Surviving and thriving and getting that professional archives position.

Welcome. If you're here, you're probably wondering how to get some job--maybe the perfect professional archives position or maybe just something you can use as a springboard--and you're seeking advice on how to do that. From searching for advertisements to writing a resume or cover letter to making it through the interview. And hopefully even beyond.

No guarantees, you probably already know a lot of this, but maybe some help from a lot of people who want to make sure that good candidates get good jobs. If you've got better advice? or need further explanation? Please share in the comments.

Friday, January 29, 2010


I’d like to start out with an introduction of who I am and why I’m doing this and some background to this project. My name is Arlene Schmuland. I’m head of Archives & Special Collections at the Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage and a tenured associate professor. I’ve been an professional archivist for over 15 years now and probably most people would consider me a mid-career archivist (although I hope my longevity is a little more than another 15 years). Though I’m currently working as an archivist/manager for a special collections department in a state university (both university archives and manuscripts collections as well as rare books), I’ve also worked for a state government archives (Utah) as a processor, reference archivist, and cataloger, and for a county court system (archivist, microfilmer, and records manager). So not just the academic side of things. My masters is from the archives and records management/history program at Western Washington University and I also hold the Certified Archivist credential. I’ve been active in SAA, NWA and CIMA.

On to the caveats. Having said all that, none of the opinions expressed in this blog should be assumed to reflect any of those institutions or organizations. And I should say that I barely squeaked through statistics during my years as a math major a few decades back, so I'm hoping I won't go too far astray on some of the numbers I provide but odds are... I'll take the blame and the heat for any mistakes I make. By like token, the caveat follows that none of this should be taken as take-to-the-bank, I'm-going-to-read-this-and-get-a-job promises. Job searches and job recruitments are so individualistic that no one can provide a perfect step one, step two, step three, voila job approach. The aim here is tips, hints, advice, ways to make better, things to avoid, and so forth. I'm also not the most expert archival recruiter out there (as you'll see two posts from now in the section about the survey respondents) but I am one of the more obsessive ones which leads me to:

Why I’m doing this. I’ve served on a lot of search committees for professional archivists in the past 15 years. I’ve headed up several committees in just the past few years. I’ve also applied for far too many positions in the past 15 years too. And I've not always done a good job of it. What I’ve come to realize is that in a lot of cases, I've wrecked my own chances at the job. Not deliberately and maybe not even something I could ever have prevented, but with the exception of one early failure, the people doing the hiring did seem open-minded and interested in giving me a fair shot at the position. As I've served on search committees, I've also seen a good number of excellent applicants whose application materials and interviewing skills represented them well. Unfortunately, I've seen a few bad applicants whose applications materials and interviewing skills represented them well, which was probably for the best. But sometimes--even one is far too many--it's been a case of good applicants who weren't able to represent themselves as well as they ought.

As I've chaired at least 3 professional archives search committees in the last three years, I've developed a few traits as a recruiter. (I'm getting to the why, hang with me please.) I don't have a lot of patience for vaguely worded application materials, candidates who don't target the job I have on offer, badly structured resumes, in short, anything that I come to regard as time-wasting at a time when I'm probably down by one full-time person in a small department. Even when I'm fairly sure that the candidate could be a good candidate, if they'd just done that one little thing different. So based on my experience, I got to thinking about how I could save time and effort in future searches. One of the things that occurred was that a lot of the problems I was seeing were most likely based on a lack of available advice to job-seekers.

There's the crux of the why. The more applicants that get it, the more applicants that understand what rules and regs and processes constrict my handling of the recruitment process, the more applicants that are able to give me the information I need to make my assessments, the simpler this is for me. This is really self-interest at play here. I don't like spending an hour reading and re-reading a single resume and cover letter set seeking that mention of that minor requirement: I'd much rather quickly check off that requirement and go on to the more serious assessment and ranking of how well this candidate might fit this job and to have all the information I need to assess that comprehensively. By the way, I'm not alone in this. I don't think I'll be doing another recruitment for awhile, but I've talked to enough of our colleagues now to realize that they want this too. And since I have a break from performing a recruitment right now, it seemed a good time to get this all written down.

And since I'm not nearly egotistical enough to assume I speak for anybody else, much less the whole archives profession, I asked colleagues for help. That help consisted of a few things. One was conversations with other hiring professionals on how they felt about the recruitment process and what they were seeing and what they wanted to see. The more official though perhaps not much more scientific method was to conduct a poll for anybody who had conducted archival job recruitments or served on committees doing so and ask them what they thought. So I drew up a basic survey. From there I asked several colleagues to review the survey and many had criticisms, corrections, amendments, additions, and deletions to it, and I took much of that advice. I then posted the link to that survey to the Archives and Archivists listserv and gave people about a month and a half to fill it out. I received 70 responses. Not all of them filled out the whole survey--it was pretty long. But I think that in there is some valuable advice and I'll be passing it along to you. Recruiters participated in the survey because they want applicants to do the best possible job in their applications. It's a potential time-saver for us when our applicants really hit our marks.

