Transitioning archivist

For my friends over at the SNAP Roundtable, I wrote an entry for their Transitions blog series about the things I have learned (and am still learning) in my early career. I highly recommend that even less-new professionals take a gander at the SNAP blog (and listserv), as they highlight issues of relevance to archivists of all experience levels.

Job Hunting in Academia, Round 2: A Primer in Not Losing Your Mind

It’s worth noting that I did not say you get to *keep* your mind, but this way you may not completely lose it. My top methods of archives-job-search-survival:

  • Take notes during and/or after the interviews. This is probably something everyone does already. For phone/video interviews, I take notes on who the interviewers are, what questions they ask, what opinions or information they offer, what questions I asked them, and my overall knee-jerk impressions. All of this info comes in handy if I’m asked back. As I said in my last post, I lost clarity during those waits, so these notes were a way to help me prepare for face-to-face interviews. After in-persons, I jot down impressions and further questions, if any occur to me.
  • Be who you are, and be it well. My random job experiences have built on each other nicely, or maybe I just think they have. In archives job interviews, I have referenced positions in professional archives, research, writing tutoring, hotel front desks, amateur (failed) quiche baking, and camp counselor-ing.Also  I’m a girl who likes a good joke, and it’s how I relieve my tension – interviews are tense! I try not to be too funny, but it’s what I’m going to bring to the workplace, so I don’t shy away from openings to make people laugh. I can’t remember an interview where I didn’t make people laugh, and I try not to think “Oh god was the quiche story too much??”
  • Save the job descriptions. This can be a tedious task, but my system of applying is save-friendly. I generally print out job descriptions and underline/highlight the areas that I’ll focus on in my cover letter. So I added the date I applied and stuck it in a folder. If I heard back, I: (a) immediately knew what position they were talking about and (b) could add interview materials on. If I didn’t print out this material initially, I saved them to a Word doc – less easy to find, less application info, but same idea. Also, with this information, I did not have to keep a spreadsheet of all my applications – it’s tedious and a little depressing. Purging paper at the end of a search process, on the other hand, is so very satisfying.
  • Ask for help. Although I would swear that all the people I asked for help must have gotten sick of me, we’re still friends, soooo. Friends looked over cover letters; my advisor helped me rework my resume, cover letter template, and overall search strategy; archivist friends did all the same and listened to my practice presentations; people recommended informational interview contacts; archivists granted those informational interviews; friends and acquaintances answered my emails on any number of topics. Don’t hesitate to ask for input – someone can always decide to not answer you, but they can’t help if you don’t ask.
  • Remember that you’re awesome. You! Are! Awesome! Some things you are good at; some things you are less good at. It is the human condition. But generally, you work hard and you try your best. Go you! Take care of yourself – take days off from applications, feed off the parts of the profession that are loveable, go for long bike rides or runs or ice cream treasure hunts to get you over the worst bits. At my lowest, I felt like I was on a raft in the middle of the ocean, with no land in sight. Generally we are able get to land, one way or the other, archives or not. And: You’re awesome!
  • It’s easier to find a job if everyone knows you’re looking. In my experience, people want to be helpful. I talk about my job hunts to friends and family – even if most of them don’t really understand what I do, I’ve still gotten job and volunteer leads from unexpected sources. An interviewer for one position even recommended me for another, which felt really great aside from being helpful.

The above are simplistic guidelines but they helped me survive. Also helpful: surveying my father and brothers to see who would let me move in with them. So I survived, but it wasn’t always pretty. You’re awesome! And may need to take days off from feeling awesome.

If you have been through the Elusive Archives Job Hunt and are feeling generous: what strategies helped you cope with the stress and the unknown? If I’m missing some good ideas, the people need to know!

Job Hunting (in Academia): One Archivist’s Tales

Sung to the tune of The Brady Bunch theme song: Here’s a story, of a girl mired in grad student loans, who struck out to make a living with recorrrrrds.

(sorry/not sorry)

This isn’t my advice – that will come – but this has been my academic-ish job seeking journey. YMMV.

– – –

When I started job hunting during my last year of graduate school, I applied for almost any job that looked remotely entry-level-ish. A number of these were academic institutions, although I applied for corporate, state and federal government, and library positions as well. I wanted to stay in Boston or move closer to my family in the South. I wanted to gain valuable experience, not just do work.

