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That salary history question.

February 20, 2014

As I did my daily trawl for job postings to post to Archives Gig, I came across this ad from Chapman University in Orange, CA.  (And yes, I will post this job on AG.  Because however much something like this ticks me off, it’s still information that falls within my posting guidelines.) It’s a 1-year term position at the California Gold Archive, which sounds kind of like a cool collection.  Temporary job aside, what really burns my toast about this announcement is this: Chapman requires a salary history from its applicants.  If you don’t include it with your application, you will not be considered for the job.  Let’s take a look at the announcement, shall we (all emphasis theirs):

2/19/2014        28-14   Asst. Librarian-California Gold Archive-Archivist                Admin             Full-Time             Accepting Applications


Please submit a resume with Job No. 28-14 and salary history, and/or application. APPLICANTS MUST SUBMIT SALARY HISTORY IN ORDER TO BE CONSIDERED FOR THE POSITION.

This is a Regular Limited Term, benefit based assignment for one year, however the duration of this assignment can be lengthened or shortened at the discretion of the University.

Maintain physical and intellectual control of the California’s Gold Archive (CGA) through arrangement, description and the creation of finding aids; promotion and public outreach to raise awareness of the CGA by creating and maintaining scholarly and community relationships. The CGA Archivist will plan digital content building utilizing social media outlets and digital preservation. The position will also manage the CGA Reading Room as well as volunteers, students and special hires in processing and digitization projects. The position reports to the Coordinator of Special Collections and Archives. Other duties as assigned.


Required: Formal coursework or training in archival management and theory. Knowledge of the access tools for special collections and archival material. Working knowledge of the standards and procedures for preservation and conservation of paper, audio/visual media and artifacts. Demonstrated experience developing processing plans and creating finding aids in accordance with national standards. Knowledge of and ability to maintain awareness of developments in archival processing, digital information technologies, and their uses in special collections and archives. Excellent analytical, organizational, and time management skills. Oral, written, and interpersonal communication skills to promote and present the archive to multiple audiences.

Desired: Minimum 1-3 years of demonstrated experience working with books, manuscripts, photographs, recordings, and other material in a special collections & archives environment. Demonstrated experience working in archives in an academic or institutional setting and providing reference services in a reading room environment. Prior experience with project management.

Notice to Applicants:

This position will be posted for a minimum of 5 business days and may close at any time after that without prior notice.
Successful completion of a criminal background check required for final candidate.

Chapman University is an Equal Opportunity Employer, committed to providing career opportunities to
all people, without regard to race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin, sexual orientation,
disability, or veteran status.
Chapman University, One University Drive, Orange, CA 92866 Human Resources Department

Now, I suppose that this university has encountered opposition to the salary history question from its applicants, which is why their note about it is in ALLCAPS at the top of the posting.  It’s the first thing the job seeker sees.  Why on earth do they need to know this information?  I expect that an employer would be able to look at their own budget, what they want the worker to do, and figure out how much they’re willing to pay that worker to do the work (in this case, over the period of just 12 months).  How difficult is it to list a salary range for a temporary position?

Why should my last paycheck determine how you, a completely different employer, pay me?  It’s completely irrelevant, and it undermines trust in the potential employer immediately.  Even if they’re just requiring this number for the sake of being nosy, I have to think that the employer is using that number to decide how little of a salary they can get away with compensating me.  After looking at Chapman’s employment page, it seems that requiring a salary history is a blanket policy for this institution’s positions.  I cannot fathom why they need to know, for any job.

Let’s take me as an example of a prospective applicant for this job.  By the time I had graduated from UW-Madison SLIS, I had well over two years’ worth of paraprofessional academic and institutional archives experience under my belt, which would put me in their “preferred applicant” category for this job.  When I graduated, I was making about $1000 per month in my hourly student jobs.  Even my best paid jobs up to that point didn’t break $15/hour.  My job before that, I was living on the poverty line as an AmeriCorps*VISTA.   I lived (and still live) in the Midwest, presumably with a different cost of living than Orange, California.  What exactly is Chapman going to do with that salary history information?  They are advertising an entry-level job with a high educational requirement and a specialized skill set – they’re going to get applicants who are just out of grad school.

That fact that this job term can be “lengthened or shortened at the discretion of the University” is even more galling.  So, I’m supposed to provide this not-even-remotely-your-business information for a job that could pretty much end at any time.  That just made me more angry.

