Advice from a Seasoned Archivist, Pt. 2

Here’s the second in our installment of three posts by Mark Greene. 

Let me pick up this second (of three) blog post where I left off the first one:  If your graduate concentration in archives administration doesn’t offer a practicum, I’d strongly suggest an internship.  However, unlike the overriding implication I’ve found in recent list posts—“[M]y dream job is to work in digital archives/preservation…. However, I’ve never once seen an internship in this field”; “Right now, it feels as if there’s a huge expectations gap between internships (data entry, rehousing, arrangement) and professional positions (project management, description, outreach, digital work, copyright, standards alphabet soup, supervisory exp….)”—and even in the good article in the last newsletter, internships are not solely activities advertised by institutions for pre-determined projects.

My archives is glad to host a limited number of internships, but we do not advertise pre-defined projects.  Instead, we rely on aggressive and creative students to contact us and propose an area(s) of interest or a loosely-defined project (as long as s/he is flexible to a certain degree—the student’s goals have to be reasonably compatible with our mission and current priorities).  I believe we’ve had at least one intern each year for at least the past five years.  Most have requested to work at processing, but that was their choice not our limitation.  Moreover, we do our best to introduce interns to the broader management and activities of the archives, by inviting them, for example, to sit in on acquisitions meetings, all-staff informational meetings, and/or task force meetings.  So please don’t assume that the internships posted online are all that’s available—it’s quite possible to create an internship that best suits your career goals.

Before moving on, in my final post, to specific issues relating to job searches, let me address a tangential but important issue relative to the overall perspective of the “established” cohorts of archivists toward the newer members of our profession.  This is about SAA, the A&A list, and the fostering of new professionals.  I was very disturbed to read in the SNAP list, this post:  “I’m dubious on SAA doing anything in this regard.  I read the A&A listserv, and frankly, I get the distinct impression that established Archivists aren’t particularly interested in fostering new archivists into the field, nor do they particularly like the new crop of professionals.  Indeed, A&A would be the last place I’d ever consider going for career advice, I can get abuse for free online.”  I was disturbed because, first, while SAA hosts the A&A list as a service to the profession, it is not SAA’s list, nor does it represent SAA or SAA members. Nobody knows what percentage of subscribers to the list are SAA members, and SAA is explicit that the opinions on the list are not the opinions of SAA. More than that, the amount of vitriol on the list is exceeded, perhaps, only by the amount of incorrect information passing as wisdom.  Please be extremely cautious when approaching the list; indeed it would be my advice that, if you are an SAA member, post questions instead to the discussion lists of the roundtables and/or sections to which you belong long before posting the A&A list.

12 thoughts on “Advice from a Seasoned Archivist, Pt. 2

  1. Rebecca

    So, I love the idea of students coming up with their own internship projects rather than applying for a pre-defined internship. But I think institutions that host self-directed internships like this should provide enough background information on their websites so that students can decide if it’s even worth their time to apply. What hours are available for internships? What types of projects have past interns done? (if it’s a large archives,) Which departments can host interns? Stuff like that. It can be frustrating for students to take the time to write an application letter only to find out the archives can’t support the kinds of projects they want to do, or doesn’t even take interns.

    I’d also add that I’ve met many, many library school students who have contacted local libraries and archives about setting up unpaid internships, and have been turned down, and have taken it kind of personally. If I’m willing to work for free, students wonder, how could they possibly not want me? But supervising a good internship requires a pretty significant time investment from the host institution. Just because an institution is understaffed or has a huge backlog doesn’t mean they can handle extra help in the form of an intern.

    1. Mark A Greene

      Dear Rebecca, I regret that you’ve met so many students who have been turned down for internships. Some good reasons can be gleaned from the post by C.S.E., below, but it is probably true that some senior archivists (but only some) don’t see their responsibility to assist the new generation (BTW, it’s rarely because of fear for their own jobs; new archivists won’t be ready to take over departments and repositories for many years yet). I would like to note that it is not necessary to compose a complete proposal for an internship before contacting a repository; in fact, it makes more sense to begin w/an informal contact to ask if any internship is possible, thus saving you considerable time and energy. Also, it is sometimes (only sometimes) advantageous to ask your faculty mentor to make the first contact w/a repository, especially if the faculty member knows someone at the repository. Thank you for your post. –Mark

  2. Boston

    I’m glad you let interns sit in on staff meetings, etc. I think one thing that’s really been missing from my internships is the opportunity to experience other aspects of the archive beyond removing staples. At one archive, we interns were forced to take an extended coffee break during all staff meetings – we couldn’t even be in the processing area to overhear what was going on. I feel that that really impeded my learning process.

    Still, I can’t help but feel like most senior archivists do a terrible job of really “growing” the next generation of professionals. My husband is in a STEM field, and his supervisors actively guide him through his career, seeking new opportunities for him both in the company and at conferences, etc. He doesn’t go around begging for mentorship or scrambling to find these new opportunities – they are literally handed to him as part of the senior management’s efforts in supporting new professionals. Furthermore, he has been able to use job contacts to grow his career – he recently got a new job at a company simply by contacting someone he knew, who immediately offered him a job! He doesn’t go out and awkwardly talk to strangers or shamelessly “sell” himself to get these contacts (as we are often told to in archives) – he is, for example, invited by senior professionals to join their table at a conference, etc.

