[Ask an Archivist] Q: Do I need an archives specific degree?

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

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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.

4 thoughts on “[Ask an Archivist] Q: Do I need an archives specific degree?

  1. recentgrad

    I don’t know if this is occuring in other universities, but what about an MLIS graduate with a vague “cultural heritage preservation” certificate, consisting of the coursework below? Would they be considered comparable in skill and theory to an MSLS graduate with a certificate that has an archival title? I include this coursework right on my resume and mention it as appropriate in my coverletter, to avoid having it be overlooked. Please note, I had remitted tuition at a specific university, otherwise I would have considered enrolling in an archives MA program elsewhere.

    *Management and Organization of Archival Collections
    *Management and Organization of Special Collections
    *Preservation of Library and Archival Collections
    *Grant Writing
    *Museum Collections Management
    *Creating, Managing and Preserving Digital Assets
    *Photographic Preservation
    *Preservation of Cultural Heritage
    *(2) 150hr internships: can be in archives, LAMs, museums; must involve EAD, arrangement & description, digitization

  2. Brad H.

    Hmm. I have Thoughts about this question and the responses thereto. Full Disclosure: I do have an MLIS with Archives/Records Management specialization (and it ultimately is probably the way to go if you’re really committed to becoming an archivist), my knowledge of this subject is anecdotal rather than statistical, and I have much less experience in the Archives field than either Arlene or Tanya. So grains of salt at the ready!

    First thought: the “if you’re really committed to becoming an archivist” as mentioned above is begging the question a bit. I tell my student workers that getting locked in to one particular career track is a good way to ensure a long and potentially fruitless job search, especially in the kind of job environment Arlene describes. Certainly you want to take archives and public history courses, but branch out a bit, too. Take some metadata and database design courses, get some experience with special libraries, take that records management course. Don’t overdo it, of course– you want to be able to point to a specialization– but a little diversity will open up a wide variety of job offerings for you. I was offered positions in archives, records management, and special collections/public librarianship during my first job search in part because of my diversity of classroom experience. (Though see below.)

    Thought the Second: My guess is that there are a lot more institutions willing to hire “vanilla” MLIS graduates to run their archives than Arlene’s response suggests. Small or new programs in particular often don’t make the distinction between general library and archives-specific knowledge, caring more about the degree (and the familiarity with general information-wrangling principles it provides) than the specialization. Having said that, there is no denying that having the archives specialization will open up many, many more opportunities for you in the archives world, and in many cases institutions will hire you contingent on completion of an archival certificate or training program. (Sometimes they will help you pay for it, but my sense is that this is increasingly rare, so don’t hold your breath waiting for this to happen.)

    Thought part Three: Theory ain’t everything, and particularly if you have a LOT of experience volunteering, doing part-time or paraprofessional work, etc. you may end up being the more attractive candidate than the guy with an Archives specialization and no fieldwork. If you have other skills that are not necessarily archival, such as subject knowledge or digital preservation experience, so much the better. I am reasonably confident that the reason I have my current position is because of my concurrent MA in history and the large amount of fieldwork I was able to list on my resume when I applied straight out of graduate school. Now of course, in my case these were *additions* to the basic MLS-with-archives-specialization criteria (and do see my YOTBA post on this for how I came around to the value of the theoretical foundation), but I feel like if you have demonstrated the ability to do the job it seems silly to dismiss you because you don’t have the exact right qualification.

    TL;DR: Get the archives specialization if you can to open up the most opportunities for yourself in the Archives world. If, however, it isn’t immediately an option for you, you do have options.

    1. ArleneS

      Brad is absolutely right–keeping yourself flexible is good and a lot of places won’t require specialization to the degree that some academic institutions will, especially those with terminal degree requirements for faculty or similar-rank archivists. The question touched a few nerves for me, not the least of which was caused by having been chided on a number of occasions over the past couple of years (presumably as a proxy for all recruiters, not for anything I’ve specifically done) by new archivists with an archives-intensive degree who want to know why some recruiters are hiring people to be archivists who don’t have archival training or have only very limited. Or worse, the places that will only hire somebody with a specific initials set when you can get the needed education with a different one. I don’t have a good answer to either of those complaints and I do have some sympathy for both frustrations.

      What I should make clear and didn’t in my earlier response, is that even though at my institution the degree is a non-negotiable requirement, it’s only one of the many non-negotiable criteria I use to narrow down my candidate pools. It doesn’t even carry over into the second stage screening where I have to rank and weight how well the candidate matches the requirements. And that’s partly because I don’t even know anymore which schools offer archival concentrations as defined by the only definition we as a profession have, that of the graduate standards on the SAA site. I’m left with what the applicant tells me about the content of their classes and/or internships as it applies to the rest of the requirements and preferreds. Since I figure not many other recruiters know the degree specifics either, it is incumbent upon the applicant to provide that detail in their cover letter and resume where appropriate. Don’t just tell us that you’ve had an internship, but tell us about that internship, how many hours it was, what the projects were, and how it relates to the job on offer, just like you would if you needed to describe a course to have it meet a specific job requirement or you would with a post-grad professional position. Don’t let us guess as to what that “Institution A: Intern, 2012 June-December” means. Some schools are reducing their internships to about 40 hours total, if not less. Others are offering internships that consist of the intern standing in front of a copy machine for 3 months “preservation reformatting” clippings (that’s a scary but true story courtesy of a grad from what I’d previously respected as one of the top schools in the field.) Anymore I’m throwing my hands into the air at the difficulty of figuring out which schools teach what I hope is the basics. I can’t completely throw out the degree thing given the faculty hiring standards at my institution which require a terminal degree and require that we provide a definition for what constitutes one. But what it leaves me with is that I have to look at the details in the resume/cover letter that must fill in those blanks.

      By the way, as a favor to me and other hiring types at institutions with terminal degree requirements: will some of you (including the individual who listed out their grad courses above and asked if they constituted an archives concentration) please start pushing your grad institutions to make it very clear on their main pages that they comply with or are committed to the graduate standards for archival education? Chances are they’ve already mentioned them or something similar in the curriculum and program approval process they had to pass through to get their administrators to agree to allow them to offer the program. Some of those school webpages are doing you, their graduates, no favors in the hiring process when employers like me have to look up their program pages. I suppose I could be writing to them individually and suggesting they do so, but I think it would have more effect coming from their alumni who are in the job market. And I think it might give some of you a bounce in that otherwise tight hiring market when your grad school does this and another does not. It’s not much, but every little advantage helps.

  3. Jo

    Having an Archives Specialization/certificate in and of itself will not make or break one’s destiny in the archives world. Relevant volunteer/internship/self study experiences done well can substitute for this. I completed my MLS without any specialization, but ended up working on a lot of great archival projects throughout the educational process. I’ve since filled a variety of librarian/archivist/records manager roles. Experience tends to trump everything else-I initially made a point of avoiding the archives path to explore what I thought were more ‘viable’ paths, and here I am-an archivist in spite of it all. Above all, keep your mind open, and you’ll begin seeing opportunities.


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