Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Career advice from archivists: what it's like to become one, and other tips for MLIS students

DISCLAIMER: Please note that these are the opinions and thoughts of individuals and not necessarily representative of any agency, body, or organization, or the profession as a whole but rather the experiences and reflections of numerous individuals. None of the following comes from any hiring officials and should not be construed as official hiring advice.

1) I read that the job market is furiously competitive (then again, what job market isn’t). Do you think this is a good time to pursue the profession, and, if so, what is the best strategy to remain competitive?

The opinion on this varies and you will see a range of thoughts below. It's a difficult question to answer definitively but the more skills you can amass, the better equipped you will be at either getting a job or carving out your own niche. (See below for more.)

2) After graduating a few years ago, I realized that I chose the wrong degree. By the time I graduate with my Library of Science degree I will be 30, with little professional experience. Knowing this, do you think potential employers will show any interest in me? Or will I be taken seriously as long as I have the right qualifications and practical (internship/volunteer work) experience.

I do not know for sure so I'll answer this from a personal perspective. My opinion is that employers will be impressed with your ambition, fortitude and maturity and that will matter more than you think (in addition to whatever experience you can proactively obtain while in school).

I was in a similar boat (although with a different degree, and also a very different outcome from my original plans). Prospective employers always asked about my nontraditional path but it has seemed to help because undertaking lofty goals (such as a degree program, especially later in life) communicates to an employer that the applicant cares, is willing to work hard, can learn new skills, and is not easily daunted by challenges; all important skillsets to managers. It is always a noble cause to pursue your dreams and to better yourself.

It may be useful to uncover the specifics of an ideal job. For example, if you are drawn to this field because you love discovering and learning, you may be able to craft a profession which embodies the things you love most even if the outcome diverges from your expectation. It can be very useful to collect "informational interviews" from people in various fields. Think about what you would you like your typical day to look like and note what aligns with what you discover.

A useful read is "What Should I Do With My Life" by Po Bronson, a social documentarian who traveled the country to talk with people who've taken nontraditional paths or uprooted their original route. It can be difficult to embark on a path outside societal/familial/cultural or self expectations and very inspiring to read about others who have "made it" in unexpected ways.

3) My goal after graduation is to be employed by an archives. I know the application process is highly competitive. Please share with me some strategic advice in regards to making me a more attractive job candidate.

I will let the snippets of advice below answer this (again with the stipulation of knowing none of this is "official" or guaranteed), and will offer one additional idea.

There are researchers who have created their own jobs at various archives. They are not employed by the institutions but go to their facilities regularly to conduct research.

The public's need for information is larger than most institutions can meet so you may be able to hang out a shingle as an independent researcher. Contact the institution to find out if they will add your name to a list of researchers people can outsource.

The National Archives has a page where you can apply for a listing to be an independent researcher at: www.archives.gov/research/hire-help/. (Some researchers limit themselves to the facility they are nearest and some travel -- the National Archives has facilities all over the country but there are also archives at many nonprofit organizations and educational institutions.) You can get ideas by browsing the list -- it may be sources of inspiration and ideas or perhaps even informational interviews.

Thoughts from archivists and records managers:

"Most every archivist feels it's a personally fulfilling career, according to an SAA (Society of American Archivists) survey. However it may be difficult to find work. The pay is not high."

"Get a solid education -- graduate programs allow you to be more competitive than undergraduate programs alone. Having certification and other optional credentials can also help. Check to see which programs offer volunteer or paid programs either on or off campus. Experience will help you stand out among the competition. Some of our archivists had said that if they realized this while they were choosing a program, they would have made it a make-or-break factor. Education alone is not enough."

"Volunteer!! If you can tell repositories that you're learning theory while practicing application, great."

"View jobs on USAjobs.gov (or other job sites) and look carefully through the Assessment Questions (or requirements) -- target what to learn based on what's being sought."

"If you're willing to relocate, it can increase chances for a job."

"If you join the military or Peace Corps once your service is complete, members qualify for veterans preference when applying for federal jobs (Peace Corps applicants preference is only temporary)."

