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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!

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Saving Paper permalink
    November 27, 2012 3:10 pm

    Still, with some dignity, I am a part-time faculty-status MLIS-holding archivist with all these responsibilities and no benefits.

  2. November 27, 2012 3:19 pm

    Something about this description makes me think they already have someone in mind for the job. It could be the same graduate student who organized the collection. But maybe I’m biased because I know of so many archival positions that were, in effect, filled before they were even advertised.

    • November 28, 2012 10:24 am

      I wondered about that myself, especially since the original posting in July seemed to indicate that the position could be extended with a revised description.

  3. Kate Bowers permalink
    November 28, 2012 2:11 am

    Re: no MLS required. The candidate is supposed to have acquired all those skills through _one_ year of having worked in an archives?

  4. Craig P. S. permalink
    November 28, 2012 3:11 pm

    So back when we had the conversation about Volunteers in Archives and I advocated against it, one of the arguments thrown back at me was that it’s better that the work just get done than no work get done at all. I’d like to challenge that again here. Is it better that someone is taken advantage of here (I would actually use the term “abused”, yes) for the sake of this work getting done? Again to be clear I do not pose this question as a means to blame anyone who would take such a job, but in fact to the do the opposite in blaming all factors which contribute to enabling such a posting and forcing someone to take such a job.

    So which would you prefer and which should we be fighting for, resigning ourselves to the disrespect of this job posting (not just to its potential worker but to the attitude it helps foster across the Profession that this is OK and that things can be done this way) or hoping that the job ACTUALLY DOESN’T get filled while pressuring the people that posted the job to fight for PROPER pay and benefits if they expect this sort of work to be accomplished in any meaningful way?

    Another argument I have heard in this regard is that if administrators fight for what is right in this regard, they will often be pressured by superiors to submit or forced out and replaced with someone willing to go ahead with these inexcusable demands. To this I would say Yes, this is absolutely true, but it’s also clear evidence that our problems are connected to a wider struggle that is just not political but ideological. If we really want to address our concerns with things like this on a meaningful level, that is where we need to begin to talk and operate.

    • November 28, 2012 4:19 pm

      I’m for the second option.

      I support any of my peers in the LAM community who are willing to take risks and work hard for the sake of their career. I’m even willing to accept that, being new to the professional world, I may have to accept “the job I can get” rather than the job I want. That aside, we should not encourage or tacitly accept exploitative labor practices in any sector. Craig also makes a great point about considering the quality of the work that can be produced under these circumstances.

      When I first started my present job, I had to make sense of a collection which had been partially processed by at least four nonprofessional staff members over the course of about 20 years. Items had been permanently displaced or lost, serious preservation issues had been overlooked, original order had been destroyed, etc. etc. It was a total mess. I saw the same situation at a local historical organization which relies entirely on untrained volunteers to run the archives. I’m not against volunteers, but I try to stay realistic about when they are truly helpful.

      Administrators should absolutely advocate for their subordinates. When my predecessor left, the administrator fought to keep my position as a full-time benefits appointment (she did not get fired as a result). Theoretically, my position could have been filled by a handful of student workers. As a result, my boss would have an excessive administrative workload, processing projects would take much longer to finish, and staff turn over would result in a significant decline in quality of output. We were actually really fortunate to be in the middle of a big anniversary event which demonstrated our value.

      The archives profession can learn a lot from librarians about pay equity and labor fairness advocacy.

      • November 28, 2012 5:00 pm

        You said: “When I first started my present job, I had to make sense of a collection which had been partially processed by at least four nonprofessional staff members over the course of about 20 years.”

        You are describing my job, except that it was volunteer labor. A retired faculty member with no experience declared herself a “professional archivist” and headed a committee of volunteers. Examples: each volunteer independently categorizing the same types of documents under their own arbitrarily chosen subject headings (copies of the same series of reports might therefore be filed in four different places). Broad and/or inaccurate record group names like “Reports,” under which anything and everything was filed. Folders labeled in ink (it’s good that they were at least acid-free, I guess). Newspaper clippings scotch-taped to paper. Boxes containing a few documents and no spacers, so that the contents slid down into the box. “Oral history” interviews in which subjects were asked leading questions and in which the interviewer had a clear personal agenda and was trolling for dirt on the narrators’ co-workers.

        It would have been a LOT easier if I could have started from scratch. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

        Funding for everything is tight where I work, so yes, I’m always aware of how to demonstrate the value of an archives to the institution.

        • November 28, 2012 5:11 pm

          Yep, almost the exact same scenario (with the exception of the oral histories, yikes). I don’t even want to imagine how this scenario would play out in a digitization project.

  5. Heavens to Murgatroyd permalink
    November 29, 2012 8:48 am

    If you came at this with the attitude that it was more like an internship, though not explicitly so, it would be very good experience. But you’d have to build your own portfolio, since you’ll probably get little professional, on-the-job feedback. Say if you’re in the middle of a online grad program.
    The biggest problem with it being sustainable is the part time status. The annual is not good, but if it was 36 rather than 18 hours, even adjusting for inflation, it would be well more than I, and probably most, started at in this field. Nobody could do all this in 18 hours. But, I wouldn’t worry too much about the job requirements list because if they hire someone that is somewhat familiar with archives they will know more than any supervisor there about what to do. Its a bit of a catch all list that someone can probably tailor to suit.
    The adjunct thing is odd, but given how “small time” academe works its probably all they could think of. Imagine what kind of resumes they’d get if it was listed as staff position with a bachelor’s required. I think its listed this way to attract a more educated applicant pool, even if they can’t require it.
    So yeah, if you were in the area already, and were in a program (or recently out without something else lined up) I could recommend taking a shot at this.

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