am not saying that is fair, but I knew that going in. We are among many professions that are underpaid, and in my book, social workers, teachers, people helping others combat addiction and sickness, are ahead of us in line. That is just my opinion, of course.

However, I think we can fight to make professional positions the default, while making “paraprofessional” positions or internships fairer and less of an economic burden. I propose we demand the following from our fellow archival professionals:

Professional Compensation for Professional Work We cannot tolerate, as a profession, positions that have all of the requirements and duties of professional positions without full-time pay and benefits. Positions that file papers all day but are called archivists devalue our profession. Non-professional and/or part-time positions that require a master’s degree or previous experience devalue those degrees and experiences. We all see these types of positions, like this recent gem, and we should pick today as the day we stop tolerating them, dammit!

Underpaid/Unpaid Interns/Volunteers Require Other Benefits Readers of my blog know that I have a difficult time working out my feelings on internships. I think that unpaid work of any kind severely limits the diversity and richness of our profession. However, I also do not see it going away as long as people love the work and want to gain experience. I think we can agree that an intern or volunteer should earn much more for their work than a line on their resume. Building on what Rebecca has already said in her post, institutions that hire or accept non-professional workers should provide some sort of combination of the following:

  • Formal mentoring programs
  • Resume reviews, mock interviews, and job search sessions
  • Chances for professional development (conferences, local workshops, etc.)
  • Opportunities to be exposed to other professional advice, training, or assistance
  • Other career preparation help

This list is just a starter. My point is that interns or volunteers should not be viewed as all the work with no or little pay. They are entering the profession, or are already in it, and should be treated as professionals. Just because you do not have funding does not mean that you can simply create a professional position minus the pay. If you are doing this, you are on the wrong side of ethics–and, in some cases, the law.

Agents of Change: Archive Professionals This one is a no-brainer. If you are creating professional positions without professional compensation, stop. To be fair, the vast majority of archives are not creating positions like these. But I also do not think enough of us are calling out the few that are. If you see an unfair position posted, contact the people posting the position and let them know your feelings. If they are breaking your local law by offered unpaid positions separate from a formal training or education program, let them know that as well. We need to create an atmosphere where it is embarrassing to put positions like these on the Internet.

Agents of Change: SAA SAA should make fair employment practice part of their Code of Ethics for Archivists. This should come as part of a complete reform of the Code in an effort to make it meaningful, with repercussions if it is not followed. I know this used to be the case, but then it was watered down. Perhaps this is something the SAA Issues and Advocacy Roundtable could address?

So there you have it. I hope that did not come off as a rant, although I was kinda ranty there at the end. If you think the posts at Derangement and Description, here, Twitter, and the like are true, if you think that our profession is in need of some reform, then I have a challenge for you. Keep the discussion going, try to work out a common set of reforms, and then act. It is clear that these issues have been around a while, and people were just as fired up about them as we are now, but nothing was done.

Part of our mission as archivists, after all, is to try to prevent repeating mistakes from the past, right?

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What I Did for Spring Break

This week’s guest contribution is from Elizabeth Skene. Elizabeth is currently working at the American University in Cairo and will be starting her final year at the School of Information at Michigan this fall. She is also author of the blog Nerd Hugs. Alternative Spring Break is a great program, so we really appreciate her willingness to share her experiences. Thanks so much, Elizabeth! ~ ed

This March, I was able to spend a week at the National Library of Medicine as an volunteer through the School of Information’s Alternative Spring Break program at the University of Michigan. The National Library of Medicine [NLM] is the largest medical library in the world, located on the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD.

National Library of Medicine

A sunny March morning at the NLM

About Alternative Spring Break

The School of Information’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program places interested and motivated graduate students, during the week of Spring Break, in professional work environments in the public sector where they can…

  • provide a service to an organization, institution, or community
  • gain practical job experience
  • develop leadership skills as information professionals
  • learn new skills
  • create professional partnerships
  • pursue their fields of interest

School of Information students are placed in non-profit, cultural, governmental, and educational institutions in New York City, Chicago, and Washington D.C. (source)

This year, 112 students were placed with 48 host organizations in 4 cities. You can explore the ASB 2010 website to see the organizations, projects, blog posts and other information related to this year’s trip.

