Tag Archives: archival education

Ask Not What Your Archives Can Do for You: A Volunteer’s Perspective

We are very pleased to have D.S. Apfelbaum as a Guest Contributor this week. D.S. will be graduating from the M.S.L.I.S./Archives Certificate program at Long Island University this May. Please be sure to also check our her blog at http://thebookofdan.wordpress.com. Thanks for the contribution! ~ ed.

When Lance recently blogged about resolving to get more involved in community service projects in 2010, I was reminded of a time – now, almost two years ago – when I first began to consider volunteering at an archival repository. For me, it was an easy decision – not only was I fortunate enough to have a schedule that would accommodate volunteer work, but, as Lance also mentioned, I knew it would complement my courses while building my résumé. Three organizations and a couple of jobs later, I would say I made a fairly safe prediction. The obvious benefits aside, though, volunteering has paid off in ways I could have never imagined at the outset. I hope that in sharing my experiences I will: 1) bring some of those hidden perks to light and 2) elucidate essential aspects of the volunteer process as it relates specifically to archives.

Finding a Gig
Finding repositories can be difficult if you don’t know where to look, especially if you’re just starting out and aren’t familiar with your local, regional, and/or national archival associations. The best place to begin is the SAA site. There, you’ll find a listing of local and regional archival organizations in the U.S. and Canada, which will lead you to institutions in your area. For example, those of us in the New York have the Archivist’s Roundtable (NYART), as well as the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC) and the New York Archives Conference (NYAC). Both NYART and MARAC maintain an extensive listing of member sites, so it’s easy to find the contact information for a variety of archival repositories.

Another great resource: your graduate program (that is, if you’re currently enrolled). Whether you’re going for the full M.S. or just the archives certificate, chances are your program has at least one email listserv and/or a wiki (the Palmer School, where I’m currently a student, has both). Granted, if you’re in a distance-learning program or on a satellite campus, much of the local service opportunities posted on that particular listserv/wiki may not be of much help. However, it never hurts to shoot a quick email inquiring into information about opportunities or organizations in your area. Incidentally, if you find that your listserv advertises far more internships than volunteer gigs, feel free, if there’s an organization you’re drawn to in particular, to inquire about the possibility of volunteering there. The worst they can do is to refuse you (and it does happen, but more on that in a bit).

Getting the Gig
Of the four archival repositories I’ve applied to as a volunteer, three have required an interview. Though interviewing, itself, is rarely pleasant, the experience is definitely one those less-obvious perks. Think about it – where else will you get a no-stakes opportunity to practice convincing an established professional that your coursework and experience make you the choice candidate? It’s also the perfect occasion to start thinking about your transferable skills and how to turn specific aspects of your non-archival professional experience into assets for future archival work.

That said, if you are asked to come in for interview for a volunteer position, treat it as if it’s the real deal: dress appropriately, have a decent grasp on the organization, and know how much time you will be able to commit. Remember: you never lose points for professionalism.

Of Mentors and Moolah
If I hadn’t realized at first how helpful the interview process would be, I certainly never imagined that volunteering would allow me to cultivate serious professional relationships to the extent that it has, let alone put me in the running for paid positions.

When it comes to mentors, I have been extremely lucky. I have had gracious supervisors who have not only been willing to discuss their experiences, but who have also gone out of their way to actively engage me in discussions about relevant trends and issues in archival science. What’s more, their faith in my abilities has boosted my confidence as a burgeoning archives professional. In particular, I regard it as a privilege to have been allowed by the archivist at the Oyster Bay Historical Society to plan, create, and install the Archives Month Exhibit (which has now traveled to LIU). It was a completely unexpected experience that has now left me with an invaluable skill set.

While my volunteer work has yet to secure me a full-time position with ample vacation and an opt-in dental plan, it has led to paid, part-time work in archival repositories. My first experience was with the National Archives at New York. In the spring of 2009, I found myself having to commute from Long Island to NYU for classes. With a 4:30pm start time, it was a bit of a day-killer, so I contacted NARA about volunteering at the agency’s Varick Street location during the morning and early afternoon. Admittedly, it didn’t work out the way I had planned – only three months in, a change in personal circumstances and scheduling precluded my volunteering with the organization further. Needless to say, after committing to volunteering the whole semester and having to pull out half-way through, I was extremely embarrassed. I never expected, after such a short time and an abrupt departure, that I would later be contacted with the opportunity to work for NARA over the summer as a temporary Archives Technician.

