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.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

the bad news/the good news

I'm sorry to start on a depressing note, so please be sure to read through the end of this posting.

There's a lot of archivists out there and the schools with archival programs are producing a lot more every semester. And honestly, there probably aren't enough jobs for all of them in the "classic archives" field. At a session at SAA '09 (See Session 106 description) in Austin, Dana Miller (see comments please) noted that according to a count she'd done for the previous six months, the library schools are graduating four archivists for every open position, and that doesn't include the archivists coming out of non-library archival programs. Plus, of course, a lot of people are entering the profession from outside of graduate archival programs. And those open positions? Not all entry-level.

I'd rather not get into the topic of the choices our graduate programs are making and I certainly don't want this blog to be about making the career choice in the first place. So from here on out, I'm going to assume that whether you're looking for that entry level position or you're a little further along in your career looking for a change, that you've got the basic credentials: professional training, experience appropriate to the job in question, and interest and passion for the work. Also? That you're willing to put some serious time and effort into your search and applications. I'm going to be asking you to do work. Thinking time, writing time, editing time, practicing time, not only for you, but for colleagues and friends that you're going to get to help you with this process.

A couple more bits of bad news and then on to the good. I'm not seeing a lot of advertisements for professional archival positions out there. This is nothing new, this is not new to the economy right now, this has been the case for a long time. Sure some archivists maybe be retiring or due to retire in that moving target of soon, but sometimes those positions go unfilled for years, if not permanently. Worse, last open position for which I was doing the recruitment? 75 applicants. That's a pretty big pool and means the odds were stacked against any given applicant. Not to mention that recruitments are very, very expensive. I'd guess that my last recruitment--between personnel time for the search committee and flights, housing and food for interview candidates--probably ran my institution close to $15,000. So why do I mention that? It might help explain why we sometimes get so picky and critical about the details: our institutions tend to get very unhappy about failed searches so we want to do it right the first time. Plus the costs of hiring the wrong person for the job are incalculable, but even so, who wants to add another $15K onto the incalculable?

And now I'm going to say quite the most awful thing I didn't ever want to hear being said as a job candidate. And I'm sorry about this, but you have to hear it if you haven't yet. The high rate of response on most recruitments means that--for the first run-through at least--many of us are not looking at all your hard work, we're looking for reasons to reject your application and to get our work down to a manageable level. That stinks and we know it, but there you are. That's a strong part of the reason why I think the advice spread throughout this blog is important: you need to get past that initial cull so the people doing the reading and assessing and ranking can really start looking for what's good about you, not what's bad. I've taken too many candidates out on the first screening who probably would have been in the top group of eligible candidates for interview because they made a small mistake in their application materials. And sometimes individuals have made it into the interview pool who really weren't all that spectacular comparatively because they didn't make those mistakes. So let's give you--the prepared and qualified candidate--all those opportunities, okay?

So I've made you wait long enough. The good news. The good news is that professional archival recruitments are still happening. New jobs are being created. Most of the recruiters I've spoken with aren't playing the "who you know" game but are willing to consider all applicants equally. Honestly? The smart recruiter wants somebody who will be good in the position but who also wants the position and will be happy in it for a while. So for those of you who may not have a lot of experience, sometimes that means that the most experienced candidate may not be the best fit and you still have a good shot at getting the job. If you concentrate on putting an effort into a job search, if you somehow manage that elusive goal of having your application materials and answers to interview questions match up with what the recruiter is seeking, you're qualified, and you keep focused on what you want to be doing and make sure you're taking all the necessary steps, you'll have a decent chance at most jobs.

So how do you figure out what the recruiter is seeking? What are those necessary steps? I'll get to those in further posts. I'm aiming to post entries about 3 times a week til we're done. Thanks for hanging out so far, more shortly.


  1. Great post, Arlene, and a valuable addition to the archives blog world. Thanks for spending your time helping thes rest of us out. The guy in the picture (your boyfriend?) needs a shave.

  2. Thanks so much for posting this information, Arlene!

    One comment: Would you mind posting a little bit of background about yourself (where you work currently, what your involvement has been with hiring employees, etc.)? I think students would appreciate that kind of context.

    I'm sharing this with the archives students at UW-Madison SLIS.

  3. Thanks Terry. Yes, he's about standard for an Alaskan boyfriend (and you're one to talk) but he's not mine.

    Meredith: next posting (Friday) will be on me and why I'm doing this.

  4. Hi Arlene!
    Thanks so much for putting up this blog! A friend of mine told me about it. I am really looking forward to future posts. One thing- *I* am the Dana you quoted in the top paragraph, the one who did the count at the SAA Panel last August in Austin. There were 2 Danas on my panel- I analyzed the job ads put out for the previous 6 months to get that estimate (plus corroboration from a library journal in an article from library schools making the graduate pool too large), while Dayna Holz was the expatriate who became a librarian at the Berkeley Public Library. I just didn't want her to get credit or blame for something I said. Can't wait for more!
    ---Dana Miller

  5. Dana: I'm so sorry! I will correct. I know exactly what happened: I had Dana in my notes, then looked at the online SAA description of the session to confirm a last name and you're not listed there! I knew I should have gone looking at my email notes from pre-session, I just knew it. Okay, lesson to readers: if you're going to address somebody by name, always confirm you've got the right person. I once interviewed at a place where something like 6 of the 8 women working there were named Chris or some variant. That could have gotten bad.

  6. Arlene, what a great resource! As an MSLIS student about to graduate in May with a certificate in archives/records management, I have the feeling that having found your blog will prove the equivalent to striking job-prep gold. Thanks so much!


  7. I will join the rest and thank you so much for creating this blog. I recently graduated (in May)from Queens College and have not been able to get more than a few interviews since then. I have entertained myself with freelance writing and volunteering at a local museum archive. It really is a shame, since I am so looking forward to getting in the field, but I am patiently awaiting an economic change.

  8. Thanks all. Even if you are starting to make me a little nervous about content. I guess I struck a nerve with this one?

  9. I graduated in May with a MLS and a Archives Cert from Pratt . I found a short-term project which took me through December, I am currently in this hell. I haven't found a soild lead yet.

  10. As a recent (December) MLIS/Archival Admin graduate from Wayne State, I find this blog to be very timely. Thank you, and I look forward to future posts and discussions.

  11. Thanks for the support. You're all already giving me ideas about some between-the-posts post subjects. Maybe testimonials about how some other archivists approached the getting into the workforce dilemma. If you've been in the field for a little while and are willing to share your story and why and how you made the decisions you did, please contact me? Let's get you a forum.