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.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

BTP: Education and secrecy

Okay. I've had a couple of things percolating around in my head this week and one of them I've already promised to write about. So here goes. You all should have figured out by now that I'm doing my best to support your job searches. So I usually try to come in on the side of giving all of you the benefit of the doubt. Here's where that ends.

First. For those of you who are reading this because you want to be a professional archivist but you don't have a masters degree. Please. Stop reading this now and go get your master's degree from a school with an archives track or accept the fact that it's only going to get harder if it isn't already impossible to get professional-level jobs as an archivist. If you're enjoying that job you have that just asks for your bachelor's level and it pays you enough to live on? You'd better hold on to it. Mostly what you're looking at are archival tech positions and your ability to move on to higher jobs in future is going to be severely limited without that masters. Maybe grad ed isn't an option for you, or not right now. I understand that. But when I see multitudes of people with graduate archival ed applying for any given professional position, you have to realize that your search is going to have some serious limitations. And like it or not, there's a lot of recruiters out there just like me who will continue to insist our hires have the Masters level degree. We're not going to back off of that. The graduate schools are hardly likely to start producing fewer archivists. We don't need to back off of that and pretty soon, nobody else will either. At least for the higher-paying jobs or the ones that have some sort of official professional rank.

Yes, there's plenty of archival work out there that doesn't require somebody with a masters to do (or doesn't pay enough for somebody with a masters to do.) I suspect mostly in small, local institutions. If that's your dream, great. Go for it. Those institutions need you, and from my vantage point, they need you badly. Please go attend some workshops and take a look at the SAA publications list and start reading the basics manuals. As much as they need you, they need you more with a solid background in the theory and practice of archives. And good luck with that job. I've worked for that place. It paid $1.50/hr over minimum wage and took every bit of archival education and experience I had. I was the only professional (all but thesis) they've ever had working for them, the only one they probably ever will have. But going into credit card debt just to survive wasn't my idea of a fun time. And so I had some strong motivations to polish off that thesis and get something ranked and paid as a professional job. If you can afford to take that job, do it well, and to stay there, more power to you.

On to subject 2. Secrecy. I'm just going to be Ms. Popular today, I can just tell. Deep breath.

For those of you who don't want to tell your current employer that you're job seeking? Get over it. If you're lucky enough to have other recent supervisors who can act as references, that's fine. If in avoiding people from your current place of employment you're left with a references list of only professors or people who supervised you over two years ago? With nobody who can address your recent experience and skill levels? Good luck with that. You may be fine. You wouldn't be fine in my pool. Nor would you have made it to a job offer in any of the other searches I've served on in the past 10 years (and hey: not an Arlene-only-bias: in many of those searches, that standard was set by somebody other than me).

Here's some alternatives. Do you have a volunteer job? Can you use somebody from there? Do you have a current co-worker you can use? Unless you're in a two-person shop (you and your supervisor) somebody must be around who can do this. While I'm willing to say okay, maybe you can keep it from your supervisor, but keeping it from everybody? You're going to tie yourself into knots keeping this one secret. If you don't have a coworker you can use? If you've got an insane supervisor? A loose cannon? Somebody who will punish you for your disloyalty? You're taking some pretty severe chances by using this person or even telling them you're searching? Guess what? It's not going to get better. It's not going to get easier to tell this person. They're not going to become any less of a loose cannon. And your other references are getting older, and farther away, and less and less relevant.

I've forced a few of those reference names from applicants. Want to know what I heard when I called? "Well, we were pretty sure s/he was searching. We knew we wouldn't be able to keep him/her forever. But s/he deserves a much better job than this one and if we were you, we'd hire him/her." And a few of them I didn't hire and I have kept in touch with some of them and maybe a few lingering aftereffects, but nowhere near what they were worried about. Guess what? The sheer relief of how easy so many things become once you've fessed up to searching can often outweigh the stress of anticipated retribution. No more hiding, no more coming up with fake excuses about why you're going on a three-day vacation to Thief River Falls in January.