    I guess what I’m saying is, the senior professionals in his field take an active role in guiding younger people, whereas it seems like senior archivists do not feel this sense of responsibility toward the new generation. Granted, archives do not have a quarter of the resources my husband’s field does, and also many senior archivists are terrified of a young person “growing” enough to take their job. But I don’t know how young archivists are supposed to grow in the profession when these hierarchical links, which are absolutely crucial to other industries, are missing in archives. I’ve had internships/paraprofessional jobs at three high profile institutions, and my supervisors love me and have given me amazing references upon request, but I have never had a supervisor really guide me into new growth areas, nor have any of my past supervisors been able to aid my employment search through referrals. And it’s not a problem of being proactive. I’ve asked for new responsibilities, or offered to bring in new ideas to an archive (for example, updating our finding aid to be DACS compatible), but I’ve gotten push-back from my supervisors, and I’m not sure why. Beyond just offering internships, I feel that senior archivists need to really think about ways they can help young professionals develop their careers. It’s not just about giving them the experience – it’s about introducing them to contacts, fostering an employment system that uses referrals (perhaps hard in a world dominated by government institutions and universities), and actively develops leadership capabilities in talented young archivists.

    1. Grad Student

      I’ve had very similar experiences regarding the tensions between senior archivists and new graduates. I’ve also seen this divide play out between professionals and paraprofessionals seeking to enter to the field. I don’t think this is universally true (I’ve had some great, albeit limited, mentoring experiences with folks far above my pay-grade), but I think the tendency definitely exists. I wonder if part of the issue might be poor (or non-existent) instruction at the graduate level for supervisors. Just browsing job postings around the internet, it seems like a LOT of brand new archivists land in entry-level positions that require them to supervise paraprofessionals, student workers, interns, and/or volunteers. If this reality is not being addressed in the library school classroom, I can see how a lot of people might not have the skills to properly mentor subordinates. The majority of supervising archivists I’ve met in my area have graduated within the last 5 years. So, they are forced into the position of “senior professionals” although they are relatively young and inexperienced.

      I also have a family member in the STEM field and I’m consistently impressed by how inclusive and engaged STEM professionals are as a group. I’ve actually been invited to more conferences, roundtables, and special committees by STEM professionals than I have by my own peers/superiors. I don’t mind taking the initiative to find conferences, write papers, and seek out contacts through list-servs. I DO get discouraged when I have to fight (or pay hefty amounts out of pocket) to get included. I definitely echo the sentiments of the previous poster. I think these kind of relationships are missing in the archives world and it’s a problem.

      All that aside, I really appreciate SNAP for providing a platform for this discussion. I have found A&A useful for specific questions of expertise (i.e., the recent question of how to get rid of mold smell), but SNAP has been an incredible encouragement to me.

    2. Mark A Greene

      Dear Boston, thank you for your post. I personally regret the fact of the experiences you relate getting so much pushback, and so little mentoring, during internships. That’s not the way they should work, and I know many senior archivists who do, in fact, go out of their way to assist interns with both professional development and job searches. But certainly not all senior archivists do, and I consider that a shame. It may be that one difference between senior archivists who are good mentors and those who aren’t is their own experience as a student or intern. I was fortunate enough to have had mentors as a student and so learned that as the norm. Others were equally fortunate. But not all senior archivists had such an experience to learn from, I presume. –Mark

  3. RP

    I’m a little concerned about people new to the field designing their own internships. While I’m sure it works out fine for some interns, I can see this being a disaster for others. First of all, students and new archivists don’t always have a good enough understanding of the field to know what to ask for or whom to ask. Secondly, some organizations hear “free labor” and assume they don’t need to put any thought or effort into supervising the intern because they figure they have nothing to lose. When you put the onus of responsibility on the intern to contact organizations for the internship then you open the door for further shirking of responsibility. If you want to create your own internship you had better know what you’re doing and be extremely clear with your potential employer as to what you expect from them.

    1. Boston

      Exactly. It should be the responsibility of senior archivists to decide what kind of skills they need the next generation of archivists to have, and then design internships that develop these skills (this is assuming, of course, that the purpose of internships is to help the student grow and learn, rather than to get all the staples removed…). It’s hard for student archivists to comprehend what kind of skills they will need until they’re fully immersed in the job search, going on interviews, etc.

  4. Pingback: Public badges, private actions | NixoNARA

  5. Brad H.

    Just to note here: I am supervising as we speak a fieldworker from UWM’s School of Information Studies on an electronic records/digital archives project. It is still technically a “processing” fieldwork, but it’s a little more complex in that she is helping me use-test tools and develop a workflow that we can apply to future electronic records projects in addition to the accessions that she is actively working on processing. So while I agree that it’s fair to say that a *lot* of internships are still based in the traditional processing project/data entry mold, I think that’s changing as archives recognize their need to get their digital backlog under control to a similar, if not greater, extent than they need to work on their analog materials.

    I think one thing that is holding some archives back on this is a lack of experience on the part of the professional staff itself (which sort of goes along with what Rebecca was saying). I only felt comfortable enough to supervise a fieldwork like this after taking a DAS course on Arrangement and Description of E-records and subsequently spending much of the summer giving myself a crash course on the use and configuration of various e-records tools. I think as more and more institutions either hire a digital archivist or– as in my case– find one of their existing staff willing to train up on digital archives issues, the number of internships focused around these issues will also increase substantially.

    As for the meat of the post itself, I think self-designed internships can be useful, but RP’s concerns are very real. I’ll echo Rebecca again in suggesting that before you commit to an internship anywhere you should aggressively inquire about the amount of support you can expect to receive (in terms of guidance, feedback, professional mentoring, etc.) and the extent to which the institution has successfully hosted internships in the past. I had internships on both ends of that particular spectrum in graduate school, and the difference between a supported internship and one in which the institution just turns you loose on some material is absolutely night-and-day. You can put both on your resume if you need to, but in only one of these cases are you likely to learn skills that will be applicable once you hit the interview stage or beyond.

    1. Susan

      Also, ask your department if any recent alumni interned at a particular place. If so, ask them about the type of experience they had.

  6. nixonara

    I’ve addressed some of these issues at my blog (thanks for putting up a pingback to my post on “Public badges, private actions.”

    A few additional thoughts. There are many ways to look at the Archives & Archivists listserv. While not perfect (I’ve never found a forum that is), it need not be dismissed as a source of learning, direct and indirect. In its own ways, it provides a practicum on multiple levels, including how to handle “difficult conversations” as well as easy ones and how to sort through data that can be consistent or conflicting, depending on the issue.

    A&A can provide collegial support but also opportunities to stretch beyond one’s comfort zones. At times it serves as a means of dealing with a diverse population, as managers and executives often must. True, there are perceived barriers at times, no doubt about it. And some students and new archivists have aired those out on the A&A List, to their credit. Such people stand out.

    Turning to niche forums, as Mark Greene suggests, has value as it puts information seekers in touch with self selecting groups of people with similar or common interests and professional backgrounds. That said, there also is value in gathering at a “water cooler” that draws a more diverse group of people with differing skills and experience. Why? Because you never know when you might choose or have to change jobs and work in a different milieu than the one with which you are accustomed. You can absorb impressions and facts and file them away, ready to draw on them as needed, perhaps years later.

    I can only speak for myself, of course. But dipping into other worlds in the archives profession in a centralized forum has been very useful for me. My nearly 40 years of federal service working in history, archives and records has all been in the public sector. I find the glimpses I get on A&A of the academic milieu and work in historical societies and corporate archives to be broadening and illuminating.

    It can be tempting to generalize and apply broadbrush views to communications issues. There are models for all sorts of behaviors out there. But learning and teaching can be a two-street. I’ve learned from people of all ages and continue to do so. Why not? There’s plenty I don’t know. And there are open minds out there, definitely. AOTUS David S. Ferriero once sent me a message through the A&A web interface, despite being far superior to me in rank given that he is the head of the National Archives. (I’m paybanded around the low end of GS-15 so not a member of the Senior Executive Service.)
    I’ve never asked David if he used the A&A Lyris interface to write to others, but it would not surprise me if he did! I’ve reproduced his message previously at my blog so I’ll share it here, as well. I had posted to A&A about Richard Nixon’s former chief of staff, John H. Taylor, explaining how we became friends in the virtual world. This was less than a year into David’s first year as AOTUS. Note the auto generated footer—that’s how I realized he was writing to me through A&A!

    From: David Ferriero
    To: Maarja
    Sent: 9/30/2010 4:47:33 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time
    Subj: re: archives
    Thanks for your comments about my latest blog post. Thanks, especially, for the John Taylor history. Have heard lots about him and will now make an effort to reach out to him. Still on a steep learning curve regarding NARA’s history!

    This email message was written in the Lyris ListManager Web Interface at:

  7. C.S.E.

    I posted this on the A&A list already, but…

    Generalizations abound, unfortunately. The list is a great resource, imo.

    What confuses/saddens me is the perception that older archivists don’t mentor or care. I’ve been an archivist for over 11 years and never encountered that attitude as a student, new professional or even now when I need advice or to learn a skill. My own experience is that I can only take on one intern a year because it is a complicated and time-consuming process and I do my best to be a mentor and give them varied experience. And yes, I have rejected students that come to me with their own ideas of projects, but only if that idea doesn’t jive with my priorities and resources. (Similar to people who want to volunteer but only read Civil War letters or other “cool stuff” instead of what needs to be done.) Archivists are working in understaffed departments so it can be daunting to design an internship that will be meaningful and helpful to students. I still do it because after all of the great mentoring I received I believe I have to do the same for others. I have found this sentiment among most archivists I know.

    However, I do cringe sometimes when students or new grads post to the list for advice on employment because often it’s just not done in the best way. My tip to them is to always think of everyone on the list as a potential employer and craft your questions accordingly. It is fine to ask for advice, and you should, but remain professional at all times.

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