My second experience was just as surprising as the first. Again, faced with a little extra time during the week, I decided to volunteer at LIU’s B. Davis Schwartz Library in the Digital Initiatives/Art Slide Department, which is currently working on a huge project involving the archives of William Randolph Hearst. During my time there in the fall of 2009, I worked on small things, like rehousing documents and scanning photo files. But, being a student in the M.S.L.I.S. program and having familiarized myself with the staff and department projects, I suppose it made it that much easier for me to slip into the graduate assistant’s position after she accepted a job at another library.

The bottom-line: even a few hours of quality volunteer work can make a big impression on potential employers.

Thanks, But No Thanks
Free, skilled labor – it’s not welcome everywhere. Such was the case, I found, when I contacted a local library about helping out with the archival materials in its history room. Though the call, which had been posted on the Palmer School listserv, had been made specifically for an intern, I decided to touch base with the library anyway. I made it explicitly clear that I was at the start of my degree and that my time with the library would not accrue course credit. With that understanding, I came in, had my interview, and was told they couldn’t wait for me to start. Then, without warning, they dropped the I-bomb on me: “But we only take interns.”

If you find yourself in a similar situation, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news, first: if you’re not enrolled in an accredited program during the time in which you plan to volunteer for an organization that enforces an interns-only policy, there’s very little you can do. However, if you are in a program, consult BOTH your academic advisor and your university’s career office for further guidance. Unfortunately, when I petitioned my graduate advisor for advice, I was given only the option of doing an independent study. I declined, since I didn’t think it was an experience worth the $800 I would have had to shell out for a single credit.

For whatever reason, I wasn’t pointed in the direction of LIU’s cooperative education office which would have ameliorated several conflicts. First, participating in the Co-op program would have solved the problem of needing official university support. To take part, students must register for a section of Experiential Learning; thus I would have been able to call myself an intern. Second, since the class functions as a no-credit course, it would have been free.
Had I known then what I know now – that I should have consulted with the career office before giving up – I might have been able to volunteer at that small library after all. Nevertheless, I still managed to find professionally meaningful service opportunities.

Go Forth & Archive (For Free!)
I can’t guarantee that if you volunteer you’ll have the same experiences I’ve had, even though I hope that you do (well, except for the whole rejection bit – that sucked). What I will say, though, is that if you’re on the fence about volunteering, consider the potential perks: a chance to flex your muscles as an interviewee; a career-long mentor; a new skill; a job. And, let’s not forget — the chance to do some good. After all, altruism looks great on everybody.

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When Efficiency is your Best Friend (then your enemy, then kind of your friend again)…

We are very happy to have another post by Bria Parker this week. Even better, after much begging on my part, she has joined the NewArchivist team as a Regular Contributor. Welcome Bria! ~ ed.

Fact: Slow-moving bureaucracies are slow. Like, “being able to feel the rotations of the earth” slow.

I started my first job six months ago. I was gung-ho and ready to change the world (or at least the world of audio preservation at my library). I worked with fervor, reviewing literature, brainstorming, developing documentation, completing tasks. Then I would proudly send out what I had accomplished in an email to those involved in that particular aspect. I would receive a reply of “great – let’s have a meeting to discuss this sometime in [insert name of faraway month here].” Now, I knew that it would take a while to get everyone on the same page and get the project moving forward, but I just was not prepared for things to drag on for months.

Yikes. What was I supposed to do in the meantime? Sure, there were other tasks and aspects that I needed to address. But what happens when several of these tasks hinge on the decisions waiting to be made? When you’re coming right out of graduate school, the land of ever-imminent deadlines, it can be hard to get out of the “I must get this done RIGHT NOW” kind of attitude and realize that sometimes you have more time than you think you do to finish something.

This is not a post on how to look busy so your boss doesn’t give you more to do. That’s not how I roll. This is about how to plan ahead, how to (try to) take the lead, and how to gently poke and prod people until you see some progress. Delay is inevitable. I am near, if not on, the bottom rung, so my responsibilities number few, so when I have to rely on others whose responsibilities exponentially outnumber mine it’s hard to press for progress without feeling like a petulant toddler. “Want juice, want juice!!” (or “want metadata, want metadata!!).

So what should a new archivist (or new librarian) do when faced with this reality? How can we continue be efficient with our work when faced with delay? Here are a couple tips to help ease the frustration:

First, before setting off on any task, outline it in detail. Don’t just outline the actual content you hope to collect, or the desired outcomes of the task, but map out who you will need to communicate with in order to get it through the next step, or who you will need to hand it off to when you’re done. Keep open communication with these people, and do let them know that you hope to finish “xyz” soon and want to know if they have time in the near future to look at it/give feedback/move forward with it. I know it can be hard to do this without seeming like a nag, but it is worth it. It lets both parties know where each other is at.

