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Tips and Tricks for SAA 2014

The Society of American Archivists’ Annual Meeting will take place in Washington, D.C. this year from August 10-16. If this will be your first annual meeting, check out the Official Guide for First-Time Conference Attendees. Produced by SNAP Members, this guide has tons of advice to help you prepare, pack, network, and choose sessions. You can also browse the results of last year’s annual meeting Twitter chat. Here are a few tips to help you prepare for SAA 2014.

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Q: Where should I work before graduate school?

Ask an Archivist Question:

I want to go into the archiving profession but I do not want to go straight into graduate school after I graduate next May. What are some career paths/jobs I should look into after graduation that would put me in the direction of becoming an archivist? How soon should I start applying to jobs?

Ask an Archivist Answers:

Not going directly into graduate school for learning the archival enterprise can be a good thing. Jobs to look at are many and varied. At this time, I would recommend anything in the computer area. Cyber security, learning/writing  software, or anything with data management will give you experience that you can use with digital records (the future of archives).

Another thing that will always help is bookkeeping or accounting. You can be the one who understands business records, because most of us come from a history or English literature background. Plus, knowing how to read a general ledger helps when you become the boss of the department and have to manage the money. Project management is another skill – learning how to get the job done on time, with few resources is really important. Finally, any job where you are interacting with co-workers or the public gives you skills with people and how they think and ask questions. This will help with reference.  Good luck!

- Gerrianne Schaad

I don’t think there’s a single path that would best prepare you for archival work. I worked for a couple of years in college athletic media relations before starting graduate school. I doubt anyone would list this as a “preferred” path towards archival work. But I learned effective outreach, PR and media relations techniques. I learned how to write concisely and persuasively. And I learned how to work as part of a team. These skills are invaluable in archival work today. And having previous professional experience where these skills were clearly demonstrated and honed helped me stand out from the crowd when I was looking for my first archival professional job.

Regardless of what jobs you hold before (or during) grad school, think about the transferable skills you’re learning, and, when you’re interviewing, clearly state how these experiences help you be a better archivist. Remember that many people will have a graduate education that (at least on the surface) is identical to yours. Your experiences outside of class and your ability to clearly state how those experiences help you be a better archivist differentiate you from everyone else.

- Erin Lawrimore

I find having experience working with a filing system helpful. I’ve worked with archivists who have little experience in office work, creating or maintaining a filing system, and they seemed to have a bad grasp on hierarchy and order of business records and how to apply that to personal papers. So, an everyday office job can be profitable in this regard.

- Michala Biondi

Year in the Life: Katie Rojas, Pt. 1

Katie Rojas is the newest participant in our Year in the Life series, which follows new archivists in their first professional position. We will be following Katie for a year.

Name: Katie Rojas
Institution: Local government
Years at position: <1
Education: The University of Texas at Austin (BA – Anthropology, with coursework in fine art and art history) The University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee (MLIS with Archives concentration anticipated Spring 2015)

I work for a local government archive, which operates as a division of the office of the clerk. We hold collections primarily created by internal departments and employees, as well as some local cultural resources. Our institution is pretty long standing, so we have records that date back to 1770. We largely serve internal patrons, though we are open to the public for research and do receive external reference requests. Our facility also houses inactive files for other departments until they meet retention – the permanent archives and inactive records live together under the roof of a 60,000 square foot warehouse. Currently, I only oversee the archives, but there is talk of putting both archives and records management under one umbrella.

Prior to becoming the archivist at my institution, I was an intern for a semester, and then was hired as an assistant in the archives. I officially began my position as archivist at the beginning of June. During the last couple of months I have been juggling several projects, one of which is regaining administrative control over the archives by beginning an inventory of our collections, updating our list of finding aids, beginning an accession register, and tracking research requests. I’ve also been chipping away at the finding aid for a collection of over 2,000 engineer’s field survey notebooks as part of a grant we received from our local conservation society. Additionally, we’ve been lucky to have two interns this summer. Though they are not archives students, it has still been a boon for us in terms of getting things done – scanning, making inventory lists, processing a small collection or two, etc. Managing them and their work reminds me a lot of my previous experience as a teacher! I will definitely miss their company and help when summer is done.

My professional interests include digital preservation, metadata, and the use of archives for socio-cultural justice. In my personal life I’m a foodie who loves cats, reading, museums, art, and music.

Q: What was the job market like when you graduated?

Ask an Archivist Question:

What was your first professional job out of school? How long did it take for you to find that job after you graduated?

Ask an Archivist Answers:

My first professional job was as a part-time reference librarian at the Sayville Public Library, in Sayville, LI (NY). I worked about 15-18 hours per week, mostly during the evenings. I graduated from Long island University School of Library Science in May 1974, and got that job about 6 months later.

