[Ask an Archivist] Q: How much does an interest in the subject of a hiring organization matter?

How much does a genuine and demonstrated appreciation for the subject of focus the archives or organization matter? (Example: an applicant with a history of personal involvement in Catholicism applying for a position at a Catholic archives) Is this sort of stuff worth mentioning in the cover letter? If so, how much should it get discussed? Does it honestly make any kind of difference at all?

Ask an Archivist Answers:

I’d assume this will vary with the institution and the position. If the successful candidate is expected to be a historian/researcher as well as an archivist, topic interest would be very useful. In general, I want to know you want the job at my institution with our stuff, but not to the neglect of mentioning the other skills and interests we require. The more frequent problem I’ve seen in recruitments is applicants who go too far with this interest statement, and it’s a pretty fine line. This has generally manifested on one of three ways. The first, the candidate gives me the impression that s/he is so interested in the records we have that it tells me s/he wishes to be hired on as a researcher, not as an archivist. The second, s/he is interested in a subset of the records we hold, and I get the impression it would be coercion to get them to work with the other records we hold that aren’t related to that subject. The third, the candidate gets it completely wrong and makes assumptions about our holdings strength that is in no way borne out by any available information about our holdings. (The last, sadly, is quite a common mistake, even more so than the first and second.) So if you choose to do this, you’ll need to do some serious, time-consuming research first. And make sure you strike a balance in your cover letter to ensure that you still have room for all the other things you need to clarify and address.

– Arlene B Schmuland

“A genuine and demonstrated appreciation for the subject of focus the archives or organization matter” is one of the most important factors to employers. People want to hire people who want to work for their organization. This doesn’t mean that in order for you to apply for a job that you have been dreaming about the job at their institution since you were a child and understood what history was. It means that after reading the job description and doing some research about the organization, you believe that working for them would be both engaging and rewarding. Also try your best not to apply for a job in which you are not interested. It will show in your cover letter. (It can also be insulting to employers.) As for Catholic or religious archives, I am unsure about their policy requirements regarding the hiring non-affiliated members. However, I would hazard a guess that similar to other archives, a genuine interest in the subject and respect for the institution would be much appreciated.

– Mariecris Gatlabayan

While I think it can matter, it generally won’t unless it’s stated in the job description as a required or desired attribute. Employers will expect you to either know or learn about the collections you will be working with and the institution that you will be working for.They probably will not (and in some cases cannot legally) expect you to personally buy into the institutional or collection attributes. Appreciation for the collection and the organization cannot hurt, though. My advice would be to make a brief statement about your appreciation in the cover letter, without being very gushy, and then if asked in subsequent interviews provide more details about why you would personally appreciate working with this particular collection or organization.

– Terry Baxter

Yes, if the posting for the job mentions a specific topic and you have an interest or affiliation for it, then yes mention it in your cover letter. Especially for a religious organization, the more an applicant knows about the topic the better.  Now if you know too much or are too interested, then the employer might find it creepy, but in most settings an interest in the topic is a good thing.  But mention it briefly.  Perhaps one sentence. If you get an interview and they ask you a specific question, then you can go into more detail.

– Gerrianne Schaad

I find employers asking for subject-specific knowledge and experience more and more and I think it’s really their issue, so it matters. As researchers, we know we can learn anything from working in those collections and doing some outside reading. However, employers want employees that can ‘hit the floor running,” meaning knowledge of the subject is a perk, if they can find someone with it.

– Michala Biondi

Rather than the subject of the archives, I would focus more on the mission of the archives and more to the point, the mission of the institution in which the archives resides. In collecting repositories, the mission is usually focused on education or culture, so the subjects of the collections can be quite broad. Within one department many different collection specializations may be present and the archivist may need to work with each one. While you may have an affinity for one or several, it would be unusual to be deeply, personally interested in all of the wide variety of subjects equally. These institutions tend to have larger staffs and more hierarchy and consequently more folks hands are working with these collections over time.

This can be quite different with non-profits, community archives, and religious organizations where they are very focused only on the records of the organization or group. Within these organizations the subject of the records, the mission, and the current leadership tend to meld into the same intellectual space. I would find it more challenging to work in or with an organization that I did not share some sympathy for its mission. I don’t think you have to be a professed believer in all aspects – whether faith, politics, mores, or social structure – but you would probably want to at least be sympathetic to the overall goals. At this point I would say it is more important to be an archivist first, and then have affinity for the mission second. Some organizations don’t recognize the professional value of archivists so they will value an untrained “true believer” or member over a trained professional doing archival work.

And I would only mention the affinity with the mission if it is genuine. People that will be doing the hiring, particularly in small organizations, will know much less about your professional credentials than the mission of their organization. If you try to embellish it, or if your experience in some way does not match the mission as they see it, you do yourself a disservice. They will see through it. That said, a true shared experience will build rapport and may allow a deeper personal connection with the interviewer. They want your professional experience because they need it, but even more they will want to find a good match for their mission. If you can demonstrate that you are that match, and well trained, this is to your advantage. If you do decide to mention this in a letter, I think it is for the interviewer to pick up on and pursue as a line of inquiry. Some may, others will stick to the job qualifications.

So yes, it can make a difference. It is more about the organizational mission than the subject of the collections. If they can get an archivist that can do the job based on training and experience and the cause is obviously important to you, then they may be more apt to hire you. Moreover, on your side of the equation, a genuine sympathy for the mission of the organization can enhance your job satisfaction, particularly in a field like archives that is sometimes not valued highly in status or monetary benefit.

– Michael Nagy, CA, MHP, MLIS


2 thoughts on “[Ask an Archivist] Q: How much does an interest in the subject of a hiring organization matter?

  1. dcarchives

    I work for a community of Catholic Sisters, and we have never required that employees be of the Catholic faith. Currently we have both Catholics and non-Catholics on our staff. Willingness to learn and understand the history of the Church and our specific congregation are all we ask. The job ad will make it clear if a religious archives has specific preferences in this area. What does happen quite often is requiring a candidate to have a particular skill set or subject knowledge. An archives within an art museum may ask for art history background, for instance. Read the job ad carefully and do some homework about the institution where you are applying. Then do an honest assessment about how well your background and skills fit with the job.
    Carole Prietto, Daughters of Charity

  2. Jackie.dooley@me.com

    Lots of great comments in these responses. I’ll just add one thing: whatever else you do, dig around the institution’s website pretty thoroughly and have some questions about what’s there; that includes content emphases of the collections, nature of the archives’ services, etc. When I’m interviewing people, I want to know whether they did their homework and whether they have good questions as a result.


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