Second, use all of this information to create a clear and flexible timeline for when you need to have these things ready. I have also found it helpful to ask straightforward questions about the timelines of others. For example, I need some programming done for some creation and digital validation routines for the project I’m working on. I am not a programmer. Thus, I’ve asked when this programming will fit into the production schedule of that department. Not only does it give me a better idea, but it let’s others know “Hey, don’t forget about this. We need to get this worked in soon.” This is better than just handing something off and waiting. Don’t assume that anyone will tell you anything about any timeline.

Third, I suggest initiating meetings with people. Yes, I know, everyone dreads meetings. But my experience thus far is that it has been the best way to meet people, and conversely, let them know who I am and what I am doing. When you’re new, it helps for people to have a face and a personality to match to the countless emails you plan on sending them. If they recognize your name, they’re more likely to help you. Even if you just drop by someone’s office to chat for ten minutes, it is ten minutes well spent. That brief encounter can help remind someone to finish something up for you. Again, don’t be a nag. Be friendly and respectful.

Hopefully by doing the above, you will be able to prioritize your work based on a more realistic timeline and will spend less time waiting. The planning and outlining may also help you notice other work that has yet to be done or assigned. Be proactive and do it!

I realize this is wishful thinking, as it does not always work out this way. Sometimes you just have to wait. In the meantime, revisit other things waiting in the queue with fresh eyes. You may find that you have completely different ideas about how to approach something than you did a month ago when you first worked on it. If you find yourself with absolutely nothing to do, don’t sit on your hands, do research! It’s always a good idea to go through the literature looking for new ideas and trends.

So that’s my take on staying sane. What about you? What tips do you have for us?

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I am Resolute [I think]

It is that time of year again, when we all shake off the effects of holiday cookies, champagne, and time with the family to take a sober look at the things we need to improve upon. Hence, the New Year’s Resolutions. Of course I have made the usual list of resolutions this year, such as actually using my gym membership, getting on top of my student loans, and stop challenging people to fist fights when they question my use of the Oxford comma. However, for the first time I have also made a list of professional resolutions. The following are things that I believe I can do to make myself a better archivist as I enter my second year in the profession (thanks to Emi for the idea and help with this post).

I hereby resolve to:

Contribute to Archival Literature I am currently finishing coauthoring an article with one of my recent professors. Working with a person who has experience in the peer-reviewed writing process has been very helpful. The question will be can I do it on my own. I think my writing is strong enough (I can actually write an entire piece without movie references, I just choose not to on this blog). The interest is there too. The challenge will come from budgeting my time wisely enough to sustain the writing and research required for an article. It is one thing to devote time to something through a partnership where you do not want to let the other person down, it is another to make yourself the sole taskmaster. I am already thinking of some topics, so lets hope I can devote the time and write, write, write (not to mention convince someone to publish it).

Keep Learnin’ I think I speak for most recent graduate students when I say that the last thing I want right now is more school. However, I do think professional educational and training opportunities are important. I have been toying with taking a programming, database, or other technical class to compliment my archival education. Some of the SAA courses also look interesting, although some are out of my range. I figure I will start out with short time commitments and inexpensive tuition so I do not conflict with my student loan debt and gym resolutions. No PhD for me yet…

Find Community Service Opportunities During my time in graduate school I participated in the student SAA group’s community service program, where we would go out and lend a hand at several local cultural heritage locations. At first, I expected this to be similar to the type of volunteering that usually happens at archives and libraries. While we did move some boxes and sort some papers, what was surprising to me was that the people who worked at these institutions really desired our archival expertise. Even though we were only grad students, they wanted us to give them advice on a variety of archival topics. One place wanted us to tell them the proper way to merge two large topical files. Another place wanted us to recommend what materials should be separated so she could go to the governing board with reassurances that it was OK to throw away some material. Another wanted help updating their acquisition policy. While I was in school I saw community service as a great way to get your hands dirty and complement all the theoretical learning, not to mention a great resume builder. Now, I see it as a way to help those small or in-need places that could benefit from just an afternoon of advice from a professional (albeit New) archivist. I especially want to look for opportunities in the historically rich city of Detroit. Maybe we can get a group of area charitable archivists together!