I accomplished some of these goals: I took an archives assistant position at a college archives in Boston, working for a processing archivist who was open to letting baby archivists stretch their legs. My salary was tolerable, especially given the learning opportunities and Boston’s happening scene (which sounds super-nerdy but it’s TOTALLY happening). The hiring process, for me, was relatively quick; I applied at the end of March, had an in-person interview in mid-April, was asked for approval to contact references the next day (holy grail), got a hire letter around my graduation date (~1 month later), and started my new job June 1. Two months from start to finish.

Alas, my job was only a one-year contact position so I took about three months off before I started applying for positions. A friend in NC recommended a non-academic position to me; I applied in October, heard back from the organization in late January, had a phone interview in February, and made an in-person visit at the beginning of March. It’s worth noting that this non-profit did not have an HR department, which may have affected the process’s speed. No job for me. Five months from start to finish.

Next promising opportunity was a FULL-TIME, PERMANENT, ENTRY-LEVEL position at a university in Florida. The rarest of birds, so of course I jumped at the chance. I applied at the end of March, had a phone interview at the end of April, was invited to interview in-person (all day, with a presentation) at the end of May, actually interviewed in person in late June, and knew by the first week of July that the (very cool) job (with great people) was not mine. Four and a half months from start to finish.

At this point in my search, a few academic institutions at which I had put in applications called for references before reaching out to me. Some of them I never heard from myself. This was unexpected and, frankly, unwelcome although I see the value in it. My negative feelings mostly emanate from sad places and worries about why they never got in touch. Santa Cruz, call me! Why u no call? So, be forewarned, job seekers.

Another academic opportunity – project job in Iowa, egad IOWA – had an alarmingly, blessedly rapid process. They contacted my references before reaching out to me, around the same time Florida Job was checking before hauling me down for my visit. I put in my application in mid-April, knew they checked on me at the beginning of June, was contacted at the end of June, had a video-conference interview at the beginning of July, participated in a background check AND received an offer the next week (seriously – boom, boom, boom). Application to acceptance, a little less than three months, and most of that was time between application and first official contact from the search committee.

The funny (HAHAHAHA) thing is that these processes feel much longer. I’m amazed right now that none hit the six month mark, because it felt that way. I found the wait between phone and in-person interview particularly difficult, because the position and the people faded from my mind. I’m sure they expect that, but it was still difficult. The good thing about the wait (or is this is a bad thing?) is that I would use to the time to read books about specific types of archives or job functions, things that did not come up in graduate school. I learned a lot from that tutelage, but it also cost me a little sanity.

Next post will offer some strategies and tools that I have found useful in the two years or so that I spent on the archivist job market. What works for me may not work for you, but in case it might, I’ll serve up some ideas.

Book review: Zamon’s The Lone Arranger

Laws a-mercy, y’all, I do not post here enough. In another effort to encourage me to remain engaged in learning more about what I do, I’m starting a new series of book reviews. Call me old fashioned, but I have found that when I want to educate myself about an aspect of archives mangement, books are the way to go. I frequently find something devoted to the subject at hand and it’s so easy to tote a book around. Journal articles serve me well, too, but nothing is easier than a book (at least, so far!).

This month’s book review looks at Christina Zamon’s The Lone Arranger : Succeeding in a Small Repository, published by the Society of American Archivists in 2012. I remember when the book came out, since I was still at Simmons and regularly attending NEA events. Christina is the Archivist and Records Manager for Emerson College in downtown Boston, and this book had quite the buzz! You know, amongst archivists. Unlike some of my friends, I had little interest at that time in becoming a lone arranger, so it was in one ear and out the other (sorry, Ms. Zamon).

But thanks to the job hunt, my interest was soon piqued in learning more the day-to-day of a lone arranger. And nothing beats the perspective of a current practitioner. Especially this current practitioner. I loved reading this book! She has essentially provided a training manual and a support group for lone arrangers in this relatively brief  workbook. The tone is realistic, the subjects cover a great deal. Without my own L.A. experience, I can’t say that it is everything, but I CAN say that if I ever land a solo archivist gig, purchasing The Lone Arranger will be my first act. It covers the “grad school” subjects (records management, IT, collections management, reference, administration), but Zamon knows her audience: she addresses those day-to-day questions that pop up and provides a good sense of what needs to happen and what is simply nice to have.