Okay, so if I do give you the benefit of the doubt and you do have that insane boss who will fire you or start to harass you the second this person gets a glimmer of the fact that you might be jobsearching and make your life so awful you'd be committing career suicide to tell them, you'd better find an alternative. Start volunteering. Or developing close professional relationships with others in the field. Start collaborative projects with people from other institutions. Or just take your chances and provide a references list without anybody from your current job. And hope that you aren't up against a tie-breaker with somebody who did provide current references. Because while I'd call you up and give you the opportunity to provide that current name, not everybody will.


  1. Question for you about educational background coming from somebody who is in a Master's Program right now in Public History...

    How as a candidate do I stack up against those graduating from a library science program (everything else being equal?) I have learned the basics (taken graduate coursework in archives and records management) and have two different archives internship experiences. Does my educational background put me at a disadvantage or is it a wash? My current employer said it doesn't matter, both degrees are equal in her mind. Just wondering your opinion. Thanks so much.

  2. It's equal to me too as long as the archival component is as strong as the one I received with my history degree. Not to all employers. My perception is that academic special collections are going to be more likely to require a library-based degree but not always (my current place of work springs instantly to mind, Princeton is another one that hires degrees other than the library. Not that I'm comparing us to Princeton!) Your best bet? Go take a look at some of the job listings out there and see for yourself. And I've had a few colleagues write to recruiters requiring a single type of degree and been able to get that changed--and still get the job too.

  3. Hey there, I've been following this blog for a while, and I must thank you, Arlene, for all the great work. It's quite helpful to understand what's expected and how the process is set up.

    Now, I've not responded mostly because of I'm in the position you describe in this post; I'm not currently in an archives track MLS degree. Actually, I'm getting my MA in History (abroad to boot). But being slightly overzealous, I figure this info will help next year (or possibly in 2 years?) when I'm well on my way into my MLS, and hoping for that entry job.

    I originally planned to go straight into a MLS in January. But recently I've found some very interesting traineeships/internships. These are mostly in the UK, but some in the US as well. They're pretty much 1 year paid internship meant for pre-professionals planning to head to grad school. Of course, the person promoting the program told me I should do this first, but I always prefer second, informed opinions!

    I understand practical training is important, which is why I picked a school that offers internships as part of the studies. But are paid, full-time positions (like this would be), considered as important for entry level work? I figure any experience in the sector is good experience, even pre-masters.

    The other issue is, as I mentioned, most of these offers are in the UK. Since practices and standards are different, from what I understand, would you or other employers be less likely to pick up a student or anyone with experience from abroad? The idea would be to then go to school in the USA, get my MLS and follow through with a career, still in the US. But I've heard professional practices will sometime see foreign experience as a detriment, rather than positive because you've been "trained wrong." Are there these international worries in the archive field?

    I hope the question on cross-cultural archival practice isn't too far outside the scope of this blog. But again, I appreciate your hard work! Thanks for your time.

  4. Nicholas: not a clue! I'm with you on the experience piece--any is good. I don't see foreign as a problem per se, cannot speak for anyone else, sorry. What I have seen in the few applicants who have applied from the UK is that their experience/training--insofar as they've described it--is much more strong on the rare book, scroll, preservation end of things than the more contemporary records collections I'm likely to see/have. So that might be the drawback: their experience is out of the scope of my institution's collections and then I start to worry about whether or not the candidate is really all that interested in dealing with 200 cf 1970s era state legislative collections when they've been able to put a finger on the Book of Kells and have gone on about that at length in their cover letter and resume. Now: that's not the case for all of them since I'm well aware that there's plenty of archivists in the UK who work with more contemporary collections as well as collections in the US that do have very, very old materials.

    Good on you for thinking about this first but if you want to do this, do it whether or not it's directly related to future career opportunities as you see them now. I'm hardly going to complain about anybody's search for knowledge--because sometimes the pursuit is just as important as what you do with it--and certainly you never know what will come in handy.