[Guest Post] Persistence and Perspicacity: Lessons I Learned on the Archival Job Hunt

Guest author: Lindsay Zaborowski, archivist at The Museum of Flight

In this post, guest author and SNAP member Lindsay Zaborowski shares about her experience transitioning from graduate student to new professional. To read more anecdotes and advice for job searching after graduation, check out Hack Library School, That elusive archives job, Hiring Librarians, and INALJ.

A few weeks ago, Sam Winn asked me if I would write about my job hunting experience. I’ll try to keep it simple here, and I want to say upfront that I think I did a lot of things wrong before doing some things right. People always say they “don’t want to scare people off” when they write something like this, but I do want to scare you (in a nice way…). I’m not really here to make you feel better, and I won’t pretend like there is a magic solution to this problem. The job search is not easy and if you succeed, it will be at least 50% sheer luck. Don’t let that stop you, but make sure you can confront the reality of the situation.

So, let us start with a rough timeline of my archives career:

  • August 2007-August 2009: Moved from the Pacific Northwest to attend SUNY Albany. Interned at the Baseball Hall of Fame and the New York State Archives, and held a full-time Graduate Assistantship. Served with the student SAA chapter.
  • August 2009: Graduated with an MA in History and an MSIS in Archives and Preservation. Moved back home (Seattle) after graduation because I didn’t have a job.
  • January 2010: Began unpaid internship at The Museum of Flight (Seattle, Wash.).
  • May 2010: Began work for the United States Census Bureau local office in Tacoma, Washington.
  • March 2011: Got a position as Project Manager for a 2-year grant project to create a database of digitized historic photos in Washington County, Oregon. Joined Northwest Archivists (NWA), rejoined SAA, and participated in the Portland Area Archivists group.
  • March 2013: Received another grant to do a related project in Oregon, but the grant was delayed for a year by the Sequester. Took an archives job with the local county museum.
  • October 2013: Moved back to Seattle when my husband took a job here. Began volunteering for a neighborhood historical society and joined the Seattle Area Archivists. Kept up my participation in NWA and SAA.
  • March 2014: Began my first full-time, permanent job at The Museum of Flight. Was elected President of Seattle Area Archivists.

Now I know this looks crazy – and it is. But I’ve learned a lot. I’ll start by telling you my first mistake: I left New York and moved back in with my parents in Washington, moving very far away from the connections I had managed to build in graduate school. Connections are very important, and if you move you have to do everything you can to connect with the archives people wherever you go. I spent the next 5 months applying to every archives job I could find and never even got an interview. Losing those connections, in combination with the slumping economy, was poison to my job search.

In practical terms, though, I did have to move. I should have connected with local archivists after the move, but I didn’t have the gumption to put myself out there and try to connect with people when I didn’t feel like a “real archivist.” Big mistake. It is essential to embrace the archivist identity put yourself out there. Learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable (as a yoga instructor told me once). There will be days where you feel bitter and angry at the world and feel like things will never work out. I know I had more random bouts of hysterical crying than I would care to say. But sleep it off and get up the next morning and find a way to channel your energy into positive endeavors. I was much better at doing these things during my second job search in 2013 than I was during my first job search in 2009/2010, and I wonder how different things could have been if I hadn’t learned these lessons the hard way.

As you can see in my above list, I finally started volunteering at the Museum of Flight in early 2010 and 4 months later I got a job with the Census Bureau. I ended up being with the Bureau for 6 months, and it was actually a good thing – I was working with a lot of people who were recent college grads or mid-career professionals, and we had all been railroaded by the Recession. It felt good to be out there with people again, doing something positive, and making some money. I’m glad I opened myself up to the experience and it gave me renewed energy to pursue my archives job search because I wasn’t obsessing about it 24/7.

I also had a moment about this time where I was talking to one of the doctors my mom works for, and he told me to take advantage of not working and get myself into good shape and do other things I wouldn’t be able to do as easily when working full time. He had done the same thing as a broke medical student on rotations, and I was so grateful for that advice. Don’t let the job search take over your life, or you’ll never be able to project your true self in cover letters or interviews. Keep pursuing your hobbies, keep in touch with friends, watch some sunsets, go on some adventures.

I took all of my experience from my first job search and put it to work with my second job search. I found myself on the job hunt after my 2-year grant position in Oregon; we did get another grant, but it was delayed by the Sequester for a year (leaving me a bit SOL).  Because of the delay, I took a job with a local museum despite knowing they couldn’t really pay my salary. I spent months waiting for the other shoe to drop. My husband also really wanted to leave his job, so we got proactive and agreed to go wherever the first opportunity presented itself for one of us. A few months later he took a job opportunity in Seattle and we moved. So he had a job, but now I had to find one for myself.

I put all of my past experiences to work: I stayed active in professional organizations, I volunteered for a local volunteer-run historical society, I had my former boss look at my cover letter template and resume, I connected with local archivists, and I signed up for a half marathon so I had something else to think about and do during my job search. I knew I couldn’t move this time around, so I had to make an extra effort to do what I could to compensate for that. I feel lucky it only took six months for me to find a job. You could do everything I did and it could take 9 months. Or 13. Or 2. But it will happen if you can focus on what you can contribute and what you can offer and continue to build on your skills. If you can’t stay sharp and believe that you are a great job candidate, get out now. I know I have not said anything revolutionary here, but hopefully it helps to just know where someone else has been and what they have been through.

I’ll end this with a bit of a segue into a related topic. Once you have that archives job, try to focus on channeling the job search energy towards advocating for the profession. Pick one thing you really care about and do something (even if it is something small) to help the cause. Keep advocating and keep learning and keep sharing – getting that “real” job in archives isn’t the end of the road, it’s just the top of a really steep hill. It allows you to coast for a while and think about other things, but eventually you will run into another hill and it is good to be prepared. Be the best you can be for the sake of our profession and for yourself.

And when you finally get that position, don’t feel like you are “lucky to have your job” in such a way that makes you feel like you can’t be an advocate for yourself and others. You worked hard for your position and you have every right to demand the respect you deserve. You have to keep earning your position, for sure, but be a good archivist and a conscientious professional and then expect to get as good as you give. As much as I am a “history person” and I enjoy working with historical materials, I agree with those in the field who say we need to focus a bit more on the people and a bit less on the stuff. It’s good for us to advocate for ourselves, and to make sure the public knows that the things saved for posterity and made accessible to them didn’t just end up there by happenstance.

I’ll end this with a list of resources I used on my job search, for those who are curious:

  1. Archives Gig – definitely the best site for archives jobs!
  2. Indeed – I had daily digest e-mails with results for each of these keywords: “archives/archivist”, “records management”, “libraries/librarian/library” and “museum”
  3. org – I used SAA of course – I looked for educational resources, read every issue of Outlook and The American Archivist, and checked their job listings weekly just in case something appeared that wasn’t on ArchivesGig or Indeed.
  4. I connected with archivists, mostly on Twitter. Following a lot of people helped me to find free/cheap webinars, participate in professional conversations, and catch interesting blog posts.
  5. Connect with your local and regional organizations. Here we have Northwest Archivists and Seattle Area Archivists. (Just FYI – SAA’s new Regional Archival Associations Consortium is a good thing to watch as it develops and connects regionals to each other and to SAA).

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One thought on “[Guest Post] Persistence and Perspicacity: Lessons I Learned on the Archival Job Hunt

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on Professional Identity | Lindsay Zaborowski

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