So, employers, hear my plea: Just list a range, already.  Then I, the prospective employee, will know if it’s a salary I can live with.  You, the employer, know it’s a salary you can pay.  And then we are simpatico, and we don’t have to waste each other’s time, and we don’t have get into the particulars of how much I got paid at my work/study job while I was between classes in grad school.

Unfortunately, Chapman is one in a string of employers who ask for this sort of thing from their applicants.  If salary history (and the related question, salary requirement) has been a component of your salary negotiations with an employer, I invite you to comment here.

Entry-Level Archivist Position: UR DOIN IT RITE

October 25, 2013

‘Twas a little while ago that I was embroiled in a Twitter-fight (which, of course, always end well) about the relentlessly negative tenor of this site and how said tenor alienated a lot of people. Which, OK, fair enough (though one could argue that the people or institutions being alienated deserve to be. But anyway). It is thus heartening to be able to post an example of a job posting for an entry-level position that basically gets it completely right. The position is at the University of Maryland-College Park, for an Athletics Archivist, PMP (what that is will become evident shortly):

Responds to all information and assistance requests from the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics and athletics-related requests from individuals and organizations outside the University of Maryland community. Within a team environment, supports building, maintaining, preserving, and publicizing of the athletics-related holdings of the University Archives and promoting knowledge of the history of University of Maryland athletics.

The Post-Master’s Program (PMP), a hiring initiative of the University of Maryland Libraries, matches recent post-master’s professionals with short-term positions aligned with the Libraries’ strategic priorities. Both sides win. The post-graduate professional develops their skills in a professional workplace, and the University Libraries gain the expertise of recent graduates to respond to a rapidly changing environment. Post-Master’s Program professionals and the University Libraries each make a 2 year commitment to the position. Relocation costs are not available for Post-Master’s Program professionals.


Must have thorough knowledge of archival theory and practice and familiarity with library and archival descriptive standards. Must be able to work effectively with others in a team setting. Demonstrated excellence in oral and written communication skills and in assisting researchers in a special collections setting. Must be able to manage a broad variety of tasks in response to varying time pressures with shifting priorities and changing constraints. Evidence of a strong service orientation.

Must have a minimum of six months experience working in an archival repository, including significant experience in responding to diverse and time-sensitive reference requests. Must have experience with archival materials relating to intercollegiate athletics.


Master’s degree in library science from a graduate program accredited by the American Library Association or subject expertise through the attainment of an advanced degree relevant to this position.

What we are essentially looking at is a post-doc (er, post-mast?) for archivists, which is something that has been discussed on this blog and elsewhere as a natural progression for entry-level archivists. The job ad is very forthright about the temporary nature of this position, which is not an ideal situation but which is also not necessarily a deal-breaker for any professional, especially one at the beginning of his/her career. Qualifications are pretty standard for a position of this type and with these duties (there are some additional preferred qualifications which ask for digital preservation and social media experience). Since salary isn’t listed I can’t comment on that aspect, but unless it is especially high or especially low it’s not really relevant to this analysis.Why, then, did I single this particular job ad out for praise? Primarily, this is a posting with a good attitude.

So many of the bad listings that have been singled out on this site are, actively or passively, exploitative of their applicants and the eventual selected candidate: they require the full suite of training and experience for a job that pays well below a livable wage for the area, if it is even a full-time position at all. Employers are able to get away with this because the job market is abysmal right now. There are WAY more graduates of archival programs than available positions, meaning that employers who take this tack can be assured that there will almost always be some takers for all but the most obviously insulting job-salary combinations. (We haven’t seen any minimum-wage archivist jobs—yet.) When the need to eat goes up against the need to have professional self-respect, the former usually wins, which is the entire reason these jobs exist. There is very little evidence that these employers are very concerned about the physical or professional well-being of whoever ends up taking their position.

In THIS position’s case, though, the employer’s respect for its short-term employee is written right in the title—certainly, the employee is expected to contribute to the needs of the institution, but the institution is also expected to contribute to the development of the employee. The position is specifically reserved for a recent graduate, and specifically calls out the value of having a recent graduate, which is even rarer. The employee is valued not just for his/her ability to fulfill the needs of the department, but for the skills recently learned over the course of archival training that he/she can bring to help the department as a whole operate better. This is a really underestimated benefit of having employees fresh out of grad school, in my opinion. (To take but one example, I am reasonably certain that for all the immersion in e-records that I’ve been doing over the last 3 years, graduates who have taken actual focused courses in it are going to have a lot of fresh perspectives on what we could be doing better.) Even the language of “The university will make a 2-year commitment to the position” says to me that UMD is really interested in making the experience a good one for its new hire.

But wait, there’s more: A lot of these temporary positions tend to hit extremes in terms of work experience, often either involving more work than the new archivist is ready to assume at this point in his/her career, or consigning the new archivist to the same kind of narrow work day-in and day-out, which can leave him or her unprepared for positions with broader duties. In this case, I worked for the UMD Archives as a wee archiveling, and I can say with some confidence that Athletics is a big thing at Maryland. Even as a student I did a lot of work with reference requests and building exhibits for athletics staff and other researchers, and this position gives the archivist control over all aspects of working with these records—donor relations, reference and outreach, processing, digitization, etc. So it’s a pretty good bet that the person who gets this position is going to be kept busy and will develop a lot of skills that will serve them well in their next stop.

But! Because of the nature of this program, my guess is also that this person will be working closely with the University Archivist and staff to help them with problems that may not have come up in library school and which are only really addressable by experience. A lot of institutions have that kind of safety net in place by virtue of having really supportive staff and management (UWM is, happily, an example of such a place), but it’s really nice to have it built into the position itself. (Plus, Anne Turkos, the University Archivist at Maryland-College Park, is extremely nice and very helpful. So there’s that.)

Overall, if I was a soon-to-be-archives graduate I would be very excited about this position, and wonder why more job ads for new graduates don’t look like this. (Really, I wonder that as a 6-year veteran, too.)

It’s so hard to find good help these days…

November 27, 2012

I initially came across this terrible job posting via HigherEdJobs while researching what kinds of skills employers are looking for this season. I like to stay fashionable, ya know.

The first thing to grab my attention was the “Part-Time/Adjunct” status, which seems out of place for a position described as “responsible to develop and maintain the College Archive for Tacoma Community College… collect, process, promote, and provide access to the College’s archival resources… for reference and instructional services related to the Archive.” I know many community colleges rely upon adjunct faculty, but I haven’t encountered many job descriptions for adjunct professional staff.

The responsibilities listed in full:

  • Collect and process archival material.
  • Implement archives management software tool.
  • Write DACS-compliant finding aids using EAD authoring software.
  • Design and supervise digitization project for selected photographs, documents, and audio-visual material.
  • Coordinate upload and maintenance of digital collections.
  • Train and supervise work study student in work including processing, data entry, and scanning.
  • Promote the Archive and develop the collections through outreach to college community, exhibit design, and social media.
  • Offer information sessions to library faculty and staff on archives reference services.
  • Work with faculty to develop class assignments using archival resources.
  • Teach instructional sessions on archival research to students.
  • Coordinate special projects or initiatives such as the College’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2015.
  • Assume responsibility for Archive Advisory Committee and its activities.

Preferred skills included:

  •  Thorough knowledge of archival best practices for appraisal, preservation, arrangement, description, and outreach.
  •  Understanding of descriptive systems and principles, national standards, archival ethics, and digitization methodologies and metadata standards.
  • Ability to offer instruction in archival research to faculty, staff and students.
  •  Ability to plan and coordinate work of volunteers, work study students, and interns.
  •  Ability to be innovative, creative and user-oriented in developing an academic archives program.

Minimum qualifications are a bachelor’s degree and one (1) year of archival experience, with MLS preferred but not required. This seemed odd to me since the duties outlined above (instruction, supervision, collection development, digitization, policy creation, appraisal, outreach) clearly fall into what I would consider the professional realm. And golly gee, it sure looks like a lot of responsibility for one person working part time!

Another detail which struck me is the position’s responsibility for coordinating “special projects or initiatives such as the College’s 50th anniversary celebration”. I recently assisted with a major anniversary celebration as part of a three person archives team, so I have a small understanding of the work involved (in short: never ending). The final red flag comes from the initial description, which seems to indicate that the future Archivist may be working with a relatively (or completely?) unprocessed set of collections.

I’m new to this game, so my first thought was not that I had found a terrible job posting but that I must be mistaken in my analysis. I dug deeper.

A link to the official job posting  reveals the following gems:

“Part-Time/Adjunct” status is now listed as “Temporary”, a roughly equivalent but significant change, since adjunct in my state gives the impression that one’s contract may be renewed as needed. Also, adjuncts are sometimes eligible for benefits if they meet a sufficient threshold of hours. I’m not sure how this works out in Washington specifically.

Terms of Employment reads, “This is an hourly position scheduled to work varied hours up to 18 hours per week. The pay rate is $ 20.00 per hour. Some flexibility in scheduling is required to meet the needs of the department. A collective bargaining agreement exists and membership in the Washington Federation of State Employees or payment of a service fee may be required.” (Emphasis is my own, insert indignation here.)

Benefits “not applicable”.

But wait! There’s more! A June 2012 job posting  for a Project Archivist at Tacoma Community College provides some telling insights into the work environment. The Project Archivist, eligible to work “varied hours up to 17 hours per week” at a rate of $16 per hour with no benefits, originally called for “archives management or library school graduate students”.

Responsibilities included “creating a college archives”, “identify materials well-suited to support the College’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2015”, deliver “a physical collection, cataloged and indexed; a digital repository of selected materials; and a set of visually-dynamic, publicly accessible webpages”, “develop a budget proposal”, and “provide guidance in design of a collection development policy”.

So to recap, the lucky employee who is hired for the November 2012 Archivist position will be inheriting a college archives which has been assembled from scratch by a lone graduate student working 17 hours per month for about three months. I don’t mean to disparage graduate students in anyway (I am one of them), but this seems like barely enough time to inventory 50 years of unprocessed institutional records much less process, digitize, and make sense of them in time for a major anniversary event. Maybe the previous incumbent accomplished amazing things in this tiny amount of time, I don’t know.

It seems to me that the 50th Anniversary is central to this whole debacle. I’ve seen it happen: a big milestone is on the horizon. Everybody starts to envision grandiose ceremonies, world-class exhibits, waterfalls of alumni donations. Suddenly, the institution realizes it has never invested any time or resources into preserving its own lofty history. At first, one might see a few over-eager volunteers (alumni, retired faculty, student workers), but eventually they will fall victim to the tedious slog of sorting through mountains of carelessly assembled papers and ephemera. In some cases, the institution might take an enlightened approach and recruit a full time archivist (more often than not, a fresh-faced MLS graduate). Or, if its particularly budget conscious, the institution might seek out the cheapest available consultant to do all the dirty work as quickly as possible.

Tacoma Community College has apparently combined the less admirable strategies of both approaches: give the candidate a pitifully inadequate time frame in which to handle a ridiculous workload, pay them next to nothing (seriously, this position would leave you eligible for about $200 a month in food stamps in Washington State), and offer no benefits. As a bonus, they can continue to undermine the professional aspirations and diminish the advanced skills of MLS graduates by seeking candidates who are barely qualified for most paraprofessional archives jobs. Yay!

On the plus side, I did realize how fortunate I am in my paraprofessional position (benefits, full-time permanent status, slightly higher annual pay, reasonable workload, and institutional support). Thoughts? Insights? Anyone moving to Tacoma?

P.S. The position closes Wednesday, November 28, so you’d better jump on it!

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

November 14, 2012

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?

Imagining a Labor Market in Archives that Works for Everyone

April 25, 2012

The following is the text from my talk at the Spring 2012 MARAC meeting in Cape May, New Jersey. I look forward to your comments, unless you’re a self-identified MRA. I’m not joking.

Today I’m going to talk about things I’ve noticed about being an archives worker.

I speak from my position as an interested participant-observer. There are people who are experts in these kinds of labor issues, and while I’m conversant in them, I’m not a scholar. Like Tom mentioned, I earned my degree in 2008 and I’ve been working as an archivist since then. At the University of Michigan, I did graduate coursework on gender and labor and did a directed reading course about librarians and labor. I’m also part of the group blog called “you ought to be ashamed”. I think that some of my fellow contributors may be in the room today, which is awesome. I’ve learned a lot from all of you.

Our blog posts tend to critique exploitative job advertisements and talk about the larger labor challenges that young professionals face. In the past, contributors have talked about the casualization of professional labor, the casualization of academic labor, the pitfalls of performing beyond one’s stated job duties without the formal structures to support and reward that work, how to sniff out whether an institution’s organizational culture is broken, negotiation, supply and demand in the labor market, and gender and technology. By the way, if you’re interested in writing for the blog, everyone is welcome.

I think that for me, the real power behind the blog is not that we’re going to critique anyone into changing. It’s that we’re building solidarity. We’re helping each other create a sense of what is appropriate and reasonable in our relations with our employers. And yes, people will sometimes still be forced to take jobs where they aren’t supported and don’t have the resources to do all of the work that’s expected of them (which is a disservice to both the collections under their care and, more importantly, the researchers they serve), but at least, hopefully, they won’t think that this is the way it has to be. And when they’re in a position of power, where they can be more thoughtful about resource allocation than the people who came before them, they can make different decisions.

The list of topics that I mentioned above could keep us here all day (which would be okay with me – I would love to talk about any of these things at the reception), so I’m going to narrow my comments to the topic of gender and money. I’ll explore the data that overwhelmingly demonstrates that a pay equity problem persists, even in our profession, and that we should pause and check the data when we start congratulating ourselves for making progress. I’ll talk about some of the research that I’ve encountered that addresses what workers can do to gain leverage on this situation. I’ll also discuss what institutions can do to cease being complicit in a system that doesn’t reward workers for their labor fairly.

By the way, the research that I’ve seen and that I’m focusing on talks about women and pay equity, but there’s good reason to believe that this is a problem for all kinds of people — people who are the first in their families to graduate from college, for instance, or people of color or non-US country of origin. Read more…

In defense of the MLS (Sort of)

November 28, 2011

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.

How to become an archivist in ten short years: take one.

November 28, 2011
Oh, Terry, when will you learn? I dropped into a twitter conversation last week and ended up leaving wih a promise to provide a point of view post for this blog on “how I got from graduation to archivist in ten years.” Kids are sneaky and have little respect for their befuddled elders. But more on that another time and place.

The conversation that got this started centered on a Drexel University job post for an archives technician. The announcement’s requirements looked like Drexel was trying to hire an archivist on the cheap. Whether or not that’s the case, the larger question here was articulated by Brad Houston (@herdotusjr for the twiterati): “As noted, I don’t think not having a Masters-level degree should DISQUALIFY you, but having the degree shd mean something”.

True enough. And we’ll get back to that question, kids. But first let’s imagine a different path to becoming an archivist. A path that was once available to youngsters back in the fog of history (like when yours truly was misguided youth).

Say a young, starry-eyed high school graduate gets into a nice university. We won’t name name names here — no need stirring up rivalries — but our unamed youngster wants to be a historian (and didn’t bother to read Larry Cebula’s stark “Open Letter to my students: no you cannot be a professor”).

While slogging through an undergraduate program (one that will cost an average of $60K and leave said undergrad nearly $25k in debt if they are one of the lucky 38% to finish in four years) our little history Candide gets a job or an internship or something in a local archives and gets hooked. Upon graduation, with a freshly pressed BA in hand, our aspiring archivist starts looking for a job.

This is where a little suspension of disbelief is in order, gentle readers. No one in 2011 looks for an archives job with a BA. While some might be available, the competition with MLIS’s (over 50,000 awarded from 2000-2008) and other masters degree holders is pretty steep.

But consider an alternative pathway for our 22 year old beamish graduate. Suppose that rather than taking on an additional two years of college (and another pile of debt), there was a “beginning archivist” career path. Leave the naming of such a job to human resources — just consider it a position that allows an educated person to perform basic archives functions, with training and under supervision, at a lower salary than an archivist with a graduate education.

Suppose further that the Academy of Certified Archivists revamped its requirements for certification by strengthening the exam and allowing anyone who had either five years experience at the “beginning archivist” level or had a masters degree and some short period of experience to sit for it. This would allow motivated beginning archivists to use continuing education and on the job training to become “real” archivists through a different pathway than graduate education. This would let our hypothetical high school student start an archival career at age 28, ten years after leaving high school.

Now I’m not dogging the MLIS. It’s a benefit to programs to have the deeper theoretical understanding and broader professional knowledge that a graduate degree provides. But is it really the only way for  person to become an archivist? There are other issues at play here — graduate education in general, value related to debt, ratio of graduates to available jobs, diversity and economics, reduced institutional budgets and equitable compensation — but this is supposed to be a conversation between me and Brad. So I’d like to come back to his tweet as a launching space for his initial salvo: “As noted, I don’t think not having a Masters-level degree should DISQUALIFY you, but having the degree shd mean something”

OK, Brad. What does having the degree mean? What should it mean? What could it mean?


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