About my project

This was the description of the project I received before the trip:

The Exhibition Program at the National Library of Medicine produces a wide variety of exhibitions and websites that use a diverse assortment of assets including print photographs, digital media, and analog media. Over the course of the last 10 years, hundreds of individual assets have been accumulated. The Rehousing plan for exhibition assets will organize, house, and label all materials for archival purposes. (source)

While I wasn’t sure what types of exhibitions they put together or what types of materials I would be working with, I knew that it would be good, hands-on experience.

My co-volunteer, Heather, & I were given large binders of materials that were used in past exhibitions. Our task was to take out all the photos, sort out duplicates, put the photos into acid-free sleeves, label the photo with its exhibition number and put them into new containers. Over the course of the week we were able to get through not only the materials for one exhibition, but also the binders for all the past exhibitions. Additionally, we updated the catalog records for the materials that had been moved and rehoused. By the end, we reduced the size of the assets from 8 cubic feet, down to 3 cubic feet.

At work at the National Library of Medicine

Sorting through a binder

National Library of Medicine

Images from the "Visible Proofs" exhibition

National Library of Medicine

Working with the "Changing the Face of Medicine" exhibition materials

Additionally, we sat in on a few meetings of the exhibition staff in the History of Medicine department. They work full time creating new exhibits, not only to be shown in the library, but as online or traveling exhibits. [If you work at an organization, make sure to check out the amazing, free traveling exhibits!!]

Everyone we met was so helpful, friendly and enthusiastic and it felt feel like we were really able to accomplish something for them – especially since they remarked a number of times that this was a project that had wanted to do for a while, but didn’t have the time or the resources.

With our mentor, Beth Mullen, at the National Library of Medicine

Heather, our project mentor Beth Mullen & myself

Becoming a participating organization

If your organization is located in Chicago, Washington D.C., New York City or Detroit & is interested in hosting an SI student next Spring Break, check out this organization FAQ page. You can also explore the types of projects offered by other organizations to get an idea of what has been done in the past.

Final thoughts on the experience

Joining an organization for just one week presents a lot of limitations – time being the biggest. It can be difficult to strike a balance between an interesting project and one that can be accomplished without spending too much time on training. While my project wasn’t the most challenging, the chance to experience a professional work environment, learn more about typical day-to-day tasks and explore future career options was invaluable.

Lastly, since you may not be able to take a similar Spring Break trip, check out the NLM’s Associate Fellows Program if you’re a recent grad interested in medical libraries and archives. It’s a year-long program and it provides a lot of fantastic experience and training.

Also, D.S. Apfelbaum’s guest post here on NewArchivist gives some good advice and perspective on the value of volunteering in his entry “Ask Not What Your Archives Can Do for You: A Volunteer’s Perspective.”

Thanks to Lance for allowing me to contribute! Please share any thoughts, questions or comments!

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Publishing by Fire

We are very pleased to have a guest contribution this week from Matt Schultz of the awesomely named Educopia Institute, who was kind enough to write this post at my request. Matt is a founding member of the FONA (Friends of NewArchivist) and we really appreciate his support from day one, and his willingness to share his insight. Thanks Matt! ~ ed.

Seeing your writing in a publication for the first time is elating. I think anyone reading this who has gotten their voice into print can recall that feeling.

As a 30-something just coming out of my Masters program from the University of Michigan’s School of Information, and re-inventing my career in automotive manufacturing to go to work in the field of cultural memory, I have a lot of catching up to do in the area of getting published. This is in comparison to several of the slightly younger folks I encountered during my program, who by their mid-to-late 20s were already working on their second Masters degree and had several articles under their belts (many of these folks were really bright HCI-ers who were ambitious in their computing and usability research). Diving into LIS, ARM and PI education, most of us were doing the grad thing for the first time, moving on from our BAs in the humanities. I think most of us did not write so much as listen, take copious notes, and work our little butts off in various internships to get as much practical experience as we could muster. I know I didn’t have the time nor credentials to get published.

The road for me to getting published came along much more serendipitiously, and only after I dipped my toes a little further into the real world of digital preservation and archiving.