Plus I'm interested in it from the other side of things. I don't know that I'll stay in this position for the rest of my career. I'm tenured now, and I must admit, I really, really like my job, but I like to keep my options open. And I want to be sure that solid job-seeking advice is out there for when I go looking for the next one because I'll probably continue to make mistakes in my own job-seeking (I'm good at making mistakes). So to that end, the comments option for this blog is enabled. If you want to provide advice too or tell me I'm off the rails, that's all right. I am moderating comments to make sure spam doesn't get through, but if it looks real enough, I'll post. If you want to ask something and you don't want to go public, if you register with the blogspot site you'll be able to pull up my email address and contact me directly (beware that I may still use it as fodder for further discussion.) If you have questions about stuff I've failed to cover, ask. If I can do something with them, I'll try. If I can't, I'll try and get you pointed at someone or something that can. If you know of any other really great resources on archival job searching (has somebody posted NARA's guide to KSAs?), share please?

In the end? It will be a learning experience. For all of us, hopefully.


  1. Arlene-I am so glad you are doing this. It is too bad it won't be a session since I think many people would benefit from this discussion. I too will reading this since I still don't have a job. Thanks-Tiffany

  2. As you'll come to see, I'm far too long-winded to ever cut this down into the time required for a 20 minute presentation in a session or even a half-day pre-conference workshop. Plus though I'm assuming some employed but searching archivists may be reading this, most of the audience is probably going to be unemployed or underemployed. I've been there, couldn't afford to go to conferences to get this kind of training. I figured a blog was a little more democratic, access-wise.

  3. I'm glad you are doing this as well. I'm fortunate enough to be 25 and have had a great job since graduating 3 years ago, though I never know what the future holds and I'm quite interested in any advice and anecdotes from the field. Keep it up!

  4. Thanks for doing this for us Arlene! I appreciate hearing the perspective from the search committee side -- I know that staff time and all sorts of other costs need to be factored into the amount spent for searching for a new hire, but $15,000 knocked my socks off! Meep! I too am a recent grad (June 09) and am still looking and volunteering my butt off in the meantime. I'm really looking forward to reading future posts! is the link for the KSAs help thing, if anyone's interested. It's useful for generic questions that are directly answerable such as knowledge of archival principles or EAD, or verbal communication or whatever, but I've been REALLY stumped on a few questions I've seen for KSAs on presidential libraries jobs.

    "Knowledge of the recent history of the United States, the Presidency and the Federal Government, and the organization and functions of the White House staff and Executive branch."

    I'd like to think of myself as a smart and resourceful person, but... what ARE they looking for with this one? Anyone? Am I supposed to give the Cliff's Notes of US History? How recent is recent? Things like this make me feel unreasonably dumb.

    ANYWAY. This was way too long. So, good luck to the other job hunters out there, and thanks again Arlene.

  5. Hi I am one of those underemployed you mentioned and I wanted to thank you for doing this. I hope this will help me on my job search.

  6. Thanks for the link on the KSAs Jamie! And since you mentioned that cost, you prompted me to do my first in-between-the-posts unplanned entry on my calculations as to the potential cost of a recruitment. (Okay, I clearly need a life. What a way to spend Saturday morning. Told you I'm obsessive). Coming up in an hour or so. In the meantime I'll echo Jamie's request on the definition of some of those KSAs. NARA types: can you just list the various US history courses you've taken that include civic/govt components to meet this requirement if you don't have federal govt experience already? Or is that too vague?

  7. Pearl and Tiffany and Jamie and anybody else who is here because they're searching, I hope this will help too. Since I want to try and make this as interactive as a blog can be, one of the things I've been wondering about is maybe a chat session between a few of us at some point where you can share what's working, what's not working, horror stories, success stories, where the transcript (names removed of course!) could be added as another BTP posting. Any interest in participating? Let me know. I think about 5 people would be ideal. Maybe early-mid March.

  8. Arlene, I would love to participate in any discussion. I have made to to a few in person interviews, so I might have some insights.

  9. Sign me up for the discussion if you'd like, I might be able to give some insight to the USAjobs website and KSAs. (Well, except for vague questions like the one I re-posted, haha.) I was really fortunate to speak to two ladies in NARA HR in August at SAA and they had some advice I wish I'd known earlier -- such as applying for internships/"work study" (or their equivalent?) at NARA while in school, since those people apparently get rolled right over into a full time job after graduation. Who knew?

    Also, I read the cost breakdown post, and wow... new respect for the search committee! Thanks for the details!

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  11. Trying again, maybe this time without typos.

    Jamie: another excellent tip. If you're able to go to SAA, make sure you do the appointment thing at the Career Center. Loads of personalized help--including going through your resume with you. If you can't make the conference, consider doing a mentorship through SAA or your regional for this kind of one-on-one assistance as well.

    TLS77 & Jamie and anybody else interested in doing the chat thing: please log in and grab my email address and send me your contact info--I'm not able to access it through your blogspot profiles.

  12. Do you think you could address the pros and cons of becoming a certified archivist, as it relates to getting a job? I've done a lot of hands-on work but it has been years since I read up on archival history and theory. Should I just read a few basic texts or does it really pay to go for the CA? (I'm in a nonarchiving job at the present time.)

  13. Daria: thanks for the question. I didn't ask that in the survey and that is my failure. I started addressing your query and realized I was getting too long for a comment. I'll throw in a BTP--a short one--on my thoughts either late tonight or tomorrow, okay? And that will give those who want to discuss this more in-depth a more targeted location for their comments.

  14. Since KSAs were discussed in the past, I thought you all might like to know that the federal government is considering doing away with them. Here's an item about it: