Advice from a Seasoned Archivist, Pt. 1

Today’s post comes to us from Mark Greene, whom you are undoubtedly familiar with through his countless archival publications, perhaps most notably MPLP with Dennis Meissner. You can read more about him in his SAA bio. Mark has offered to write a series of three posts for us addressing the job market, internships, and preparation for entry into the archives profession. 

My name is Mark Greene, and for the past decade I’ve been director the American Heritage Center (University of Wyoming), a 75,000 cu. ft. mss collection, university archives, and 60,000 rare book library. We serve 5-6,000 researchers each year, from all 50 states and a dozen nations. Our digital collections, mostly with metadata at the folder level, total north of 100,000 items. Prior to arriving in Laramie I was Head of Research Center Programs at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, curator of mss at the Minnesota Historical Society, and lone arranger as archivist for Carleton College. I have been in positions to do a fair amount of hiring and I have also been an official SAA Mentor (and for several years have helped staff the career fair booth at the SAA annual meeting). I also spent some time in SAA leadership in the 2010s, after serving as a Section and Roundtable chair in the previous decade.

I occasionally monitor the SNAP discussion list (there’s a LOT of traffic, which I’m afraid I can’t always keep up with) and read the most recent newsletter. Based on these experiences, and over the next three posts, I’d like to offer some thoughts about best pathways into the archival profession, internships, and hiring practices. Speaking as someone with a quarter century plus in the profession, who’s repository supports (usually) one or two interns a year, who’s been hiring other archivists since the mid-80s—and as someone who does sometimes monitor the job postings on the SAA site, I am willing to say that there seems to be some misconception (or perhaps misperception) about these matters that, with luck, I can help to clear up.

Let me start with an important caveat. While what I am about to say in these three blogs is, to the best of my knowledge, largely accurate for a significant majority of hiring scenarios, no such account can be universally relevant. It is least pertinent, perhaps, to situations where non-archivists are hiring archivists and in some government employment situations, where antiquated (in my opinion) personnel practices hold sway. And even among archivists hiring archivists there are outliers who do not conform to what I’d consider usual practices. But just because one or two institutions may have frustrating, illogical, or infuriating hiring practices does not mean that such practices are common throughout the profession.

So, you want to get your first professional archival job? Should you get an MLS w/concentration in archives administration? Yes. This has become the de facto entry-level credential for most positions, plus it gives you the flexibility of a library position if, as seems true, there are too many MLS/archivists coming out of grad programs for the number of entry-level positions available. Should you get a joint MLS/MA (history, public history, American Studies) with concentration in archives administration? Yes, this will give you even more flexibility in the overall job market, but it often comes at the cost of an extra semester or year of grad school.

What about an MA in history or public history with a concentration in archives administration? Yes, but I’d be careful here; there are only a handful of existing programs with sufficient stature to ensure the marketability of their graduates. In any of these scenarios, including a practicum or internship is a good thing. What about a public history, history, or American Studies MA with no archival concentration but an internship in an archives? I wouldn’t advise it, even if you’re able to qualify for archival certification. Graduate archival education is almost a universal requirement. I’m not saying this is good or bad, only that in my experience it’s the way it is.

Stay tuned for two most posts on this subject by Mark Greene. Please utilize the comments to have an open, honest conversation about these topics. 

This entry was posted in Advice and tagged , , , on by .

About Lisa H

Lisa is the archivist/librarian at the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center at Augustana College. She stumbled into archival work by way of the museum world and is always seeking ways to break down the silos of these professions. Lisa has worked in museums, libraries, and archives in Illinois, New York, and Alaska. While not at work, Lisa spends her free time biking, working on art projects, and putting her useless knowledge to good use on bar trivia teams. You can find her on Twitter @lisahuntsha.

10 thoughts on “Advice from a Seasoned Archivist, Pt. 1

  1. Pingback: Advice from a Seasoned Archivist, Mark Greene - Pt 1 | The Information Professional |

  2. In first professional position

    “What about a public history, history, or American Studies MA with no archival concentration but an internship in an archives?”

    I am one of these people. However, I have been working in my first professional archivist position for just over 3 years. I recognize that I am the exception rather than the norm. But I’m curious- do you have any thoughts on having that degree AND several years of experience?

    1. Mark A Greene

      The combination will certainly be helpful, but there are many variables in such a situation: where you earned your experience (the Smithsonian, for example, compared to a much less-well-known repository); the type and extent of your experience; and the repository you’re applying to (some are structured and staffed in such a way that subject specialist curators are responsible for acquisition and processing, and a place like that may place less emphasis on archival education compared to topical expertise). –Mark

  3. Boston

    As someone in the job market actively looking for both archives and non-archives jobs, I actually think it makes me LESS flexible to have an archives concentration with my MLS. Whenever I apply for public/academic/non-archives library jobs, my archives concentration seems to be quite a big hurdle for interviewers. Even though I took all the required classes to be a competent professional librarian of any sort, the fact that I have an archives concentration seems to signal to non-archives employers that I’m on a totally different track and am not serious about non-archives jobs. Consequently, I have to spend a ton of time in interviews discussing my “transition” from archives to the job at hand, which distracts from my actual qualifications. I often wish I just had a straight MLS with no concentration.

    1. Mark A Greene

      It may well seem so, but it’s important not to extrapolate from one’s personal experience to the profession/world at large. Four people of my own acquaintance moved from archives to library positions at various stages of their careers, and their archival education and experience apparently were not a drawback. I also know at least two individuals who took archives courses more or less as fallback, but who were hired as librarians in part because of that additional education—into libraries with, for example, local history collections but nobody on staff with any archival knowledge. So the sword can cut both ways. Also, I hope you have at least two versions of your resume, one that emphasizes your archival education and one that does not, the former for archives jobs and the latter for library jobs. –Mark

      1. Boston

        I do tailor my resume, of course, although I can’t hide the fact that my paraprofessional experience was all in archives and not libraries. In my experience, coursework does not count for much in this economy, even in entry-level positions. If you want a traditional library job, you’d better have paraprofessional experience in a library, and if you want an archives job, then you’d better have archives experience. Maybe a higher level professional can use connections or more abstract experience (“project management”) to transition from archives to libraries. But if you’re a library student who’s trying to be flexible about your career, I don’t think it’s enough to just take a variety of courses – you should also make sure you volunteer/intern in a variety of library settings. But doing this can be hard in some programs. Simmons archives track, for instance, requires a significant time investment in specifically archives internships, and many of us also have paraprofessional jobs in archives (which you have to have if you hope to get a professional archivist job). PLUS, even if classroom experience did count, the Simmons archives track does not allow a student enough time to get any significant classroom experience in other library areas. For example, the basic cataloging class (by the professor’s own admission) is not enough education for even an entry-level cataloging job – you’d have to have enough electives to take 2 or 3 advanced cataloging courses, which archives students do not have time for. I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t think you can make the blanket statement that an MLS with an archives concentration gives an entry-level archivist the most job flexibility. It really depends on the school, the students’ paraprofessional experiences, and the job market.

  4. Laura DeMuro

    Thank you for guest posting on this blog and taking the time to answer our questions. I think that’s really nice of you and kudos. How would you factor becoming a certified archivist from the ACA with the educational tracks you mentioned?

    1. Mark A Greene

      My own opinion, and the profession is quite split on this, is that while the CA credential never hurts, it does not help often enough to necessarily be worth the time and cost. However, having said this, there are certain jobs for which a CA is much more valuable, corporate archives positions being one example. A sprinkling of other positions will require or prefer it, but it is a distinct minority in my experience. So my advice would be to keep an eye on the job postings and try to determine whether many if any of the jobs you’re interested in require (or even prefer) the CA, and make your decision based on that. But, if you have the time and the money is not an issue, as I said at the start, it will never hurt your chances of employment.

  5. Pingback: Advice from a Seasoned Archivist, Mark Greene -...

  6. Pingback: Mourning Mark Greene | SNAP Section

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