- Burton Altman

I graduated in 1991 and got a part-time job in a museum library and starting working short, part-time projects around that job. Sometimes they weren’t so short, but always part-time. I was able to manage a long stretch with one 3 day a week position and another 2-day a week – wasn’t too bad, ‘cepting for the lack of benefits, but I was young and fairly healthy. I juggled this for 3 years before landing a full-time perm position at NYPL in 1994

- Michala Biondi

My first professional job was a two-year contract position processing the papers of a former Senator from Tennessee. I was able to hire and supervise a student worker, and together, we arranged and described the 600+ linear foot collection. I applied and did a phone interview for the position during my last semester of grad school, interviewed on-site a couple of weeks after graduation, and started about six weeks later. I realize how lucky I was to have such a quick turnaround, even considering that I graduated in 2003 when project positions like this were more plentiful than they are now. I was helped by the fact that I could quickly relocate, and I didn’t think twice about applying for jobs in areas that some classmates saw as less than ideal. But I’m not sure how applicable my experience would be to someone in today’s job market, or even to someone with a family or other obligations that limit his/her ability to relocate.

- Erin Lawrimore

My first professional position after graduate school was a one year, grant funded position at the National Anthropological Archives and it took me 5 months to get it. Of course it took me three and a half years to land a full-time, non grant funded position, from the time of graduating. And I moved from Florida to Washington DC, to Boston, and then to El Paso, Texas.  All on my own dime. But I got an archives job!

- Gerrianne Schaad

Q: Should I follow my degree with a certificate in digital libraries or special collections?

Ask an Archivist Question:

I’m a few years out of library school and am working full-time on an archival project within a university special collections department. I’m hoping to take advantage of tuition waivers to further my skills-especially since my job search last year (before my contract was renewed) was very un-fruitful. I concentrated on archives entirely while in library school. I’m considering a Digital Libraries or a Special Collections certificate. In your opinions, which focus would most improve my job prospects?

Ask an Archivist Answers:

It appears you are already gaining academic special collections experience.  So I think broadening, in this case the digital libraries certificate, would make you more marketable to a wider range of employers.

- Michael Nagy

How much digital content was involved in your schooling, and how comfortable are you with it?  Most positions now required some fluency with digital processes, so if you are there, you’re good.  I would suggest taking continuing education workshops and webinars to keep up with the latest (yes, we all need to do this) but if you have the basics down it’s ok.  Listing courses on your resume came make that point. Taking the DAS certification may also, but if you are already adept, it’s a lot of $$ for what you already know. Though if you can test out of several of the foundation classes, it may be worthwhile.

If you want to move in a particular direction, a certificate or con’t ed class in that direction (again, listed on resume) will also inform future employers. Rare Book School, held in VA and NY through the year, or other programs can be great experiences to add to your documentation.

Sometimes, I hate to say, it’s just hard to know what to do to make oneself more ‘sell-able.”  But do use the tuition benefits on something, it’s bound to be useful.

- Michala Biondi

Jobs that include “digital” in the title are relatively plentiful these days, though the nature of the jobs differs widely: some are for archivists who have skills in managing born-digital materials, some are focused on digitization, some involve managing institutional repositories that principally or solely contain non-archival materials, and some even are principally web managers. All require a variety of technical skills, some of them quite sophisticated. Do you enjoy the tech-oriented aspects of your job? If so, you’d be smart to focus in that direction. But if not, then you’re likely to be happier doing a more generalized special collections-oriented program. Regardless, try to acquire as much variety as possible in your current position. Even though you’re in a project-based position, your supervisor may have the freedom to expand your duties somewhat when she knows how enthusiastic you are.

- Jackie Dooley

With the changes in technology and archival formats found in collections, I’d recommend taking digital archives courses. I’ve heard that SAA’s DAS Certificate is worthwhile.

- Burton Altman

SNAP Roundtable Elections

Members of SNAP Roundtable received e-mails this morning about the 2014-2015 SNAP Roundtable Election. Positions for the 2014-2015 elections include Vice Chair/Chair-Elect, Secretary, and three steering committee members-at-large. To review candidate statements, please visit http://www2.archivists.org/groups/students-and-new-archives-professionals-snap-roundtable/snap-2014-elections-candidate-stateme.

To vote, please use the custom survey link provided in your e-mail. Voting ends on July 17, 2014.


Q: Is it appropriate to seek volunteers to handle archival collections without an archivist?

Ask an Archivist Question:

Do you have any suggestions for an organization that would like to have an archival collection, and even has a space for it….BUT….doesn’t have an archivist, and likely won’t right away? Is it crazy to even entertain the idea of seeking volunteers to assemble and organize collections? Just trying to think outside the box here!  Thank you!

Ask an Archivist Answers:

In theory, I would say never–accepting an archives collection means accepting responsibility for that collection in perpetuity. Forever.  This requires a serious commitment from any organization, let alone one without an archivist.

