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My next job is going to be bunghole inspector. No one is going to do that for free, right?

November 14, 2012
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The title to this post comes from a tweet I sent in response to Rebecca’s post. I posed it like that, in part, because I’m still a 12 year old boy inside and think that bunghole is a pretty hilarious word. But also because I’m an early career archivist and I’m worried. I’m worried about our profession, its values and ideals. I’m worried about our institutions, their futures and the sustainability of their missions. I’m worried about the masses of graduate students coming out of archives programs, and the bleak employment prospects in front of them. But at the end of the day, as much as those things haunt the back of my mind, I’m worried for my own future. I’d love one day to buy a house, have a kid, raise a family – hell, to own a washer and dryer so I don’t have to schlep down to the lavandería down the block every week. But I’m worried those goals will be incompatible with making a go at it within the archives profession, and then what am I supposed to do?

You see, I’ve left one field already. For a number of years I was pursuing a career in archaeology. But after years of experience, and many thousands of dollars in undergraduate and graduate student loans, I started to reevaluate my prospects. What I saw was a field where it would be incredibly difficult to achieve a stable long term career, with such luxuries as a retirement savings and health insurance. So I changed gears, took those elements that I love most about archaeology (connecting people today with those of the past through the stuff they left behind) and found an alternate career path in archives. But as it turns out, just as in archaeology, lots of people are passionate about archives and want to be involved, and are willing to do so for free. Some of these people are students seeking the experience to get their foot in the door; some are retired from an unrelated career and finally have the free time to pursue their passion; some are eccentric billionaires slumming it with us common folk (who knows?), and likely a hundred other motivations. That, in and of itself, is not a problem. In most cases there is a way to match the talents and passions of everyone who wants to be involved with projects and tasks that improve archives’ mission. A problem arises when people mistake the willingness of volunteers to generously give their time with the absolute necessity to allocate adequate resources to fairly compensate professionals with the expertise to manage archives. Just because our job seems fun from the outside doesn’t mean anyone can do it. And it doesn’t mean that those with the knowledge and skills to do that job shouldn’t be well paid to perform it. It seems silly to have to say it, but let me give you another example.

Once on a tour of Bells Brewery in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I met a guy who was a professional beer taster, a sommelier, who performed quality assurance on the various products they produced. I thought to myself, “Man, now that’s a job. Sit around and drink beer all day? I’d do that for free!” But as he explained his job, about all of the sensory aspects he evaluates, from sight, to smell, to taste, to mouth feel. And about how subtle differences in each of these could indicate one problem or another. And the distinct ranges of acceptability set by the brewery for health, quality, and consistency standards. As he explained all that, I realized this man had a developed set of skills making him uniquely qualified to perform this job. And while I shared with him the same enthusiasm for the product, I didn’t even realize you could evaluate beer so precisely in all of those ways, much less possess the knowledge or skills to do so.  And that’s the reason Bells pays him, and not me. And more generally that’s why this man is a professional, not some lucky schmo who’s duped the brewery into paying him to swill beer all day.

And dear reader, perhaps you’ve already taken the bait I’ve laid out to you in that completely true anecdote, but if not, come along let’s bring this home. That set of knowledge and skills which makes M. Sommelier a professional, well we archivists have that too. That’s not news to any of us, or to the volunteers who work alongside us. Unfortunately this knowledge is not as widespread outside the reading rooms, processing tables, sub-basements and obscure corners where we spend our days. Among those who control our budgets, legislatures that appropriate our funding, the media which publicize yet another discovery in some dusty repository, and the various publics which we serve.To some of those people we look like fortunate fools who’ve managed to find a way to get paid to root around in old stuff all day. And when time comes to make hard financial choices, it’s easy for them to see a replacement of professional archivists with volunteers as a legitimate option.

But here’s the thing, this failure to see us as professionals, that’s not their fault. It’s ours. We need to be out there advocating for our profession, talking to those that hold the purse strings about the value we provide, the skills we have, and what we are uniquely positioned to provide in terms of stewardship that the lady off the street cannot. If we want our profession to thrive to meet the challenges of the future, we need to fight for it, individually, as institutions, and with our regional and national professional organizations. We are the only ones that can make our case, and until we do, this false perception will only persist. And if we as a profession fail, then we will continue to see our jobs be the first to go, as economic downturn settles into ‘the new normal’. As for me, if we can’t pull this off, then I may end up looking into bungholes.  You think that’s a union gig?

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. Heavens to Murgatroyd permalink
    November 14, 2012 10:46 am

    “To some of those people we look like fortunate fools who’ve managed to find a way to get paid to root around in old stuff all day.”

    I would say I’m blessed, more than fortunate. I’m not bold enough for fortune. Sure, sometimes I feel underappreciated and underpaid. I think to myself, ‘look at me, that was hard and no one else here could do it.’ But I get a lot of thank you’s too. Mostly I say to myself – I cannot believe I’m getting paid for this, and benefits and time off too. Just look at my schedule, and work stays at work. Particularly when I think of the jobs I had before – dishwasher, stocking shelves, unloading trucks, stocking vending machines, landscaping, etc. Physically demanding. How fulfilling would that have been for the past 15 years? Or the next 25? Blessed – and way too educated for my own good too with all those letters on the business card. Certainly not cushy, but its nice work if you can get it.

    • Craig P. S. permalink
      November 15, 2012 9:49 am

      so because YOU’RE fortunate enough to have work and benefits we shouldn’t be advocating for those who don’t or those who potentially won’t? Or those who work but aren’t getting the respect they deserve? You are missing the entire point and focus here. This isn’t about YOU, it’s about your Profession (and many of your colleagues, and respect for workers in general, and fighting against workplace abuses/abuses by managers and administrators, etc)… YOUR fortune and feeling good about your situation does not erase these problems.

  2. recentgrad permalink
    November 14, 2012 11:08 am

    Thank you very much for mentioning the elephant in the room.

    I too left another information-based career (journalism) for LIS grad school. Somewhere along the LIS degree track, my love of history changed my course for the LIS/archives track. It wasn’t just my love of history – what is happening now to the archives profession happened to the (academic) LIS profession 2006-present, while I was in grad school part-time. I noticed and began to specialize. Since 2006, librarians have turned to evidence-based outcomes and demonstrated deliverables to convince not only the public, but their own employers and administrators, that their positions are necessary – that knowledge itself is necessary. You hit the nail on the head with the bunghole inspector comparison: in today’s upside down economy, many knowledge-based positions are becoming standardized and the mindset is that anyone can be re-purposed/cross-trained into them, regardless of education or skill (yep, you need skill to discern original order, write a descriptive finding aid that facillitates learning, or run a decent reference transaction).

    Unfortunately, I don’t know of a metric that will convince an administrator or average user that providing/nurturing knowledge (not just information or access) is a good overhead investment, I think we should take the LIS profession as the canary in the coal mine – if librarians are struggling with this, what are we going to do, differently? I hope we don’t all just assume that if we can demonstrate added value, our administrators/employers and the public will just change their minds and value us. It’s clearly not working in the LIS profession, despite all of the upbeat publications to the contrary. Just look at the ratio for reference libarian positions, vs. outreach/marketing adminstrative positions. I don’t have an answer, but we need to do something very different.

    I just graduated with my master’s in LIS and archival studies, and looking at the entry level “archivist technician” and “library assistant/archivist” job opps, I realize that despite my efforts, I never truly escaped the librarians’ fate.

  3. November 14, 2012 1:04 pm

    I think it’s a problem throughout academia, undervaluing yourself and your profession. As a culture, we like to think that we’re above selling ourselves. Starting in grad school, our professors cultivated the thought that we were lucky, getting paid to do what we love. Does that mean no one else is doing what they love?

  4. November 14, 2012 5:29 pm

    Thanks for the responses and a big thanks to the other contributors to this blog, most of whom I’ve never met in real life. I first read this blog when I was a baby archivist still in library school, so its a great feeling to have something to contribute.

    Murgatroyd: I feel grateful to have a my position as well. I get up each day excited to meet the challenges that face me. But I don’t think it’s being ungrateful to demand more (or in many cases just fight for the status quo) individually and as a profession.