"When newly applying out of school, look out for positions that are restricted to recent graduates, as there will be less competition. Start watching the job ads now so you know what employers are looking for, identify what area of archives you are most interested in, and then take classes and volunteer/intern/paid gigs to get the experience."

"Be pro-active with your own career and development. Try to identify the holes in your experience and education, and take advantage of opportunities to fill these gaps. Sometimes, opportunities will come to you. However, more often than not, I have found the best approach is reach out for projects and skills rather than wait for them to be handed to you."

"In addition to flexibility on geographical location, I'd add flexibility with the type of work (Librarian, archivist, type of institution-government, university, corporate, local, special interest, etc). I'd also recommend a course or two in museum studies."

"Dip your toes into a variety of work:
  • Process a collection from start to finish (size does not matter).
  • Do something that involves using a database.
  • Help with a small exhibit (research, design, layout).
  • Get exposure to a variety of settings (archives in a library, a large archival institution, a small local museum).
"This can be an expensive degree with little payback and small windows of opportunity to compete, and stiff competition."

"Federal hiring is incredibly complicated. I recommend building two resumes. The first should be for non-federal positions that is 1 or 2 pages. The federal resume might be up to 5 or 6 pages that describes any and all related experience. If a position talks about performing customer service, and they worked at a restaurant, they should list it. Getting through the HR process is one of the most discouraging aspects to applying to federal employment. I applied to over 120 positions (about 90 federal) when began my search for a job out of grad school. I was only interviewed on 4 of the job announcements (2 federal, 2 at universities)."

"Consider a public school rather than a private one. Try to get a work study job on campus, in the library system if possible, especially if it qualifies you for in-state tuition. This allows you to minimize the financial burden while also gaining valuable experience."

"It used to be that either an MA in History or an MLIS would do the trick. but the last decade or so has seen a preference toward the latter.. While in grad school apply for as many internships as possible (paid or unpaid) until you land a convertible one. This ultimately will get you where you want to go."

"1. The MLS / MLIS is valuable in itself - and broader than just archives. Keep an open mind. There is satisfying work in lots of info professions, and many grads, especially those with good tech skills are getting hired in both traditional and non-traditional jobs. 2. Keep an open mind about modern records, electronic records, records management, and information governance. There are interesting jobs out there in closely related fields, and some are definitely hiring. I say this having really really wanted to be an academic manuscripts librarian when I got out of library school. When the job I actually landed was in institutional archives and RM (records management) at a large non-profit, I was surprised to find that there were really interesting and satisfying things about that work. I probably would have loved manuscripts collections, too. But you go where the jobs really are."

"It's difficult to make enthusiastic aspiring archivists understand how challenging it can be to make a living in this field. We are lucky to have a fairly large intern program here, but every year we see first-hand how some students struggle to find employment after graduation. I really wish it wasn't the case."

"I was told, back when I was getting my MLS, to have *at least* three internship/volunteering activities under my belt. This was before the economic crash, and with the way things are, I've heard students now say they are doing three internships *at a minimum.* It's an arms race, and you have to up the level and stay competitive. If possible, do this while you are in your program, or before, or both, if possible. Many programs require you take an internship anyway."

"It's never going to be a "good time" to enter the profession. That''s been the case with most professions, with the exceptions of people in STEM fields. That said, if someone is set on this, I would recommend becoming a certified archivist or certified records manager, or both."

"Any technology or management education or experience a plus."

"Don't limit yourself to NARA -- other federal agencies have Government Information Specialists, records officers, archivists, and librarians."

"I tend to stress to interns and Public History/MLS degree seekers that they need to understand that these programs are expensive, most jobs in the field don't pay well, and graduate programs seem to be accepting too many applicants for the amount of jobs that are out there. If they still have a passion for it and want to move forward, I wish them luck (knowing that it's very possible they will not end up with a dream job and may struggle financially.)"

"Before my current position, I was involved in hiring at my former employer -- a contracting firm that hired employees to deploy on archives / records management projects. Frankly, we cared more about the work experience than whether it was paid or unpaid. The worst resumes were the ones that organized the person's experience by compensation. Think about job transferable skills that you can apply to archives that were gained outside of archives, as well as the archival skills you develop while in school. Focus your resume on the skills. Someone with some kind of archives related experience always won out over the person with an MLS and a string of retail / restaurant jobs."

