#ArchivesLife: Six Months In

I recently joined the University of York Alumni Association’s new mentoring scheme (yay!), and the questions I was asked to answer as a new mentor doubled as a great opportunity to reflect on my “new” job, six months in.

So I decided share my answers here on my blog, too. If you’re an information science student or considering a job in archives, feel free to comment or contact me!

I have changed the language to American English throughout.

What I do

I am an archivist at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission (TSLAC), where the main focus of my work is processing state records, along with some historical manuscript collections. As of February, I am also the accessions archivist, responsible for working with state agency and private donors to accession records for the state archives. Additionally, my work involves weekly reference shifts in our archives reading room, as well as some outreach, including special events at our repository and participation in local, state, and regional archives-related public events and our archival professional associations. For 2016, I am serving on committees for two local organizations, the Austin Archives Bazaar and the Austin Book Arts Center. I also attend a few conferences per year, and have a medium-term goal of writing an article for publication in an archival journal in 2016-17.

Skills I use and how I developed them

Knowledge of Texas history and state government, developed since working as a tour guide in our state capitol as a college student, and continually built upon.

Archives-specific skills, including a knowledge of the development of our professional standards, particularly with respect to processing and access: DACS, EAD, etc. I learned these skills through a two-year MSIS program which also included multiple work experiences and practica.

Event planning and outreach skills, learned through many years of related work, going back to the year I spent as an events planner for Ottakar’s book store in Chelmsford, Essex, and including a year spent as a development professional at The University of Texas at Austin.

Strong grammar and spelling skills, developed through the completion of two English degrees and 15 years of work experience.

What I like most

I love that I get to continually read and learn about history, particularly Texas history–and that I get to share my passion for this subject with our patrons. I very much feel that the work I am doing every day to preserve and make available the history of our state and its government is vital. I wish there were more hours in the day!

I also like that the job isn’t completely desk-bound. Though I spend a lot of time at my desk, processing papers, reading articles, and writing code, I also spend a good deal of time helping patrons in our reading room, working in the stacks, and even palletizing hundreds of boxes on our loading dock for disposal. This job is not sedentary!

What I like least

The comparatively low salary, considering the amount of education and skills necessary for the work, combined with ever-rising costs of living. This is especially the case if you work for a state repository or state university, and, while Austin may be the latest relocation mecca, state salaries here generally do not (any longer) support a high standard of living. Private university and, especially, corporate salaries are generally better, as is to be expected. But compensation is a perennial concern of archivists and librarians, nationally.

I think most people think that we just guard old documents all day; there is also a lot of general confusion regarding the difference between archivists and librarians. The modern archives field is involved in cutting-edge theoretical and practical considerations involving the long-term (in theory, perpetual) management of electronic resources, as well as ancient parchment manuscripts! We have a broad knowledge of history, and specific areas of historical expertise; we work with national and international standards (including ISO standards); we must master continually evolving, ever-more-complex professional frameworks; we code and write XML and databases and open-source software; and much more. It’s not a musty old room filled with dusty old boxes, where we sit all day, waiting for Indiana Jones to show up (unfortunately!).

What surprised me most

The amount of autonomy I was given from the outset. It is assumed that I am a trained professional and can be mostly left to my own devices to get my work done. There is more latitude for self-directed prioritizing than I expected, especially as a processing archivist (the usual entry-level position in this field).

Finding and applying for the job

How I looked for work

I used my MSIS program’s careers services web site as well as the Society of American Archivists job board, both online. My program also maintains a listserv where new job announcements are posted. My job was advertised on all of these, but also on the agency’s website, from which I applied. I had previously completed a course-related practicum at the repository, so I was very much on the lookout for full time job openings here.

How studying in the UK affected my job seeking

Having a second master’s is not required to work as an archivist, but it helps, especially when the topic is relevant to a repository’s collections. It may give you an edge over other candidates in these cases. Almost all archivists working in academic settings (university libraries, special collections, humanities research centers) have a second, subject-area MA; some have PhDs.

In my case, the subject of my MA–the Culture of Modernism–dovetails nicely with the era of a lot of the manuscript collections I have been assigned so far, such as the papers of a 1930s Texas state senator and manuscript drafts created by the WPA-funded Texas Writers’ Project.

The recruitment process

I applied by submitting a fairly long state application by email. The interview process was quick and efficient, consisting of a telephone interview followed by an in-person interview.

My career

My career goals when I graduated

My goal was to get a job as an archivist in Austin, which most professors and mentors advised me was unlikely due to Austin’s popularity and the difficulty of the entry-level job market. However, my pre-existing knowledge of Texas history and government, plus the fact that I had completed a practicum at the repository and thus knew its procedures, probably helped. I already had more than 12 years of experience in state employment, so I was highly motivated to land a job at a state repository or public university. My dream was to work in a hybrid institution combining library, archives, and museum work–and TSLAC is just that!