Lauren Lippert working hard during a visit to the Canton Historical Society in Canton, Michigan

Lauren Lippert working hard during a visit to the Canton Historical Society in Canton, Michigan

Thanks to David Zande for the Photo

Well, there you have it. I will try to keep you all posted on my progress throughout the year. Or, if they end up in the same place that I think the gym membership will, I will delete this post in March and never speak of these archival resolutions again…

Happy New Year!


Off Topic Mini-Rant: I wish SAA would offer more online educational and training opportunities. I can afford the class, but can’t afford the travel. I bet a lot of people are in the same boat and would be interested in such offerings. Just a thought.

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Thankful Archivist

My Thanksgiving usually is comprised of gorging myself on deviled eggs, watching football, and taking crap from the Buckeye wing of the family, again… *sadness filled pause*

Anyway, besides the usual thankfulness of health, happiness, a wonderful family, and a spouse who likes college hockey, this year I will be adding things that have either helped in my budding career, or that helps our profession. Here are some highlights:

Open Source Software and Freeware OK, I know this is an geeky way to begin my list, but it is true. The computer on which I am currently typing also has local installations of Archivist’s Toolkit, Drupal, WordPress, and Apache. I know that open source is not necessarily free because of the learning curve involved, and sometimes it can be kind of frustrating being on your own. However, I love the fact that I can download these tools and play with them. Imagine if we had to go to Microsoft or some other vendor for all of this stuff. I am hoping soon to make the switch to Open Office, and maybe even a Linux based system as well (perhaps it will run on a solar powered machine made of granola and hemp).

The National Treasure Franchise Yes, the Nicolas Cage character is not an archivist and there are several things in that movie that made us all cringe, but let me tell you a story. The first movie was released to video at about the same time I did a short internship at NARA. I watched the video with my then 6 and 10 year old nephews and offhandedly mentioned that I was just at the National Archives. The six year old asked me if my job was like what Nicolas Cage’s character does in the movie. As I pondered my answer, I first looked at the TV, on which Nicolas Cage was rolling the Declaration up like a Bon Jovi poster and partaking in some witty banter with the beautiful conservator. I then looked at my nephew, who was waiting for my answer, his trusting eyes looking at me with anticipation. I said: “Yes, yes it is.” I will continue this lie until he is old enough to understand that the truth of what Uncle Lance does is actually as cool as the lie. So, despite the bad preservation practice and historical inaccuracies, anything that makes me look cool and puts butts in the seats at the National Archives is alright by me. Besides, if you are going to misrepresent what an archivist does, it could be worse (before I get sucked into the debate on the preceding clip, I refer you to Derangement and Description, whose take on this matter is spot on).

Grad School Cohort/Twitter Before I went to grad school, a friend of mine, whose wife earned a MBA a couple of years earlier, told me that my grad school cohort will become quite important to me. Well, Chris from New Jersey was right. Even though I am older than most of my former classmates (that is why this blog is called NewArchivist, not YoungArchivist), they have proved to be an invaluable help to me by providing a place to ask “dumb” questions and vent about the common frustrations of a new professional. I see the group of archivists on Twitter as a similar type of resource. While Twitter interaction obviously lacks the face to face element (and you run the chance of broadcasting your ignorance to the world), where else do you have an opportunity to communicate with archivists from all different locations, expertise, and experiences (without having to risk getting mired in #thatdarnlistserv)? I do not get a chance to contribute as much as I would like on Twitter, but I hope to increase my participation in the future and help add my small part to that discussion.

Well, there is a sampling. Please feel free to add some of your thankfulness to the comment section, and happy Thanksgiving from all of us at NewArchivist!

Deviled Eggs are Freakin' Awesome

Deviled Eggs are Freakin' Awesome

Egg image courtesy of Flickr member crowdive / CC-BY-NC-SA

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Summer at the Library of Congress

We are pleased to welcome Heather Ball as our first Guest Contributor. She is a current student at the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies at Queens College in New York. We thank Heather for her contribution to NewArchivist!

Hello burgeoning archivists! I thought it might be interesting to share my experience from working at the Library of Congress this past summer. I was a Junior Fellow in the Manuscripts Preparation division, and my task was to fully process a roughly 45,000-itemed collection from accession to boxing and foldering. Though I didn’t quite complete the task in my three months there, I did accomplish and learn a heck of a lot. I also learned a lot about the Library itself, and about how collections are received and processed. One of the things that I found most interesting is that the Library is a lending library; anything that is on their shelves is open for user perusal—even the books from the Jefferson Library exhibit. Items out at our storage facilities in MD can even be retrieved and delivered to users in one day. Just imagine the enormity of the holdings, and the implications of this process- the Manuscripts Division alone has roughly 60 million items!