"#1: You need to love what you do, but I couldn't in good conscience encourage someone to take on a lot of student debt to chase a job in such a competitive field with such a wide range of salaries and benefits. My advice would be to do the math on what you can expect your loan bills to be after graduation, and do some research on what an average archivist is paid. Then evaluate if you still think the career path is worth it. I am so lucky to be doing a job I love that compensates me well, but I also know that my salary is on the high end for an archivist. Be realistic, but don't give up if this is what you really want. There are lots of good ways to be competitive, many of which have already been mentioned by others. Beyond that, I would emphasize: You can't have enough computer skills."

"Even if you think you'll never work with electronic records or do any digitization, take coursework in those areas. You may wind up a lone archivist trying to serve your patrons by putting material online. You may wind up shopping for software or trying to communicate your needs to software engineers. You may get a huge accession with a bunch of old floppy disks and you'll need to come up with a plan for preserving them. Learn a programming language. Learn some web design. Learn to write queries directly in SQL. You can always use more computer skills. Even if you are sure you only want to work with 200 year old maps, anything you know about computers will make you more valuable to an institution. Eventually they will want to put something online, and you're going to need to have thoughts on how to make that happen."

"If you want to work at NARA, it may help to go to the University of Maryland (College Park). I moved 3000 miles to intern here, and it really worked out in my favor. Having people in the agency who know your work is incredibly helpful."

"Try to have graduate assistantships or scholarships fund your tuition to keep expenses down while in school."

"If you don't get into the archives track in your program, all is not lost. I have a general MLS, but was still able to take archival classes which helped me get the job I have today."

"Find a new volunteer/internship opportunity every semester to diversify your work experience."

"I graduated with my MLS at 23 and had 0 years of professional work experience because I had been in school my entire life, but plenty of internships that enhanced my education. Doing relevant work in the field while you study is paramount."

"Employment at government archives is competitive, but not impossible, you just have to be willing to put in a couple years in a position that isn't *quite* what you were hoping for. But once you have a foot in the door of the federal government, things really open up."

"Library school has never been considered very exciting or stimulating, however it's not something you can skip since a graduate degree is a necessity for the field. Library school is about building a foundation of theoretical knowledge rather than providing practical experience. With that in mind:
  • Make sure you get lots of hands-on experience in as many settings (types of institutions) as you can, whether this is through internships, paid work, or volunteering. Make sure you have worked in an archives prior to entering grad school. Though I find it fascinating, this type of work is not for everyone and you should be 100% certain that this is the career you want prior to investing in school, especially if you will be adding to your student loans.
  • Being willing and able to move to another area of the country for a job is probably the best way to get your foot in the door.
  • Make sure you take courses on digital archives, digitization, and electronic records. The field is really progressing in that direction and organizations are seeking recent grads who know all the most up-to-date technology and data standards.
  • A pragmatic consideration is to take courses on electronic records. All archives will have them if they have an active records management or solicitation program."
More information:

To be an archivist:

Career outlook by Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Archives jobs:

Archives certificate:

Archival internships at NARA:

Careers at NARA:

SAA membership:

Archives programs:

Be an independent researcher registered with the National Archives:

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Oliver Sacks on shifting perspectives

"I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at "NewsHour" every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.

"This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.

"I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death."


(Sent from my phone)

Friday, June 24, 2016

Simply being

When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is the friend who cares.

Henri Nouwen

Tuesday, June 14, 2016


From Rich Morey and I had to share:

My heart has been heavy with the murders in Orlando and, sadly, the ensuing foolish political maneuvering...and I have found that I'm at a complete loss as to what to say. So I started exploring a bit through writing and a poem came out.


Its weight becomes a heavy snow,
Dense drifts pushing against our homes,
Invading our streets and hearts:

You could throw your back out shovelling,
Laboring for a narrow path that soon yields
To the next fateful storm; your hopes
Erased among the desolate winds.

