Diving into the profession: Tips and advice for new archivists

by: Alexandra Janvey

Alexandra Janvey is a Visiting Librarian in the Digital Initiatives and Art Image Library at Long Island University. She earned her MSLIS with a concentration in Archives and Records Management from the Palmer School and her BA in American Studies from Muhlenberg College. 


If there is one thing that I’ve learned during my time as an archivist, it’s that I’m capable of more than I ever thought possible. Did I think I would be able to adeptly handle arranging, describing and re-housing a completely untouched collection by myself – as a recent graduate – and for an organization unfamiliar with all that this entails? Did I believe I could write for various publications? Present at conferences? Learn to use various software programs and web 2.0 tools on the job? No. Yet, here I am today having accomplished all of the aforementioned tasks and more.

In many ways this profession has brought out the best in me. The reasons being an archivist have pushed me to grow beyond my own perceived limits are the same reasons that make the profession intimidating and overwhelming for those just starting out. Here are some tips and advice that I hope will make starting out in the field less daunting.

Don’t give yourself time to think

In the spirit of honesty, I will admit this: If I spent to much time thinking about the tasks I was asked to take on, I probably would have never agreed to take them on. I was asked to do things that I was unfamiliar with and had never done before. Without hesitation, I dove into each project that was put in front of me with the confidence that I would figure it out along the way. I believed that it would all come together in the end and that’s exactly what happened.

The first reaction to trying something new is usually fear, so a good way to get around this is to commit to a project and take action quickly. If I gave myself too much time to think before attempting something new and risky, I would be less likely to do it. I’m not saying you shouldn’t think at all, but overthinking can be crippling, causing a person to doubt themselves and their own abilities. This is exactly how I was able to push myself into writing on a regular basis. I would send editors e-mail inquiries and commit to writing an article by a certain date. This pushed and motivated me to follow through with my promise to write the article.  Don’t sell yourself short either. Chances are that you too are capable of more than you thought possible.

Become a lifelong learner

Love learning and never stop. That should be every archivist’s motto, as it’s critical to our success in this constantly evolving profession. There are many elements of an archivist’s job that aren’t covered in graduate school. It’s simply not possible for a program to teach everything and some things are simply not amendable to the classroom setting. One example of this is ordering archival supplies. You will hone and develop your skills through practical experience, as problems and issues arise, you will be tasked with finding solutions. Seeking out both formal and informal ways of professional development is important as well. While conferences and workshops are great learning opportunities, so is professional organization involvement and social media.

There are no hard and fast rules

No two archival repositories are exactly the same. They come in all shapes and sizes, which is why there’s no “correct,” one-size-fits-all approach to doing things in this profession. There are recommended best practices, but ultimately, each institution is unique. The most common variants may include budget, size and type of archival collection, size of staff, and knowledge of staff. The subjective nature of the archival profession can be rather overwhelming and contributes to the large amount we have to learn when starting out. Accept it for what it is – a part of the profession – and move on. Be prepared to experiment and don’t be afraid of failure. A mistake is just an opportunity to learn and improve.

There’s no such thing as perfection

There is no such thing as a “perfect” collection, so don’t have expectations to work with such a collection. Likewise, this should not be a deciding factor when it comes to taking a position or internship. Learning to prioritize is essential in this field, as many institutions don’t have big enough budgets to get all the supplies that are needed. Not all archives have enough staff to devote time to everything that needs to be done. You have to do the best with what you have.

My message to all new archivists is to embrace the challenges that lie ahead; don’t become overwhelmed by them. In this profession you will be challenged, you will grow and you will learn more than you thought possible. There will be many times where you will have to find your own way. But if I can do it, then so can you.


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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.

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