My career history

I graduated from The University of Texas with a BA in English, minor History, in 2001. I went directly to the University of York, where I completed the Culture of Modernism MA coursework in one year, taking an additional year to complete my dissertation. I graduated in 2003.

I remained in the UK (on a domestic partnership visa) through 2005, and worked as a bookseller, a literary events planner, and finally, as a residential construction planning and process manager for Countryside PLC in Essex.

After returning to Texas in 2005, I worked as a reference assistant at our state Legislative Research Library for a year before taking a job as an administrative assistant in an academic department at The University of Texas. I stayed there for four years before moving into a development position in another department, where I worked for a year.

In 2013, I was accepted into the University of Texas School of Information’s archives program, and I was fortunate to also receive a fellowship from the Harry Ransom Center, where I worked as a graduate intern throughout my two-year MSIS.

What has helped my career to progress

A passion for the field; my willingness to take on service roles in student and professional organizations wherever the opportunity presented itself; doing multiple internships and practica during my MSIS program; my additional 10+ years of work experience prior to becoming an archivist, which gave me a lot of generally transferable office skills and more confidence; and, most of all, excitement about continued learning and professional development.

Courses taken since graduation

I am currently working toward the Society of American Archivists’ Digital Archives Specialist certificate, which requires quite a few courses, webinars, exams, etc.

How my studies have helped my career

A master’s degree in library or information science is the necessary professional qualification to work as an archivist. I earned mine at the University of Texas School of Information. My prior coursework at York, in The Culture of Modernism MA, as also informed my readiness and ongoing work, as the era is one in which a lot of the documents I now work with were created.

Note that librarianship and archival science are not the same thing. If you know, as I did, that you want to work as an archivist, make sure you do a master’s program that includes substantial archives-specific coursework and provides opportunities for hands-on work experience.

What surprised me about my career so far

I am surprised every day by how much I love my job.

Where I hope to be in 5 years

In five years, I will have a solid understanding of archival processing. I want to be involved in more outreach and education activities through professional activity (conferences, professional articles, internal and external committees, personal side interests).

My advice to students

My advice to students considering work

Take advantage of the opportunities given to you as a student! Do as many internships and volunteer gigs as you can–they are as important as your coursework. Make connections, both with your fellow students (who will be your future colleagues) and with your professors, supervisors, and mentors. Write thank you notes. Join a mentorship program through an appropriate professional organization. Use your status as a student to land informational interviews with working professionals whom you admire, or whose jobs you think you might like. Apply for scholarships to conferences! Many of these go unclaimed due to lack of applicants! I applied for almost every one I was eligible for, and went to three conferences for free as a student, where I made important contacts, learned about various subsets of my field, and had a great time–I went to Portland, Dallas, and Washington, DC–for free! Continually update your CV, and include all of your volunteer work and professional development activities. Have a mentor or careers counselor advise you on your CV and cover letter. Get involved in social media–especially Twitter, a great place to meet and talk with your fellow archivists, scattered around the world. Resolve to make the most of this opportunity you have as a student to soak up all of this knowledge and all of these experiences.

My advice about working in my industry

Archivists are a learnèd, history-minded, always-curious, contagiously enthusiastic, mostly extremely friendly bunch. Though many are introverts, they will really get going if you prod them about their areas of interest! Reach out to people. Email people asking to set up coffee dates. Use your existing connections. Volunteer. Tweet–especially at conferences.

Learn the basic skills through an information science/library science master’s program, but learn the culture and most of the job through conferences and internships. Know that there are many, many roles within the field. Most of us start as processing archivists, since that’s the most fundamental part of our work; but there are many directions a career in archives can take you. You might become a “lone arranger” working at a small history museum, where you are responsible not only for archives, but also for artifacts and exhibitions and events and tours and fundraising. You might move into grant writing. You might work in a special collections library, at the crossroads of archives and librarianship. You might love people and decide to work as a reference archivist. You might want to do outreach and education. You might want to move into management. You might be a freelance disaster management consultant. You might be a conservator. You might work at a museum. You might work at Coca-Cola. Though all of these paths are united by the skills and approaches you’ll learn in an archival science program, the options are really endless. And you might end up doing all of the above over the course of your career.

Other advice

Try to be more succinct in your writing than I am. I’m working on it. 🙂

Contacting me

Feel free to contact me about any of the above, or indeed any questions you have about working in archives, working in the U.S., and/or life as a York alum!