And it is in this moment -- despondent,
Thwarted -- that you understand hubris;
The appeal of a black-and-white world;
The comfort of something to cling to.

You can sympathize with surrender;
It's the emptiness you've seen
A hundred times behind terrified eyes.
Darkness looms.

By daybreak, you're back at it.
Heart beating out of your chest,
Straining with all you've got
To refute the enduring lie:

There's simply too much snow,
And not enough shovels.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Get away from these two types of people:

Late nite wisdom:

"Get away from these two types of people: the ones who think you can only go as far as the situation you were born into; and the ones who think you can only go as far as the current situation you are in."

― Dee Dee M. Scott, Joy Cometh In The Morning

(Sent from my phone)

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Dreams and disappointment

"My favorite story about handling disappointments comes from the India guru Amrit Desai. He had a collection of very rare crystals that he'd accumulated over many years. One day his cleaning lady knocked over a display case and smashed most of the irreplaceable crystals. When she tearfully pointed out her mistake, expecting a violent reaction, the guru shrugged and told her "Those things were for my joy, not for my misery." Your dreams are for your joy; even if they lie crushed on the ground, you need not make them responsible for misery. If you raise your eyes from the shards you'll find more dreams all around, and many of them can come true. As Marcel Proust wrote, "If a little dreaming is dangerous, the cure for it is not to dream less but to dream more, to dream all the time." ~Martha Beck

(Sent from my phone)

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Our work

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still
not half-perfect?
Let me keep my mind on what matters,
which is
my work,
Which is mostly standing still and learning to be

~ Mary Oliver

Sunday, February 7, 2016


"Tell everyone you know: 'My happiness depends on me so you're off the hook.'" Abraham Hicks

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

When you are old

When you are old
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Source: The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (1989)

Thursday, January 14, 2016


"We choose leaders abysmally today. We expect perfection, and when we don't find it we lament the absence of heros. But heroism, by the very definition that came down from the Greeks, is a negotiation between strengths and weaknesses. Maybe I'm being glib when I say that people like the Roosevelts and Lincoln couldn't make it past the Iowa caucuses, but it would be very difficult for them to succeed in this environment."

~Ken Burns

Sunday, December 20, 2015


"Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art.... It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival."

― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

(Sent from my phone)

Monday, November 30, 2015

Quote on life in old age

"My father, who lived to 94, often said that the 80s had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective. One has had a long experience of life, not only one's own life, but others', too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities, too. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty. At 80, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age. I can imagine, feel in my bones, what a century is like, which I could not do when I was 40 or 60. I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together."

Oliver Sacks

Sunday, November 29, 2015

A pointed finger...

"A pointed finger is a victim's logo... No matter how abominable your condition may be, try not to blame anything or anybody: history, the state, superiors, race, parents, the phase of the moon, childhood, toilet training, etc. The menu is vast and tedious, and this vastness and tedium alone should be offensive enough to set one's intelligence against choosing from it. The moment that you place blame somewhere, you undermine your resolve to change anything."


Saturday, November 14, 2015

A Brave And Startling Truth

A Brave And Startling Truth
by Maya Angelou

We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth

And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms

When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseum
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil

When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze

When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse

When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets

Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world

When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

(Sent from my phone)

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Sensitive Souls

"Sensitive people are the most genuine and honest people you will ever meet. There is nothing they won't tell you about themselves if they trust your kindness. However, the moment you betray them, reject them or devalue them, they become the worse type of person. Unfortunately, they end up hurting themselves in the long run. They don't want to hurt other people. It is against their very nature. They want to make amends and undo the wrong they did. Their life is a wave of highs and lows. They live with guilt and constant pain over unresolved situations and misunderstandings. They are tortured souls that are not able to live with hatred or being hated. This type of person needs the most love anyone can give them because their soul has been constantly bruised by others. However, despite the tragedy of what they have to go through in life, they remain the most compassionate people worth knowing, and the ones that often become activists for the broken hearted, forgotten and the misunderstood. They are angels with broken wings that only fly when loved."
― Shannon L. Alder