However, I can see certain situations arising which might require such an arrangement. In those cases, first of all, do not let volunteers organize and/or arrange collections. There is a reason archivists go to graduate school, and this kind of expertise is sorely needed in situations like this.

One potential recommendation is connecting with your local SHRAB and/or State Archives–many states now have either a field archivist or a special field consultant (who is a practicing professional) who will come and visit your organization, and make recommendations for how to handle collections:

Or, the SHRAB may also provide grant funds, which would allow the organization to hire a professional archivist for a short time period:

Finally, there are also a number of practicing consultants as well as businesses specializing in archives work:

Caring for our collections properly should be a top priority–organizations must accept responsibility for the collections they accept, and should make every effort to locate and rely on professional archival expertise.

- Tanya Zanish-Belcher

First, I am sure that others, perhaps many, will disagree with me. But I strongly believe that doing something and acknowledging limitations is far better than doing nothing. Unless they can ensure that the materials will be locked away forever until the archivist is able to come aboard. I have seen too many situations where nobody did anything and collections were left to be improperly managed at best, or disposed of all-together.

While this is not a perfect situation, the lack of an archivist should not discourage the organization from trying to gather materials together for preservation. Acknowledging there are materials worth preserving and understanding that they are not archivists are key to making this work. There need to be clear limits to the work being undertaken, especially when it comes to reference and access. Finally, I would also strongly encourage the organization to bring the archivist on as soon as possible. We need to be very clear that this should not be left to a volunteer(s) for a long period of time.

- Arian Ravanbakhsh

Please do not have volunteers attempt to “assemble and arrange” materials for the soon-to-be archives. Sometimes this happens when organizations don’t know better. An archives just sort of organically develops. However, since you are asking the question ahead of the process, then you probably know this is not the best way. This is professional work; hire an archivist. Even if it is initially a contract or temporary archivist, you will regret not having them in place for this step. Much context can be lost in having folks going around “gathering” and “sorting” records. However, there are many, many roles for volunteers. In preparation, a volunteer committee of people from the organization and other stakeholders can advise on the mission, purpose, and initial policies – scope, access, etc., and whether there will be an educational component – exhibits, programs, virtual access, etc. These are not set in stone, but it is important groundwork to lay down for an archival program. They can identify spaces or offices in which records are currently kept, or people that might possess them. Don’t “pick” them out of context. Just note their locations, quantity, and responsible parties contact info. Leave the field work alone until policies and forms are generated. After initial acquisitions are made and rules and schedules regarding future acquisitions, then volunteers can work under supervision and policy to do some of the processing and/or preservation work. There are many other tasks for volunteers to assist with both before and after the initial assembly and arrangement.

- Michael Nagy

I think it is completely irresponsible to take possession of a collection in an archive that has no archivist. At best, there is no one to guide the volunteers, make corrections, or even make decisions about what is historically or physically significant or not. What we do isn’t rocket science, but there are still “rules and reg’s” that should be respected, and untrained persons, no matter how organizationally talented, are not aware of them. If, and I would say IF very emphatically, the volunteer happened to be a trained archivist, that person would need to be handed the repository collection policy (is there one?) to really do it justice. But again, who is going to check work and speak for the repository to the donor? Who would handle research requests about the collection after work is finished? An open access, unsupervised archive is an oxymoron.

I speak as one who knows – my current job is as a project (= grant funded, temporary) archivist for a specific collection. The institution had an archivist and had to cut staff during the economic melt down and the archivist was one of many who was cut. The administrative thinking was that the librarian who handled the reading room could handle the collections. Well it has not worked out well. Adding one full-time job to another makes this person spin ’round like a top. Collections are accessioned in and then nothing happens to them until grant money is found. My project collection sat in uncontrolled temps for 5 years before the money was found, and the audio-visual materials in the collection (the heart and soul of it, the reason it is so valuable) have been deteriorating for that time, and may possibly be in bad enough shape to allow transfer to digital form because of it. Unique and rare sound files will be gone, simply because there wasn’t an archivist on site with the knowledge of what was required of the format of materials and time to move the boxes into cold storage.

Forgive me if I sound overly passionate, but I am. I equate an active archive with allowing an infant to watch itself. Sooner or later something very bad is going to happen that is big trouble. Of course, the implications are on very different levels between the two, but it makes my point.

- Anonymous

Student Experience Series: Morgan Sawicki

This post is part of our Student Experience Series, which features current and former archives students as they reflect on graduate school, internships, and early career issues. If you would like to contribute a post for this series, please email me

Morgan Sawicki is a new professional in the cultural heritage field, and is currently working as a contract archivist processing organizational records. For her postgraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, she focused on library and information science, archives, public history, and museum studies. She is especially interested in technology, diversification and inclusion, and collaborative efforts.
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