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, February 10, 2010

quick look at phrasing

Now, you've found some ads for positions that look attractive to you and it's time to start thinking about your application materials. So what do those listings in the job ad mean anyway?

"Knowledge of" means it's sufficient to show that you've taken a class on the subject or taken some training, though proving you've done it is always an extra little bump. Chances are, having read about it is probably not sufficient.

"Ability" or "Skills" mean you have to identify where you've actually done this particular thing.

"Demonstrated ability" means you will need to prove that you've done this thing, you can't just say that you've done it.

So that's fairly straightforward. But what, I can hear you say, do I do with the intangibles? "Demonstrated communication ability." What does that mean anyway? Here's where it gets interesting. A lot of different things to different people is what that means. For those applications that don't require writing samples, perhaps proof of a publication record or a link to an online writing sample of some sort, so forth. For me when I use it? I often make that assessment off of the quality of the cover letter and I'm not just talking about grammar and spelling here. (Yeah, I know, I'm occasionally really really mean.)

Computer literacy? Or web development ability? Or all those things that could mean a lot of different things to different people? Rely on context. Isn't it nice to be an archivist so you're used to looking for context? If the job is a digital archives specialist, the baseline for computer literacy or web development is likely to be a lot higher than a position that consists primarily of physical processing of textual records.

For more help with context: often, though not always, the elements that are more important to the recruiter will not only be listed earlier in the requirements, but the important stuff will be referenced in the job description as well. If digitization experience is listed in the requirements but isn't even hinted at in the job description, chances are you don't have to dedicate a huge amount of time to this topic. You'll still need to mention it, it's a requirement after all, but it's probably not as important as that "knowledge of web editing software" where the position description says "Will maintain departmental website." I'll get more into ranking matters in the next posting.

So that's some of the things you have to interpret in terms of you. What about the hidden things the advert is telling you about the job or the institution? The thing to keep in mind is reading a job advertisement is a lot like that old joke about reading real estate ads: "Handyman's dream" is likely to mean "Everybody else will want to raze it and start over." Chances are, there aren't going to be too many of these types of clues in the job ad because somebody along the way will have read those and edited them out, but occasionally you can still pick them out.

The job ads that look like somebody pulled the description off of a basic archives textbook? Could mean that the people doing the searching--and potentially the supervision--don't actually know much about the job or what an archivist does. Might be a great chance for you to do some education in a really supportive institution and build a great set-up from scratch or you might spend your time in the position battling for the basics. Like boxes and shelving and a place for people to do research that isn't your office desk. A huge laundry list of duties with no sense of what the priorities are? Again maybe written by somebody who doesn't understand the position or could be you're looking at a position that does nothing but put out fires as they come up. A low wage rate in comparison to expected credentials? Just avoid it. Sorry all, but if they're asking for three master's degrees and reading knowledge of two non-English European languages and five years of progressively responsible management experience, the pay for the position should recompense appropriately and not assume a second or third income in the household.

On that note, I know a few people who swear they will not apply for a position where the advertisement doesn't give any hint of pay. And I occasionally see those ads and wonder that if the people advertising truly understand that when they don't include a pay range, that a lot of otherwise excellent candidates are going to avoid applying just because they assume that an unstated pay = pathetic and embarrassing pay. I've applied for a few of those and with one exception, that was pretty much the case. I've heard the justification that this weeds out the people who aren't serious about the position, but honestly I'm not buying it. If you are paying a good salary, while it may weed out the timewasters or the money-hunting types, it also weeds out far too many excellent candidates. Perhaps some places aren't allowed to advertise their pay. If that's your institution: what is the background here? Do you find it affects the size or quality of your candidate pool? What are the regulations that prevent you from giving applicants an idea of what the compensation might be? Are you at an institution that doesn't advertise the pay for other reasons? Want to explain or defend your practices? I'll take out your name & institution and post an explanation on your behalf if you need to be anonymous. Send me an email.

For those that give pay ranges, you can generally assume that they're going to be hiring closer to the bottom end of it. In some cases that top number looks really nice, but that may not be a hiring range. At one place I knew, that was the top wage for the job scale: that is, that it would take you about 20 years to hit that number and then you were topped out, you'd never get a raise above that. Some will let you negotiate for a point in that range, some won't. I haven't yet figured out a way to tell which is which. If anybody out there reading this has, please share?

