In defense of the MLS (Sort of)
So, officially this was supposed to be a Point-Counterpoint type collaboration between me and Terry—he giving the argument for alternative paths towards a professional archives position, including the kind of introductory-level training that he describes, and me arguing for the traditional value of the MLS/MLIS/MARA as a professional qualification. Unfortunately, having read Terry’s excellent post, I am having a hard time disagreeing with his vision of an alternate path to professionalism. Awkward.
Perhaps some discussion of my career trajectory thus far can serve as a jumping-off point for discussion of the value of the MLS. I came to the archives field the way a lot of archivists end up finding their way here—I had been planning to pursue a Ph.D. in History, but was fortunate enough to learn from my undergraduate advisor about the dismal prospects in History academia BEFORE I spent the 6+ years working on a dissertation which would be read by 4 people, and so decided to change course a bit. Another person might have been left adrift, but I was fortunate to be working at about the same time at an archival internship at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library, and even more fortunate to discover that I enjoyed the work immensely (seeing it as “basically history without the pesky “writing about what you’re researching” bit). I applied to a few archives programs, got into the University of Maryland History/Library Science dual degree program, and 3 years later had the great fortune of getting an archives/RM job that I actually like straight out of school. So there’s me, from High School to Archivist in 7 years. Not too shabby!
Now, backing up a bit into the library school experience itself, here’s a few thoughts about the value of the MLS from my own perspective as a straight-from-undergrad archivist (which, according to A*CENSUS, is a path less than 40% of archivists take to their first professional position):
- I supplemented my formal archives education with a LOT of practical experience. Maryland’s program, at the time I attended, included a practicum component in the Intro to Archives class (there was also the option to write a paper if you didn’t have time for a 50-hour practicum), but beyond that I supplemented my income and experience with a number of jobs in archives and libraries around the DC area. Even after I got my teaching assistantship with the UMD History Department, I worked full-time during summers in archives/records management settings and tried to work at least a few hours a week in archives during the year so I would continue to develop professional experience. I am reasonably certain that the amount and quality of these opportunities was a major factor in my relatively quick employment after graduation. So there is certainly an argument to be made for positions performing more basic archives work early on.
- I learned as much or more about archives from my work as I did from my classes. (Maybe.) For a while, I held as an article of faith the idea that my practical work was more useful than my library school coursework in terms of giving me the skills I needed to do the work of a professional archivist (I learned more about implementing MARC cataloging and performing records surveys during fieldwork than I ever did in the related classes, e.g.) Even with the benefit of hindsight, I think at least a few of the courses I took in library school were wastes of my time, and probably most people could name some courses about which they felt the same way. This too would seem to argue in favor of the more practical approach towards archival training. However, my view on this has changed somewhat since I have had to supervise students of my own as a professional. Some students we get are brand new to the archives field and require a lot of hand-holding to get their work to where it needs to be; students who are further along in the program are often more sophisticated in their thinking about issues of arrangement, description, lateral thinking about reference questions, etc., and so require less supervision. To be sure, some of these students have had experience elsewhere to draw upon, but I am still less certain than I was even 4 years ago that practicum vincit omnia. (Please excuse my Dog Latin.) Particularly in light of the next thing that I’ve noticed:
- My student work, particularly my early student work, was laughably bad. There are still some finding aids I wrote as an undergraduate available for perusal online; I won’t provide the link because I’m pretty embarrassed about their quality. Yes, these were written 8 years ago, but I had no real idea what I was doing and it shows—there’s little integration with the overall description system, my appraisal of what is and is not important is just awful, and I emphasize all the wrong things in my scope/content note and other narrative description data. I wouldn’t expect any more from a fledgling archivist, and certainly a lot of these problems would fix themselves through experience, but the theoretical basis I obtained in my archives course has helped me to be more efficient and effective in a way that just dealing with the idiosyncrasies of particular institutions would not. And remember, my embarrassment is just at the relatively simple task of processing a collection; I shudder to think of the struggles I would have had had I been dropped into a situation where I had to do program or strategic planning.
So, do these ramblings have a point? Surprisingly, yes! I see my archival education experience as a sort of apprenticeship—I worked for little pay and for long hours on projects of limited scope—describing collections, say, or helping to create a database of photographs taken by campus photographic services—while at the same time getting at least some of the kind of theoretical knowledge I would need to take my skills to the next level and look holistically at an Archives program (figuring out how to set priorities, select and implement standards, develop outreach plans, etc.). At the end of said apprenticeship, I even get to call myself a Master!
(IMPORTANT NOTE: If your significant other is ABD and you try to insist upon this terminology, he/she will laugh at you. At some length. Trust me on this one.)
My guess is that a lot of the work that archives currently give to volunteers or students in MLIS programs probably could fit into the kind of graduated professional structure that Terry describes. Come to that, a lot of project archivist positions, where people are working on a particular collection or laying the groundwork for a specific program such as a CMS, would probably also fit into this niche. So I do think that Terry’s alternative plan of experience plus certification is a very viable one—provided that the experience is extensive enough, and the certification process is robust enough (though he does address both of those points).
As soon as you start to do the kind of broad-based, management-level work you find in posts like the one I wrote about last time, though, you really should have—and employers should require—an MLIS or equivalent. Sure, the degree can be, and often is, used as a gatekeeper requirement for a position, but ideally it is evidence that you have committed to the profession and to learning more about higher levels of administering that profession, and are capable of the kinds of responsibilities that you would expect to find at Master-level work. When you put someone with just a BA into a position like that, you devalue the professional degree, you run the very real risk of overwhelming your new employee, and you waste a lot of time, money, and energy on bringing said employee up to speed on the skills and theory he/she needs to not just do the job, but to do the job well.
Don’t just take my word for it, though. Here’s Arlene in the comments of my last post:
The reason you demand a masters degree in archival studies for an entry level position including those without a management component is so that you get pre-prepared employees who have already read the major texts in the field. So you don’t have to spend time explaining things like appraisal theory. And, if they’ve come out of a good school, they already have some hands-on experience through practicums or internships. I know of no bachelor’s degree that is offering archival education at a level that would suffice. I’d much rather spend my time training the new employee to do things my way than to have them spend three months reading Posner, Boles, Danielson, etc, just to get the concepts.
So, yeah, she just said in 100 words what took me 1400. Apparently just because I have an MLS doesn’t mean that I have a handle on the whole “Brevity” thing.