The MetaArchive Cooperative hired me shortly after my graduation as an outside consultant. I was to put on several hats and not only guide them through the arduous process of a trusted repositories audit, but also perform some light planning, and help out with administrative work. Things went so well, that I soon found myself pulled suddenly into the thick of a final editing process for their long germinating work titled A Guide to Distributed Digital Preservation. Not only was I given the benefit of the doubt to help sharpen the matured and well-articulated chapters written by various Cooperative members, I was charged with completely overhauling a couple of the technical chapters. My voice was actually getting into the publication.

The final work was a collaboration of 11 authors who were spread across the Cooperative’s membership, the central staff, and myself. The editing process was intense. Once we had rough final versions in from each of the chapter authors, the Program Manager, myself, and a librarian from GA Tech set hard to work bringing the volume together into final form. To streamline what was a highly disparate work, with multiple voices, we had to develop a unified nomenclature of terminology and phraseology that could be reinforced across all of the chapters. On a practical level we ended up implementing at least three different document versioning conventions over the course of 2-3 months, to reinforce orderliness and proper identification of exchanged edits, as all three of us as final editors were not co-located.

When it came time for me to overhaul the more technical chapters, I had to research heavily on the fly, a range of documentation on the MetaArchive’s technical organization and design (a process already somewhat informed from my TRAC auditing), as well as documentation on the underlying LOCKSS software. Interviews with the MetaArchive’s central technical staff, with whom I share authorship in my chapters, were essential as well. This required me to be able to dip into their pressured time schedules quickly, get clarification on terms, and return to the manuscript to transform difficult jargon into language that an unfamiliar audience could grasp. Talk about a crash course. Research. Write. Clarify. Refine.

We wrapped up final editing right before the Christmas holiday of this past year. By January, the whole collaborative process had gone so well, I found myself with a job offer and the awesome title of Collaborative Services Librarian. I am no expert as of yet in collaboration, but I have had my trial by fire through this incredible publication. From what I have gleaned of the state of publishing in my field of academia, both on a profession level as well as in research, any effort toward publication, even as a single author, is a collaborative one.

Since this first experience I have gone on to write two pending articles for iPres 2010, both of which are giving me the opportunity to put my voice forward a little earlier in the process, and go through the process of having my language and presentation heavily edited. It is an awesome process. Humbling and educational.

For other new archivists and cultural memory workers out there looking to get themselves published, my encouragement would be to look for ways of promoting your current work through your most immediate network of actively publishing peers. I cannot really speak to how easy or difficult this might be. I was blessed, and continue to be blessed, by an employer that believes in championing the expertise and ambition of their staff. Also, I would encourage new archivists and cultural memory workers to offer your services as an editor on a publication or the outcomes from a research process underway by your co-workers or peers. If it goes well, don’t be shy in requesting being credited or acknowledged on any such article or work. It’s all a stepping stone. In the meantime, practice the process of researching, writing, clarifying, and refining. Do your own thing, bring it forward to those who might have some capacity for promoting your effort and style. Who knows where it might go.

My employer and I are already scheming a potential new publication that should further benefit the field of distributed digital preservation. Which is really what it is all about – making a meaningful contribution.

Good luck all you NewArchivists in getting published!

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The Job Post

As followers of this blog know, getting a job in the archival field is something that we touch upon often, most notably in our From The Trenches series. However, to this point we have not had a post focused on getting an archives job. In my case, I have been hesitant to write such a post because I figured that people would say: thanks for the advice, Mr. Only-Had-A-Real-Job-For-Like-A-Year. However, my attitude changed last week. After reading a series of messages on the A&A listserv regarding the state of the job market, I asked the Twitter machine if others felt that the market was that bleak. Once again the archivists on Twitter did not disappoint and gave me some great insight and inspired this post.

As way of disclaimer, I am not saying that the things discussed here are guaranteed to get you a job. I am also not trying to blow sunshine up anyone’s petticoat. I was lucky in that I had an archives job lined up right after grad school. But in my previous career I endured an unemployment period that lasted over a year. It sucked… hard. If you are currently going through such a period, I hope that hearing some successful stories helps.