Side note: the Lone Arranger Roundtable website has great resources that address most archival tasks, simply because that’s … what lone arrangers do and need support for. I suppose sometimes deeper knowledge is necessary, but I’ve become a LART #1 fan between this book and that website. If you have questions about the whats and hows of archives, start with those two sources!

I’m sure that I am not the first person to laud this book, but it’s worth doing anyway. For newly minted archivists or those who are a little bit further on in their careers, Zamon’s The Lone Arranger  acts as a good mentor for the 11 months of the year that you’re not amongst other archivists.

Certify this: Taking the Certified Archivists exam

This past Wednesday, August 14, I took the Certified Archivists exam, in order to become a member of the Academy of Certified Archivists.  It sounds so fancy, right?

The exam itself was a mystery to me beforehand. Some people said it was pretty difficult, others told me that it was unnecessary to study really. Most of the people I spoke with about it – many archivists who haven’t taken it are curious! – assumed that it would be easier for people to take it as soon as possible after they received their MS in library science.

Here’s how I studied and prepared mentally for the exam:

  • I read everything I could about the exam. This meant (1) the organization’s exam handbook and (2) all the blog posts I could find through the google. The blogs were older but I found them reassuring.
  • I read Audra’s excellent (if dated) post about her experience. It was nice to “hear” the experience of someone that I know and respect. Unfortunately, some of the links to her study sites are broken now, but you get a good idea
  • I talked to everyone I met about it. Like I said, a lot of people haven’t taken it but are curious about the test, and what it means. Some people, including some former bosses, had advice and encouragement. No one I spoke to in real life said it was scary-hard, but they did encourage me to study.
  • I studied! For me, that was one of the benefits of taking the test: catching up on reading I didn’t do as a student, or going back over familiar materials.
  • I joined a study group, taken over by Brad Houston (aka @herodotusjr) from a past test taker. I did not contribute nearly enough to the group, but it was encouragement when I needed it while studying all by myself.
  • I learned for other reasons. In prep for several job interviews I had across the spring, I read Zamon’s The Lone Arranger and Wythe’s Museum Archives, which covered several (all?) of the knowledge areas tested by the exam.

I’m sure you read through all of this to learn more about the actual test. I wish I could tell you that it’s easy, but I didn’t find it all that cut and dried and I can understand why some people find it really difficult. The technical questions were difficult, and I’m torn as to whether I wished I read more about storage media… I just don’t use that information in my daily work. And some of the practical questions were difficult as well; what the archivist should do and what the archivist will do can diverge. The handbook did address questions like this, which is just one reason why you should definitely read the handbook.

I’m glad I took the test. It’s not impossible, and I do feel good about my decision to get a CA despite indications that it’s not perceived well, or even useful. The review of the literature and the community (we all know I’m in to that) around it are valuable to me. In four to six weeks, I’ll know if I passed (eek!). If not, I have a whole year to decide if I want to take it again.

Please ask if you have other questions about the test – I know first-hand how difficult can be to find someone to chat about it with, especially via the internet!

So, what do you do?

A common question to ask, oh, anyone is “So, what do you do?” As a former research analyst for a company that was sorta consulting, sorta just research, I have had more than my fair share of awkward moments trying to explain what I do. Thankfully, in the world at large, there’s a basic understanding of consulting and/or writing research papers. As an archivist/librarian/information professional, I can no longer fake it.

Image from the Randolph County, Arkansas, archives web site.

Now I get to tell people, “I am a processing archivist.” In return, I get blank looks or, even worse, people who are clearly trying to decipher my words. What’s processing? What’s an archivist? Crap.

Everyone imagines piles of paper, so in some ways processing is not a far jump – analog processing, at least. I was explaining that I work with collections of papers to my roommate and he somehow made the leap to papers, like the kind published in journals. There was an awkward moment where I danced around the difference between journal access and processed archival collections. Any librarian knows that the gulf between those two things is wide; but how do we help a casual information user paddle across?

Baby archivist, get ready: these conversations are just around the corner. Around every corner. Some cliffsnotes for you: No, archivists are not librarians. No, you don’t have to be an old lady. No, archives are not dying – publishing models are just changing. Be sure to reference Salman Rushdie’s archives at Emory. I do use a computer at work. I can write in code, probably better than you.

And if I meet you in a bar, please do not tell me a Dewey Decimal joke. But you will, and I won’t hold it against you.