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:

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