Grad School is Key, but not the School Part The job hunt should start from the first day of grad school. I don’t mean start looking the first day, but you should immediately start thinking about building a resume and carving an area of interest for yourself. As twitterer Jess M said: “I think we can make niches for ourselves.” School is great and you learn a lot. However, I found that the best way to carve those niches were the experiences I gained outside the classroom. Use the fact that you are going to grad school as a ticket into places that will help build your skills and allow you to meet people who will be helpful in your career. Four of the five NewArchivist regular contributors currently have jobs that are in, or connected to, places they had contact with while in school. In my case, I did an unpaid part-time internship between my first and second year at the organization where I am currently employed. Many of my classmates are currently placed where they did some sort of volunteering, internship, or part-time employment. If you want a job at a specific location or institution, then try your best to get some kind of experience there. You still have to be lucky in that a position will need to open at the right time, but being there to take advantage of that luck is half the battle.

Volunteering Often the type of experiences outlined above can only come in the form of free labor, be it volunteering or unpaid internships. During the listserv discussion, the importance of volunteering was mentioned several times. It has also been written about on this blog by Sophie and D.S. On Twitter, Megan summed it up: “Best advice I can give is to throw yourself out there. Volunteer, be involved with prof organizations, go back to school, etc. I wish I did more of this when I first started. [F]our years ago, but I was shy, nervous, etc. Once I started to put myself out there, my job prospects seem to be going up.” My advice is make sure you get something tangible out of volunteering, whether it be employment contacts, specific skills, or even a measure of confidence. In lieu of money, “employers” should be willing to give you their time and offer things like advice and resume reviews. If they are not willing to commit to this up front, I would probably not be willing to give them my labor.

The fact that unpaid experiences help in getting a job is, well, a fact something I am pretty sure of. However, I also think making unpaid experience a gateway to the profession is deeply troubling. Some of the comments on Sophie’s latest post summarize that view perfectly. The idea that we have to go to grad school and then serve a kind of apprenticeship is, in my opinion, outdated and elitist. Also, how can we say that we are concerned with diversifying our profession while at the same time saying mountains of educational debt and time served in non-professional positions are entry fees to a career? I dont have an answer to this paradox, but I do think that this will be up to our generation of professionals to solve. When we are in positions of power, will we continue to use volunteering as a litmus test? I hope we can come up with something better.

An archivist, you will be...

An archivist, you will be...

The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Lucasfilm

“Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny” While Yoda was talking about the ultimate battle between good and evil here, this advice can also be applied to career direction. Some on the listserv suggested diversifying your skills with things like records management to make yourself marketable in areas other than archives. Based on my limited experiences and talking to seasoned professionals, I strongly disagree with that advice. It is one thing if you genuinely want to explore different paths like librarianship or records management. But if you goal is ultimately getting a job in the archival field, it is hard to argue that a job in another area will give you skills to compete for those archival jobs, now or in the future. Yes, it would be employment and I know that we all have to do what we have to do to pay our bills. However, didn’t we all choose this low paying, low glamor career so we can follow our passion? I am not saying only take a perfect job out of school, none of us have that opportunity. But be certain that the job you do take will help get you where you want to go. If you want to be a records manager, be one, if you want to be a librarian, be one, and if you want to be an archivist, than be an archivist. Otherwise you may wake up one day shouting nooooooooooooooo!

Never Forget This might be a little out of place in this post, but I feel the need to say it anyway. As we move along in our profession, lets never forget what it is like to look for employment. So far my job hunting experiences in the archives field have been very good, but I have heard stories. In my previous period of unemployment, I was always shocked at how soon people forgot what it was like to look for a job. The stress, the limbo, the effort involved. I cringe when I hear people give weird or silly reasons to not consider an applicant. I am not saying consider people for employment that show up to interviews wearing a damn seagulls hat. I am asking that we remember that each application and resume represents a person that can add to our profession and deserves respect. And when we see others in our profession doing otherwise, we call them out.

This is just the tip of this iceberg and we at NewArchivist will be posting a lot more on this topic in the future. If you have other tips or opinions, please leave them in the comments or let me know and we would gladly welcome a guest post. You also should checkout the blog That elusive archives job, which focuses on getting an archives job. And most importantly, if you are currently looking, know that there are a lot of people in your corner, and good luck!

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