Got any other intangibles or not clearly defined requirements you've seen in an ad? Want me or the other blog readers to take a stab at them? Let's see them. Hit comment below and type away. And in that line, Jamie is still waiting for an answer from the Background posting comment that asked about the NARA presidential library requirement: "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." Anybody know what would meet this one? I guessed maybe modern US history or poli sci courses might cover it, but I really don't know. Anybody?


  1. I'm not an expert... I'm actually still working on my MLIS, but I can take a stab at the NARA position. My background for this comes from two sources: 1. talking to a NARA archivistist working in New York Regional 2. A Recently graduated classmate that got her first job at the new President Bush Library down in Texas. From these two sources, I have asertained that you don't need to have much details on the governmental workings knowledge, but more is always better. If you know the general ways things move through the the various departments have an idea of the differences between the roles of the various secretaries etc (information you should get out of one intro college level US history/political science/government course), you are not going to get cut out based on that alone. However, being able to answer these government pop quiz questions more completely could potentially give you extra points when they are tallying up the candidates and deciding who is worth talking to. As for the 'recent' part of that question, it depends on which presidential library you are looking to work in. My friend in the Bush Library? Yes, they wanted her to know more details about his specific administration and especially changes that came about in his presidency. (i.e. knowing what homeland security does) I also know some people who have worked in the FDR library in New York, and they seem to not be very interested at all with recent history, but definitely want staff that are very familiar with the New Deal era etc. Anyway, I hope this helps, I'm not a recruiter, so maybe I am missing an aspect, but it seems like these questions are more to weed out the entirely uninformed than to give the job to the biggest US government buff.
    Great work on the blog, wonderfully informative read!

  2. Thanks Teresa! Any thoughts about how you'd summarize that type of knowledge for providing it in the application itself? I can see how this would come up in an interview question but are the app answers supposed to be this long? I really don't know--I never got past the first 2 questions on a NARA app.

  3. When we asked the same question to the NARA archivists a few months ago, he said that you shouldn't be writing a book to answer the questions, but also should make sure to specifically answer. Use the phrase in the question in the answer for the same reason you don't want to use very different phrasing in your resume for a job posting when you have the proper skill set, when the recruiter has to read a large number of these essays s/he doesn't want to work to know if you answered it or not.
    Oh I guess I should mention, for those who are unaware, NARA jobs generally have one filling out what is called the KSA's... this stands for Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities... this is the place where this type of background information will be assessed, not from the cover letter or resume itself. For each position there are one or more questions that you are asked to write no more than a page to answer. You should be succinct, but as specific as possible. Sometimes the questions are very general: about communicating efficiently or project management, but this would also be the place where questions about history or government workings would come up. Here is a link from their website about the qualifications for NARA employees. There is a pdf about KSAs, but I can't seem to get it to work.
    If you do a search for a job, the qualifications will have a list of the KSAs and you usually need to upload another document that contains your answers to this. For example in the current posting for the Jimmy Carter position, there are 5 KSAs: the above question, two other specific ones and two more general: 4. Ability to use, maintain, and/or develop electronic information and tools.
    5. Ability to communicate effectively, orally and in writing.

  4. Oh I was also wondering, how long does a search last. As I said, I am getting ready to graduate this summer and I wonder if I should be applying to jobs posted now or if that would just be another one of those, oh she isn't ready yet lets toss it away. I know it takes a while to go through the applications and depending on the job there could be initial interviews of the top pool and then another round for final decisions, so it could be a few months, but I don't want to be wasting my time writing cover letters or their time if being ready for work in July or August puts me out of the running point blank.

  5. is the link Jamie provided in a comment on an earlier post and it seems to be working just fine. (Okay, okay I'll work on getting a page added with some of these links y'all provide.)

  6. On the time frame for a search, I do have an upcoming posting in which I'll get to that at length and look at some of the other variables like type of institution. But I will give you the heads-up that 3 months from ad to hire is a common answer.

  7. Hi Arlene,
    Just read all your postings and wanted you to know that I hope you get a book deal for your efforts. I found your information to be very helpful, especially because I graduate from the Rutgers MLIS program this coming May. Thanks for all your great posts!

  8. Thanks Arlene!
    Again, great job on the blog. I have shared it with my classmates and look forward to reading it in the months to come.

  9. Oh, wouldn't a book deal be great? But I'd have to be all stiff and formal and that wouldn't be any fun to write. Thanks Deb!

  10. Not true! There are many books out there written in an informal styles. After all, the clean-up work is the editor's job (said as a former magazine editor). :)

  11. See, even I need an editor (informal style).