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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?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. litbrarian permalink
    November 28, 2011 2:10 pm

    I think, in a perfect world, it should be required to have some professional/practical experience to even get the degree in the first place. I know my own MLS program is completely online (you can probably guess the program) and their archives track has no requirement for that whatsoever (recommended, but not required) so you could easily get people with MLS degrees who have never really processed a collection before.

    Honestly, I very much think that a processing archivist job (like the grant I’m currently working on which is mostly just de-encapsulating records that were housed incorrectly) is great for pre-MLS work and there should definitely be more of them for everyone interested. But with the market saturation of archivists, are there really enough jobs–at any level–to support the people with degrees, let alone those looking to take the degree-less path? Can the job be split into a strict processing position with someone else entirely doing the finding aid? What would a strictly “entry-level” position consist of?


  1. In defense of the MLS (Sort of) « You Ought to be Ashamed

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