    Recentgrad: I think you make an excellent point, we can proclaim added value all day, but until we can point to more empirical evidence of the services we provide we will not be very compelling. And simple door counts, reference question tallies, and page view totals won’t cut it. We still do not understand our users very well, how they search, how they use our repositories, and what impact various archival projects have on them – this type of research will lead to some solid metrics I think.

    Drjafloyd: I absolutely think that part of what is holding us back is a ingrained feeling that exists across academia. We see ourselves above the greedy lawyers and corporate types who are just out to make a buck. So then we’re eating ramen every night with our high ideals, and start to wonder if a buck or two wouldn’t be nice every once in a while.

  5. November 15, 2012 11:39 am

    Thoughtful and useful post. I’m going to check into that beer taster job, though. I may not have the education for it, but I’d say I’ve put in a lengthy apprenticeship.

  6. November 15, 2012 4:25 pm

    I hope we can continue this dialog! No one ever wants to talk about this issue, but I can’t ignore it because I am applying for my first career position. I wouldn’t want to be in denial anyway, even if I were happily employed.

    I agree with you, Jeremy – archivists need to do better than gather statistics – perhaps pursue anecdotal evidence though surveys? In 2010, the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and the University of Toronto collaborated on a metric to assess the impact of several aspects of archival collections, through surveys http://www.archivalmetrics.org/. These can be used to assess reading room services, online finding aids, etc. What do all of you think – it is tenable?

  7. November 16, 2012 12:05 am

    “Once on a tour of Bells Brewery in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I met a guy who was a professional beer taster, a sommelier, who performed quality assurance on the various products they produced. ”

    “he’s proud to call himself a Cicerone.”

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204349404578101094006848474.html?mod=ITP_AHED

  8. Simmons grad permalink
    November 18, 2012 1:45 pm

    “We need to be out there advocating for our profession, talking to those that hold the purse strings about the value we provide, the skills we have, and what we are uniquely positioned to provide in terms of stewardship that the lady off the street cannot.”

    To me, this is the problem. Why is it so hard for us to advocate for ourselves? Is it because we find it hard to come up with reasons why our professional skills are more valuable than an untrained person? I’ve sat in meetings where the director of my library couldn’t even tell a group of non-archivists why they should hire a records manager/archivist, and she is the director of an archive.

    Honestly, sometimes I feel like the professionalization of archives was kind of an experiment gone wrong. Maybe it’s true that we only need a very small group of professional/supervisor archivists, and then rest can be done by nonprofessionals. I can tell you that I don’t feel like I have any extra skills/knowledge just by having a degree, because I really learned nothing in library school. Everything I know about archives, I learned on the job. And when I’m applying to professional jobs, I have trouble connecting what I learned in library school to the skills required for the job. I have never once been asked in a job interview about my library school classes, and no one seems to care that I took the reference class or the baby cataloging class – they want to see it in work experience!

    What frustrates so many of us as archivists isn’t really the lack of jobs – it’s because we first had to go to school for a shot at finding a job, and now we have thousands of dollars in student loans and no job. At least if you want to be a beer taster you don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to get a beer tasting degree first – you can try it out, and if you’re successful, you’re successful, and if you’re not, you move on without having invested so many years and money.

    What if we just eliminated the degree? Does anyone really think they got something out of their library science degree that they couldn’t learn on the job or in 1 or 2-day workshops? Let’s just stop making wannabe archivist invest so much money and time in a degree that has so little chance at paying off. If we still want to have the degree system, maybe it can be the kind of thing where your institution pays for it after you’ve worked there for many years and they want you to run the place.

  9. art B permalink
    December 16, 2012 3:04 pm

    At one time, well overr 50 years ago, I was a cooper. These are the people that make wooden barrels. These barrels are primarily used for the ageing of whiskey. On the side of the barrel is a hole. This hole, after filling, is plugged with a wooden disc called a “BUNG” ( I always thought that this was the sound that was made when they were removed with a special hammer) So, naturaly the opening is referred to as the “Bung hole”. There is a tendancy for the stave, or board, that contains the hole, to crack, and then loose whiskey. There are men that are to required to check these staves for these cracks, and they are called “Bung-hole inspectors”. This is indeed a legitimate profession

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