Tag Archives: public service

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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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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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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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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Link-O-Rama

While I am not sure if three links really constitute a “O-Rama” type situation, we wanted to pass along some interesting things that have been posted over the past couple of weeks. Enjoy!

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