This post is the first installment in our “Transitions” Series, which highlights the experiences of recent graduates and early career archivists. If you are an early career archivist (0-5 years in the field) who would like to participate in this series, please contact us.
From student to professional
Guest author Steven Duckworth
I graduated from the MSLIS program at Drexel University, with a concentration in Archives, in December of 2013. About 6 months later, I found myself gainfully employed (although temporarily) as a Project Archivist with the National Park Service in Anchorage, Alaska. My move from student to new professional, while rife with the standard issues we all face, was also compounded with issues of moving roughly 4,000 miles away from almost everyone I know and all the support structures I had built for myself over the years. Luckily, the education and preparatory experience I had in Philadelphia gave me a solid foundation to succeed in this new adventure.
I came to the archives field late in life. In my “youth,” I earned degrees in music performance and spent much of my 20s and early 30s working as a freelance cellist in various locales. As I begin to question the future and what I could see myself happily doing for the rest of my life, but in a more stable environment, I began to look at Library Science as a perfect option.
Fast forwarding to about three months before graduation, I had just begun work as an Archives Processor with the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL) Hidden Collections project. This was the perfect environment to learn real-world processing skills and put all the theoretical knowledge I had learned at school to work. In this collaborative environment, working with other students near graduation and under the direction of a remarkable supervisor and mentor, we all gained skills that will serve us well throughout our professional careers. Taking that position was a leap for me. I left a full-time job with great benefits for a part-time job with none in the hopes that it would help pave the road for a career in my new profession. It turned out to be one of the best choices in my life. If you are a student currently, I urge you to seek out situations where you can work with people that will teach and challenge you wherever possible. Attaining the degree alone is not enough.
Thanks in large part to the work with PACSCL, I was hired for my position in Alaska. This was another huge leap that I felt I had to take. It was a great position that would give me further experience in the field and it was a bit of an adventure. As a musician and a rather independent person, I’d become somewhat of a gypsy – moving from place to place and never really feeling like staying put, so I thought, “What the [heck],” and said yes.
My position in Anchorage is basically a processing archivist. I’m working through all the records (close to 200 linear feet) of the largest national park in America. I’m using the principles of minimal[i] and maximal[ii] processing to streamline the way the park service here has traditionally cared for its paper records. Thanks to these more efficient processing ideals, I’ve been able to process all of the park’s records rather than roughly half of them, as was originally proposed. Additionally, I’ve also gotten to do some accessioning, budgeting, forecasting, and reference work while here. Working as somewhat of a “lone arranger” has also allowed me to take more responsibility for arrangement and description decisions, given me more project management experience, and increased the trust I have in my own instincts. So, all-in-all, the experience I’ve gained has been wonderful.
There are, of course, some downsides. Though I work with others in the Cultural Resources department, I am the only archivist on staff here. My supervisor is very knowledgeable and helpful, but for certain issues of processing and preservation, I generally find myself turning to colleagues from Philadelphia and beyond. By maintaining those relationships, which are now a comfortable blend of professional and personal, I can reach out for advice and also to share interesting and humorous finds.
Another downside I’ve noticed stems from the temporary nature of my position. Knowing that my time here is limited has created certain social restraints. It’s difficult to invest too much in a place when you know from the start that you won’t be around all that long. This has lead to some isolation, both socially and professionally. I’ve also come to see that these project positions aren’t just hard on the archivist; they’re hard on the institution too. After working through 200 feet of documents, I feel I’m just getting a somewhat-solid grasp on the inner workings of the National Park Service. And with each state or region and each park having its own unique issues, moving on to the next collection would only add to my understanding. However, I’m not going to be adding on; I’m going to be moving on. I’ll move on to a new position with new issues and, when funding becomes available, the park service will have to find another archivist for their next project who will have to go through all of this learning and adjustment again. This story could go similarly for any institution. I understand the financial reasons behind the system we’ve created here – project funding, grants, etc. – however, I think the drawbacks from that system may be pricier than it seems at first glance. But I digress.
A poster[iii] I saw at the 2014 SAA meeting showed that it generally takes 6 to 12 months for people to assimilate into a new location and I can attest that it has taken me about 6 months to start feeling like I have a small support base of friends here, and soon I’ll be moving on. While the work I’ve done here has been fulfilling, and I’ve seen some amazing things in Alaska, I am now of the mindset that my next position needs to be permanent, or at least in a place where I plan on spending a significant portion of the rest of my life. Everyone handles these changes differently, and Alaska is obviously more remote than most temporary positions will take you, but keep this idea in mind as you look for your first professional position and be honest about how you’ll deal with feeling isolated for an extended period of time. For me, I think my gypsy days are numbered.
Be that as it may, the training I received from Drexel has served me well. I have a strong foundation of theories and principles on which to grow, I know where to look for further information on topics that arise, and I have a broad base of knowledge concerning general library and information system topics that support further growth in the field. However, and not to discount anything taught in library science programs (even with the issues we know they all have), the training I received through internships and entry-level positions during and just after graduate school, have given me the most help for transitioning into a professional role. That training and experience, coupled with the professional contacts and connections I’ve made, is more far-reaching than anything I learned in a classroom. My advice to all students and new professionals is to make and cultivate professional connections in your own life and to take calculated risks when they arise.
[i] Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner, “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing,” The American Archivist 68, no. 2 (2005): 208-263.
[ii] Robert Cox, “Maximal Processing, or, Archivist on a Pale Horse,” Journal of Archival Organization 8, no. 2 (2010): 134-148.
[iii] Wendy Cole, Steven Wade, Karen Dafoe, and Victoria Hess (Louisiana State University SAA Student Chapter), “Leaving Home: Taking a Job Outside Your Comfort Zone” (poster at the Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archivists, Washington, DC, August 10-16, 2014).