On my second day at the Library, my archivist came to me and another Fellow in the division and asked if we would give a presentation to tour groups from a local university the next morning at 9am. We eagerly agreed, so my archivist brought us into the bowels of the stacks to the “core” collection (approx. 100 of the library’s most popular items). These items are housed separate from their original collection so that tours or viewings can be put together quickly. She told us to pick eight items that best exemplify the library’s holdings, do some research, and write up a little bio of each piece. In two hours we picked our items, researched them, and prepared a presentation. The group was thrilled with our picks (which included a 15th cent. Icelandic MS; a bail petition from accused witches in 1692; a letter between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams talking about the tenuous relationship with King George; a Shaker painting from 1853; a punch card, plate and instructions from the first tabulating machine in 1895; the Woman’s Bible from 1898; a flag from the NAACP in the 1930s; and a telegram from 1941 announcing the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor), which was a great feeling for a new professional.

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Three Things I Didn’t Learn in Archives School

First off, I am sorry for the delay in getting fresh material posted, we will be more regular in the future. Thanks to Angelique for reminding us that there are actually people reading this blog, who knew? ~ed.

I have been in my position now for almost nine months, part time from January to my graduation in May, and full time since then. Below I discuss the three biggest things I have learned on the job. Now, this post is not a complaint about my education, I think that these are inherently things that you learn on the job. There is also a distinct possibility that they actually did come up in school and I was not paying attention. On to the list:

3. Technology I think that most archives students in my program are pretty happy with the technological education that we received. I was not very fluent in technology and now I feel that I can converse freely in tech-talk. However, I also feel that perhaps I should have pushed myself harder in that area. Wouldn’t it be great if I had mad programming-skills? Let me answer that rhetorical question with a resounding yes. While I do not want to be a programmer or a IT person, I do think that a more solid base in the area would help me better understand what is required to implement things like digital repository software or other technological solutions. Even in a large organization like where I work, the more skills in this area would help me better communicate to the IT and programming people.

I will continue to work on these skills, both in the class room, on the job, and in everyday life (like, oh I don’t know, working to keep this blog going). The first few months of my employment have shown me that it is very important to keep up with these things. If nothing else, it will help me boost my nerd quotient.

2. Money This may be to be chalked up to complete and total naivety on my part, but I am really surprised how much the question of funding creeps into conversations, both at work and with fellow archivists. At school, we did not talk much about it, but I see that in the real world so much runs on costs and benefits. I think the question of money also goes beyond finding funding to sustain programs, staff, and projects. It seems that striking a balance between the public service orientation of most of our institutions and the real need to make business cases for the projects we undertake is an essential, and at the same time difficult, facet of our professional duties.

For example, I know that there is a frequently reoccurring discussion on the A&A listserv surrounding access. These discussions often outline the tension between access and the need to fund things like digitization efforts. I strongly agree with the assertion that archives have a responsibility to promote as much access as possible and should not exert additional controls, such as fees for high resolution images, on materials. However, I am also not as quick as some on the listserv to label archives that are charging fees as being in the wrong. These decisions must be difficult, and I am starting to realize that, no matter how much we archivist are not about the money, much of what we do requires it. Often that requires a compromise between the ideal and the possible. Note: I was going to make the last link go to that “show me the money” clip, but there is something unsettling about Tom Cruse yelling, unless it is in this.

1. The Management of People This is the big one for me and the thing that got me thinking about writing a post like this. I supervise student employees as part of my duties, as well as, obviously, work with a variety of people throughout my day. My dad, who was a human resources manager for a time, told me once that managing people was the most difficult thing he has ever done. Now, being a rebellious teenager at the time (well, as rebellious as a future archivist and lover of all things Star Wars can be), I thought to myself “How hard can it be?” The answer is: very. I think I am good at it, but it certainly takes much more of my day than I had expected. For me, the stress comes from the fact that I want to make sure that we produce top-quality deliverables and are rigorous in our research, without me coming off like:

Excellent

Excellent

The Simpsons 20th Century Fox Television

So, I have a strategy on how to make myself a better boss/employee/dude-that-people-work-with. I have taken a managers class offered through the university. This was very helpful, especially in the area of how to communicate better (and there was a lunch provided). I have also had several people recommend the book Crucial Confrontations, which has apparently spawned some workshops as well. While it does not really fall into the topics I usually read, I am willing to check it out. Mostly, I want to learn more from my mentors and, as I gain more experience, hopefully become a manager that can help successfully guide a team, without being the kind of boss that everyone (including me) hates.

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