Welcome to our new feature, monthly round table discussions – yes, they’re SNAP Roundtable round tables – on various aspects of new archival careers. The first month sees Isaac Fellman, Elena Colon-Marrero, and Brenna Edwards talking over work-life balance, from moving to healthcare issues to time off.
Hi, Brenna and Elena!
“Work-life balance” is a term that covers everything from “do I have time for yoga tonight?” to “can I have children?” to “can I afford to move to a new city for a new contract job?” The phrasing of the term implies something that we’re responsible for finding — after all, physical balance is something we manage from the moment we learn to walk — but whether we achieve it depends largely on the kindness of our workplace.
In this round table, I’d like us to talk about what work-life balance looks like for us, and what we’d like it to look like for archives as a whole. No one goes into archiving for the money, and no one goes into archiving as a compromise — this is something we do because we’re very personally invested in preserving information. This can make it difficult to leave work at work, even before you account for the unstable nature of archival labor, which often requires archivists to simultaneously work one job and work towards the next one.
Even as I introduce the topic, I’m realizing that I may be defining it too broadly. For some people, this question might just be about how they manage their day-to-day time. To me, things like the prospect of moving are matters of work-life balance. If we move for work, there are many forms of labor we have to do that are essentially work-related, as work is the reason we’re in this new place: paying for moving, making new friends, finding a new doctor to manage our health conditions if we have them, settling our kids in new schools if we have them…
A broad definition is good because it encompasses multiple situations in which people can be in.
Right. Everyone has a pressing concern.
Like, I don’t have children, and I happened to end up in a place with a partner that makes more than me so I could focus on paying back my loans without adding a second job or moving to a less expensive area of the country to live and work. There’s privilege there that not everyone has.
Absolutely. I’ve been similarly lucky to find a contract job in San Francisco, and being here — with supportive queer community, welcoming co-workers, and forward-thinking workplace laws — has helped me to start gender transitioning. The flipside is that I don’t know where I’ll be in a year, and the worry does offset the joy. Worry is work.
When folks decided to enter the profession, did we take the struggle for balance into account? I think I did, but I was also very eager to prove myself, so I don’t think I thought enough about the long haul.
Temp labor just exacerbates everything.
After watching my parents struggle, even with government jobs, I think I realized that there’s no guarantees anywhere. I just wanted to do something I enjoyed, and archives is what I found first. There was always some thought that if I didn’t find a job right away, I could always move home and maybe land some low-level position at NARA, Smithsonian, or the Library of Congress.
Hear hear on that.
I would like to think I took balance into account, but looking back, I don’t think I really took it into consideration. I knew there would be high chances of me moving a lot to start out in, but didn’t think of how it would affect friendships, relationships, and life outside of work, which is more on my mind now that I’m starting to think about what’s next, since I’m almost halfway through my two-year contract.
My first supervisor before I even applied to grad school and was doing an internship was very upfront with me about the struggles in the archives job field (finding a non-contract job starting out, etc.), so I think I was lucky on that front. I’ve also always had the approach of “something will work out” in this field, even if I have to make it happen myself.
Your point about moving home is interesting, Elena — our parents are always a factor in our decisions, whether it’s “can I move in with them in a pinch?” or “how will I need to support them as they age?”
Another question: what can institutions do to help archivists find balance?
Managers/supervisors need to lead by example. No after-work emails, providing flexibility with schedules if possible, making sure that your employees are doing okay. Allowing employees to set those boundaries early. My boss was pretty clear on that and always asks what I need or if I have concerns about anything going on within the institutions. She also allows for comp time. Like, say I don’t have a day off I can take, but I need to be out a day — I can work extra hours or come in on the weekend to make up that time.
Even if making up time is for something as silly and personal as taking a sewing workshop during the day.
Right — not being judgmental about whether a day off is really justified. Ideally, they wouldn’t even ask (unless you and the boss happen to be friends, and you happen to want to talk about your sewing workshop).
I think privacy at work is important. Everything we say about our outside time should be voluntary; if we happen to make friends with co-workers, that’s great, but it shouldn’t be the default to discuss each other’s personal lives, or to mistake the smallness and intimacy of library workplaces for automatic friendship. And I say this as a person who’s made genuine, close friends at work! I don’t object to the practice in theory, I’m just into boundaries.
Honestly, I agree with everything Elena said. I’m lucky to work somewhere where if you work weekends you get that as a comp day, and you can let them build up to be used whenever without an explanation. Same for vacation days – no explanation needed, just have to request them. Also agree with boundaries. I’ve been at my job for eight-ish months now and I’m just now offering up more insight to my life outside of work because I’ve established the trust with everyone (not that I didn’t offer up information before, just more open now).
The ephemeral nature of archives jobs encourages wobbly work-life balance, even when there’s no other reason. Last weekend I had a pretty bad fall, and hurt myself in several ways that prevented me from doing any archiving work for a few days. I made myself go in to work despite my injuries, even though I couldn’t handle my daily duties and was actually creating more work for people around me. The thing is that since I’m here on a contract and want to impress everyone, I felt very driven to prove I could still archive, even though I patently couldn’t! My co-workers had to talk me down and convince me to take a day off, which ended up being emotional labor for them.
Oh no! Are you doing okay?
I second Elena’s statement!
I am okay!
It’s hard to see how archives can change from being contract-based, given how grants work, but I always marvel at the sheer amount of repercussions that come from this way of running things.
We’ve had a few contract archivists in our job, and it’s always without health care coverage, and I worry about them pushing too hard to the detriment of their health (physical, mental, emotional). I hate that for some grants we don’t factor in healthcare benefits, but my concerns are dismissed. I know some institutions work healthcare coverage into grants and I feel like that should be mandatory.
Hopefully everything will heal up soon!
Oh yes, I really treasure that I get health insurance as a contractor here. Not only does it help me financially and cover my medical care, but it takes a big organizational burden off of me! Having to organize your own insurance is more work that you have to do outside of work.
Okay, everyone. I think we’ve had some good insights this month! Thank you very much for participating in our inaugural round table on work-life balance.