This post is part of our Student Experience Series, which features current and former archives students as they reflect on graduate school, internships, and early career issues. If you would like to contribute a post for this series, please email me.
Brynn White is a dislocated Southerner living in Brooklyn, currently enrolled in the MLIS program at Queens College of City College of New York and pursuing certification in Archiving and the Preservation of Cultural Heritage Materials. She is employed at New York’s oldest cultural institution, The New York Society Library, where she works as a Bibliographic and Systems/Digital Projects Assistant and has taken on a leadership role in the digitization of their early 18th- and 19th-century circulation records. She also does freelance research for Charleston-based cookbook authors The Lee Bros. and has developed an impressive wardrobe of vintage 1930s clothes. In her former life she worked in film programming and published writing in publications including Film Comment.
1. What year will you graduate?
I am in the homestretch, graduating in May of this year.
2. How did you end up in this field?
I worked in film programming and history and succeeded for many years in this narrow niche, but the recession eliminated any room for advancement and I felt like I had hit an administrative dead end, employed at really interesting non-profits and cultural institutions but not necessarily getting to do the interesting work. I published a lot of writing on film history and greatly enjoyed the research and use of primary resources while sensing a broadening of interests and desire to put my historical enthusiasms to greater use by learning a trade whose mission is to keep the past enriching and accessible to a greater audience.
3. What do you wish you had known before you started graduate school?
How demanding it is! Professional development never ends and sustained curiosity and dedication is essential. A successful career as an archivist requires a lot more than what the Masters diploma implies- strong professional writing, managerial, and interpersonal communication skills are necessary to the grant-writing, advocacy, and collaboration that is sustaining the field’s activities through trying economic times and rapid technology evolution. Luckily these can be transferrable skills from your previous professional life and can be useful ways to distinguish yourself. Archivists can’t hide in the windowless basement surrounded by cool stuff anymore, though they are often still stationed there!
4. Did you have any experience in libraries or archives before you started graduate school?
I worked in the media department of my university library, was a Film Archives intern at the Museum of Modern Art, and managed the humble media, photograph, publicity/research files, and ephemera collections at the non-profit movie house where I worked, but without much expertise or training in field standards and practice.
5. Have you (or will you) completed any internships or practicums as part of your studies?
Have I. Work in the Louis Armstrong House Museum was a cherished introduction to museum collection management while an internship at the City College of New York archives offered perspective on a higher education repository. I basically went to MPLP processing boot camp with the Manuscripts and Archives division of the New York Public Library and am currently enjoying adapting and seasoning those skills at the New-York Historical Society. Somehow I have fit this in between my employment as at the New York Society Library, where I am currently conducting an archival assessment survey as an independent study in the hopes of establishing a more thorough archival processing program to compliment some of our exciting digitization initiatives.
6. What classes have been most valuable to you so far?
I’ve really enjoyed my classes with adjunct professors that are working in the field — Preservation of Cultural Heritage Materials with paper conservator Jennifer Sainato, Museum Collection Management with New York Transit Museum archivist Carrie Strumm, and Digital Preservation with Robert DeCandido of the Morgan Library. The latter was incredibly helpful crash course on the most vital and challenging aspects of archiving in the 21st century, a realm none of us will be able to avoid even if we originally entered expecting and hoping to play around with 19th-century documents.
7. What does your program do best?
The head of the archiving program is a great motivator and encourages us to think and act outside the box, to the point of practically creating jobs and opportunities for ourselves– many of our grads have been very inspirational in that regard. He has stressed how much archivists can improve at outreach and advocacy within their own institutions and with donors, and by also engaging with other fields for potential collaboration and support. SAA is far from the only conference at which archivists should be attending and presenting their work. Digitization has dramatically increased usage of archival materials over the last decade, yet funding for positions and projects remains shaky; we are at a pivotal and exciting time to articulate and prove the value of our skill set, but it will take proactive and innovative effort.
8. What could your program do better?
My school is public and a relative bargain but it’s very DIY and doesn’t provide much mentorship or fostering of relationships with outside institutions – though that had proven in many ways good training for the profession and forced me outside the classroom to events, workshops, and internships. I also lament a majority of the faculty is only minimally familiar with archiving and it isn’t better incorporated into the prerequisite curriculum. I didn’t feel like I fully understood the profession until long after I had committed to the certification program, and would have been grateful for more of an initial overview and guidance on entrance into the field — for instance, no one ever even mentioned SNAP (the Students and New Professionals chapter of SAA) and other organizations with which students could get involved and archival news and opportunities rarely show up on our program mailing list. Sometimes I feel like we are the black sheep.
9. How do you stay informed about trends in the profession?
I have gone list-serv crazy and routinely check in on articulate, engaged blogs like Kate Theimer’s ArchivesNext. I also went to SAA for the first time last year on the generous funding of my employer. Its daunting on top of school responsibilities, after which I plan to finally figure out the Twitter universe because my impression is that it plays host to a lot of impassioned discourse.
10. What would you tell a prospective student who is thinking about becoming an archivist?
Walk, don’t run to any archive that will have you in some capacity. It cannot be stressed enough how beneficial it is to have experience with real world collections and institutional perspective during your studies. It can be used for research papers and projects, not to mention establishes connections and builds up your resume- experience is demanded even in most ‘entry-level’ job listings. I have worked six-day weeks and struggled to pay the rent, but it really does make the difference when you get that diploma and are facing a tough job market. I also recommend a cursory investigation into digital preservation and digital humanities to gauge your interests and abilities, as even though traditional processing and historic collection management will continue to exist, they really constitute the future of the field and the most vital space in which new professionals can thrive and contribute,
For more posts in this series, check back here.