Ask an Archivist Question:
I want to be an archivist. I was just accepted to FSU for their MLIS, but they do not offer an archivist track or courses. I live in Florida, so FSU is my financially smart option for graduate school. Is there a way to become an archivist without taking courses? Are their accredited intensive courses or something similar to that idea to gain experience people will recognize?
Ask an Archivist Answers:
Bravo to you for considering the cost of graduate education vis a vis your employability afterward, but in what is probably too blunt a response to your question, your hypothesis that “any degree will do” is false. The initials of the degree may or may not matter to the hiring institution. However the content of the degree matters to me as somebody who hires archivists. I require graduate degrees in archives not as a whim, some sort of red tape, or because I have a fetish for documents printed on sheepskin, I require them because there’s an education taking place there that I feel is important for people to have before they work for me as a professional archivist and that I cannot expect them to have obtained in any other way. More on that in a bit. Back to employability. You could potentially find employment as an archivist in an organization that is unaware or doesn’t care that graduate archival education exists or has a job that is only a limited percentage of archives vs other librarianship duties. Some recruiters fall prey to the concept that there isn’t much of a difference between librarians and archivists. Personally I wish we’d get confused for anthropologists more often than librarians, because at least we have similar concepts of original order and provenance/provenience in common, but there you have it. Uninformed hiring types are out there or some archives jobs may require no graduate degree at all. But first you should talk to the recent graduates who also at some point said “I want to be an archivist” and then went for archives-specific degrees. Ask them what the job market competition looks like for archives jobs. I’m sure those recent jobseekers will be happy to share their experiences in the comments below, with you one-on-one, or you can just read the You Ought To Be Ashamed blog and you’ll end up with a pretty shrewd idea. It’s not a pretty market, it’s never been pretty even 20 years ago when I finished up my archives coursework, and not having an archives concentration will only make it worse for you. Even if you do apply for the archives job that doesn’t require it, you’re probably going to be in a pool that includes people who do have it and in most of those cases, they will have an automatic edge.
If you really want to be an archivist, you need to understand that archives work and librarianship are not the same on some very fundamental levels. Training for one does not train for the other. Even if you’re not willing to accept that, if you want to make the odds of getting an archives job as good as possible for yourself, why waste time and money with a masters degree with limited-to-no archives content when there are programs out there that do offer it and there are competitors in the job pool with those degrees? I looked at the FSU course description list in the process of responding to this question. A lot of courses have some tiny element of cross-pollination. There’s one course on records management (not really described in classic RM terms, which makes me wonder.) If you look at the Guidelines for a Graduate Program in Archival Studies on the SAA site, the FSU library degree does not give even a small portion of what is suggested in that best practices list for archival education (I’d be shocked if it had. They’re not selling themselves as an archives degree.) And I didn’t spot anything that really appeared to be a direct one-on-one correlation, other than the RM class.
Having said that, you could get the FSU MLS or masters level degrees in history, public history, anthropology or museum studies or any other of a variety of semi-allied fields that may or may not have some archival courses, in tandem with finding a part-time job in an archives or related work, then continue on to a graduate certificate in archives (technically a post-graduate certificate) as offered through many of the archives schools. I assume that would pass as a terminal degree in archives for those places with an graduate archives concentration requirement. It would for me. A number of them are coming out of ALA-accredited library schools, which will solve that other little piece of “ALA-Accredited” weirdness that still too often haunts some of the job ads and that I personally don’t care about. I’m sure any of the certificate schools would be happy to give you the names of some graduates you can talk to about their job-hunting experience and how they feel about how well the certificate prepared them for the archives job world. Some of the schools offer distance delivery and most, if not all, should be listed on the SAA site. But before I went the Masters then Cert route, I’d crunch the figures first to make sure the extra time and money going to the grad certificate post-masters couldn’t have been spent on getting an archives degree in the first place. I wonder if it might not just be a wash, especially when you consider the extra time and money it takes for the certificate and the delay in your job search. I think there’s a few distance archives masters out there too which could be an option for you if FL’s cheap cost of living is the primary reason why you’re considering FSU for grad school. Not all of the good archives programs are at expensive schools.
Sidenote: for some jobs you can substitute experience for education. Some hiring types know well there’s a lot of long-term well-experienced archivists with lots of continuing ed out there that we’d be stupid to cut off just because they don’t have a degree starting with M or an archives-specific degree. But you’d have to get those years of experience first to be comparable and that’s where the whole catch-22 comes in: getting those years of experience without the archives degree, I’m not sure it’s even possible for anybody starting out to go that route anymore.
The professional archives world has changed from back in the day when there was no such thing as graduate archival education (which is way back. That day was over and done with when I was in archives grad school 20 years ago). Archives-focused education offered at the graduate schools has become the primary entry point to the profession. No matter anyone’s feelings about that statement, when I get 80 applicants for an entry-level permanent position, 75 with archives-specific graduate degrees, it doesn’t matter that my institution’s terminal degree policy requires me to hire one of the archives graduates, I’m going to hire the archives graduate anyhow. I’d rather spend the first six months of their employment training them on the practicalities of the job and getting some work out of them than spend the same six months asking them to do one to two years’ worth of professional reading, research, and networking to give them the theoretical framework and understanding of the language and tools that they need to do the work that I need them to do. It’s why my institution’s terminal degree statement was rewritten to require no specific initials set but does require a graduate level concentration in archival education. Even though the professional theory has developed from and beyond Schellenberg’s or Posner’s or Miller, Fieth and Fruin’s day and I can’t expect current graduates to have read them in anything but a review (shameful confession: even I wasn’t willing to withstand what I regarded as the punishment of MFF, I only made it to page 12), my hires can still hum the basic tune. And it has an effect on every piece of the work we do, from acquisitions, to processing, to reference, to outreach. And it’s not a tune taught in any other degree program of which I’m aware.
– Arlene Schmuland
Florida State University offers an Introduction to Archives course once a year, every spring semester. HIS5082 is offered through the History Department’s graduate Historical Administration and Public History (HAPH) program, and the History Department also makes the course available to undergraduates as HIS4080. In the summer or fall semester, we usually accept one or two HAPH students who excelled in the class as interns at the State Archives, and other local internships are available as well.
Sometimes it’s hard to find these courses in FSU’s online course lookup system, so I’d recommend contacting the History Department directly to ask about it. I’m not certain if the course is cross-listed under the SLIS course listings, but a number of FSU MLIS students do take the course every year. The SLIS faculty are very familiar with the course.
Please feel free to make direct contact with questions, via email.
– Beth Golding (of the Florida State Archives, and who has taught an archives course for years at Florida State University)
While a firm believer in a variety of methods and routes to become an archivist, my one caveat is that an archivist must have an archival degree (whether library school or history). And as a potential employer, I would concur with that–not only must you have the theoretical grounding, but you simply must have the relevant readings and coursework, not to mention an internship and some practical experience. It will be well worth your while to figure out to make this happen, because otherwise you will be competing with large numbers of people who DO hold that archival degree, and they will automatically move higher on the hiring priority list. For an Assistant Archivist position I hired 5 years ago, we had over 80 applications with the required qualification being an archives degree. If you do not have that graduate degree, you simply will not be included in the academic pool.
– Tanya Zanish-Belcher