Tuesday, June 14, 2016

NYAC 2016: Careers in Archives

The bronze statue of Samuel de Champlain atop Plattsburgh, New York's Champlain Monument overlooks the lake that bears the explorer's name, 7 June 2016. Champlain never visited what is now Plattsburgh, but many of the area's inhabitants are descendants of the French settlers who arrived in his wake.
Whenever I attend a conference, I make it a point to attend at least one session that isn't directly relevant to my job responsibilities or my career path. It gives me the chance to put aside my preoccupations for a bit and to look at my profession from a slightly different perspective, at least for a little while, and I always find it refreshing.

When I was at the 2016 meeting of the New York Archives Conference in Plattsburgh, last Friday, I attended "Careers in Archives: The Ins and Outs," which focused on the varied career paths within archives and brought together five experienced archivists and allied professionals who have taken on archival responsibilities:
  • Jane Subramanian, SUNY Potsdam (emerita) 
  • John Thomas, Jefferson Community College 
  • Susannah Fout, Lake Placid Olympic Museum 
  • Anastasia Pratt, SUNY Empire State College and Clinton County Historian 
  • Susan Hughes, American Pomeroy Historic Genealogical Association 
The session was aimed at graduate students and new professionals, but I found it quite useful from the perspective of a mid-career archivist who regularly works with interns, dispenses the odd bit of career advice to graduate students, and who occasionally sits on a hiring committee. If you're new to the field or come into contact with people who are just finding their professional footing, I'll think you'll find the points that the panelists made extremely interesting. In the interest of brevity, I've organized them thematically.

Securing one's first professional job
  • An MLS/MIS degree from an American Library Association-accredited school remains the gold standard. If you want a job in a specialized library, specialized coursework is a good idea. However, if you insinuate yourself into an institution or find yourself taking on archival work without having had formal training, you can now pursue an MLS/MIS online. 
  • If you're committed to working in a given institution or a given region, you might have to take a related job and bide your time. One panelist who wanted to work with an archives/local history collection took a librarian position within the same institution, waited until the archives/local history librarian retired, and then approached the library director about transferring into the position. 
  • There are a lot of small museums, historical societies, and libraries out there, and there's a very good chance that you will be employed by such an institution at some point in your career. 
  • Do not limit yourself to archives-specific or library-specific jobs; archival skills translate very well to registrar and collections manager positions. 
  • You need to know how historians do research. If you can fit a historical research methods course into your schedule, by all means do so. 
  • If you're interested in working in a corporate archives, look for job postings on their websites, the American Association of State and Local History website (especially for internship positions), and www.indeed.com as well as archives-specific listservs and websites. News of openings is sometimes spread by word of mouth, so network with board members if you can. Private businesses hire staff more quickly than non-profits, so proactively submitting a resume never hurts. 
  • A number of organizations provide grants to local governments and historical records repositories, and working as a short-term consultant or project archivist is one way to get your foot in the door; however, you should be aware that consulting work, in particular, has serious income tax implications. Contact grant funders and ask if they maintain a list of consultants. Watch their websites for news of awards and contact recipients as soon as announcements are made; recipients often don't hire a consultant until after they have received a grant and may need to get their project started quickly. 
  • Familiarize yourself with the organization to which you're applying; look at its website and its finding aids. Hiring committees can tell if you haven't done your homework. 
  • Have someone else proofread your resume or curriculum vitae; most of the panelists indicated that they have seen resumes that contained multiple errors – and promptly discarded them. 
  • If asked to submit a resume, do not send a curriculum vitae – and vice versa. 
  • Your cover letter is your chance to distinguish yourself from all the other candidates. Be sure that it addresses all of the main points in the job posting. Again, have someone else proofread it. 
  • Search committees are not looking for people who know everything. They are looking for people who know what they do know, what they don't know, and have some ideas about how they're going to learn what they don't know. (This is such an important point. The archival learning curve is infinite, and I would be deeply wary about hiring anyone who seemed convinced that s/he already knew all s/he needed to know.) 
  • A job interview is a two-way process. At the same time it gives your prospective employer a chance to evaluate you, it gives you the chance to evaluate your prospective employer. (Having heard my fair share of horror stories, I offer the following advice: if you walk out of an interview with the sense that your prospective employer is dysfunctional, think very, very carefully before accepting a job offer!) 
  • Walking out of an interview wishing you had said X is a very common experience. A post-interview thank you letter allows you to say it. 
Succeeding in one's first (or second, or third . . . ) professional job
  • If you are working in a smaller organization, be prepared to wear many hats. In smaller institutions, the roles of curator, registrar, and archivist are often rolled into one. You may also have fundraising, research, publicity, social media, tourism promotion, and ticket sales responsibilities. You will almost certainly have at least some IT responsibilities. In academic settings, you may have both library and archival responsibilities. 
  • Being pulled in multiple directions can be frustrating, but it can also enable you to learn new skills and make valuable contacts. One panelist who held a joint library/archives appointment found that the extensive faculty contacts she developed in her capacity as a librarian proved very handy when she decided she wanted to start an archives instruction program for undergraduates. 
  • Seek ways to make your collections more visible and accessible. Space is always limited and administrators are always looking to ensure that it is used as effectively as possible, so you want to be sure that your collections are being used. 
  • Making connections and pointing people to resources held by other repositories will be an essential component of your job. Depending upon your repository's collecting scope and researcher community, you may need to acquaint yourself with the staff and the holdings of repositories not only in your region but also in other states or nations. 
  • Continuing education is a must. Certificate of advanced study programs, online and in-person professional development workshops, and professional conferences will help you maintain and expand your knowledge and skills and make essential professional connections. 
  • If you are your employer's first professional archivist, tackling an extensive processing backlog may be your first assignment. You'll need to be able to figure out how to establish appropriate legal and intellectual control over your holdings – and to do so without a lot of staff or money. Solid organizational skills are a must. 
  • Prepare to steel yourself against poor-quality or out-of-scope donations – and to train colleagues and volunteers to do the same. 
  • Don't be satisfied with your collections as they are. Know what you don't have, and be prepared to do the work needed to expand your holdings. 
  • It's 2016. Even lone arrangers working in small organizations have electronic records in their holdings now. Be prepared to care for them.

No comments: