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The Choo-Choo Archives

June 30, 2011

I’m going to tell a story from my latest round of job searching, and the most important thing to say at the beginning is that I firmly believe that in most cases, we’re all doing the best we can. In fact, I’m telling this story so that, maybe, people involved in smaller institutions can see what it looks like when you’re offering a raw deal to young professionals because, as I’ve discovered, sometimes they don’t know the difference.

I also want to tell a story from the position of someone who isn’t just out of grad school and who doesn’t feel as though she’s drowning in a sea of other candidates (although, trust me, I’ve been there). I suppose the message to new graduates is that the bad deals from employers won’t stop coming — the only thing that can change is your acceptance of them.

Also, I’m calling the institution the Choo-Choo Archives because I really don’t want to hurt anyone, and there are just too few institutions that match the true profile.

Director of Choo-Choo Library and Archives Requirements:

  • Reference
  • Library processing
  • Archival processing
  • Exhibits
  • Object accessioning
  • Rights and reproductions
  • Come up with cool projects and get grants to get them funded
  • Manage budgets
  • Participate in consortial projects
  • Collection development
  • Create policies
  • Presentations to donors and VIPs

Must have

  • MLS
  • 3-5 years experience
  • Tech skills
  • Library/archives standards
  • Management abilities

So, let me say off the bat that I BARELY had the skills  required to do this job. I had been supervising a team of six, working with budgets, and basically being the head of a department, so I was fairly confident that I could do that bit. My rad Michigan Archives education, internships, and first job in an archives had left me comfortable with the archives/library work. And I was ready to be a firecracker, a leader, and give a lot of energy to this pretty-rad institution. But I was just barely peeking into that 3-5 year requirement, and HOLY GOD look at that list of responsibilities up there!


Long story short, the interviews went reasonably well. Everyone was honest about the institution’s needs and shortcomings. We discussed the fact that… there’s no repository management software to speak of (no ILS, no digital asset management), no true IT support, not nearly as much hardware or software as would be needed, and a somewhat-broken organizational culture. But we also talked about how exciting it would be, how committed they are to interacting with the active Choo-Choo community, collecting Choo-Choo oral histories and making sure that the Choo-Choo archives is a true community space. In some ways, the job was everything I wanted professionally — autonomy, community engagement, adventure.

But, they warned me, the institution’s finances are stretched, and if you got this job, would you be able to do it for $40k/year?

If you’re not gasping right now, you should be.


But, the interviewer said something which I found hopeful, which was that getting the institution’s finances under control was an active project, and after that was figured out, creating more reasonable salaries is among the highest priorities.

And before accepting, I asked if I could see a copy of the business plan that had this all worked out — income generation, spending priorities, etc.

But, unfortunately, they told me, no plan actually exists. Just discussions and hopes. I knew then and there that this probably wasn’t an institution that could implement the changes that I would want to be a part of.

So, when I had the conversation with the institution about why I had to turn down the job, I made sure to cover the following points:

  • In a lot of ways, this is a dream job. If I could do it, I would. The institution, collections, staff, and community are all amazing. I’m grateful to be asked to join the team, and I wish I could.
  • But the lack of support / lack of compensation double whammy made it so that I wouldn’t actually be able to help them very much — before long, I would have to be burnt out, trying to find something that would actually pay the rent, and somewhere I could commune with others who care about the same professional issues.
  • It sounds like the institution is going through some tumultuous times. It sounds, too, like they need someone who’s a leader to help them get through this. They’re going to need a true professional to do this, and they’re not going to find her at forty thousand dollars a year.
  • I can’t do it to the profession. I can’t send the message that the big long list of skills above is only worth forty thousand dollars a year. I can’t give anyone the wrong idea about that.

The hiring committee understood my position, but was surprised that the salary they were offering was so far out of bounds of what was common within the profession. I think he may have taken my words to heart. We had a collegial conversation about their hopes and the future of Choo-Choos, and I continued my search.


I didn’t end up unemployed and homeless after turning down this offer. I ended up with a really amazing job from which I learn a lot every day, with people whom I value and respect, and at an institution that can give me support and compensation commensurate with my skills and experiences. And I hope that the Choo Choo Archives has had a chance to circle its wagons and understand what it really needs and how it’s going to be able to acquire it.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. kay permalink
    June 30, 2011 9:49 pm

    I suppose it depends where this position was located / cost of living, but $40,000 a year is honestly not that far off from the salary of most archivists I know, even ones who have been in the profession for 5+ years, and especially lone arrangers in small institutions. I’m not saying it’s right, or that you did the wrong thing by turning down the job and letting them know why, but I do think its pretty average…

  2. Maureen Callahan permalink*
    July 1, 2011 7:54 am

    Thanks for your comment, Kay!
    Yeah, 40k/year is probably, sadly, pretty par for the course. But the job was in a major metropolitan area, and they were looking for skills that require some pretty expensive training to develop.
    I think, though, that the real deal-breaker for me was that although they had a lot of talk about the institution as a whole changing its financial future, they didn’t have an actionable plan to make it happen. It said to me that they might not have the basic professional skill it takes to make change, which I took as a warning of possible years of frustration if I were to take the gig…

  3. Matt permalink
    July 1, 2011 2:22 pm

    I initially took exception to your criticism of the salary, but the more I thought about it, the more I agree with your post. I think the 40k/year is proper for entry level the type of institution you describe (major metropolitan area), but definitely not for a director position like this appears to be.

    I work at a small (roughly 4k-5k cubic feet of records), somewhat rural archives/museum but we’re surprisingly well funded. We are stand alone, not attached to any university or government. Therefore, we don’t have any IT staff and outsource even our website which is hosted on their servers. Thus, we don’t have any archival collections management software either (although we’ve talked about it), and I’m confident that working with our website company could result in us adopting such a program. However, we excel at meeting the information needs of our area and greater region, and have outreach means that I would put up against any institution (excluding NARA). The ability to achieve an institutional mission is of greater importance. So an archival program can succeed without an IT staff and collections management software.

    • Jessica permalink
      September 15, 2011 12:06 pm

      >>”I initially took exception to your criticism of the salary, but the more I thought about it, the more I agree with your post. I think the 40k/year is proper for entry level the type of institution you describe (major metropolitan area), but definitely not for a director position like this appears to be.”

      I completely agree. The salary they offered for this is the higher level of what I would expect to be earning at an entry-level position.

      For a management-level professional though, with that long list of skills (and on another note, how in the world would anyone develop all of those skills in just 5 years?), I would expect quite a bit more.

      Bless their hearts.


  1. Imagining a Labor Market in Archives that Works for Everyone « You Ought to be Ashamed

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