Transitions Series: Roxanne Dunn

This post is part of 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.

What does it mean to be a “new professional?”

Guest author Roxanne Dunn

I still distinctly remember such a surreal feeling within a few weeks of starting my first professional archives gig. I was a very recent graduate from library school, where I had worked for 2 years as a graduate assistant at the university archives. Within a few weeks, I went from being the GA in an academic department to having to supervise and mentor my own GA. It was quite the trip! That was probably one of the biggest adjustments I remember making; I was now responsible for my own academic department and being a mentor to someone else.

I was fortunate to be hired into my first job just one month after graduation from library school as the archival assistant in a special collections and archives department in an academic library at a small, regional University. From 2011 to 2013, I was a graduate assistant at the University Archives at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign while completing my master’s degree in library and information science. I was hired into a unique, if not challenging, position at Southeast Missouri State University. The head of the special collections and archives department, who would have been my direct supervisor, left our University for a job in Arkansas. The person I was replacing had already left months before. I was arriving as the only full time staff member; it was, in effect my own department to run. This meant I could make my own decisions and implement my own choices. At least, until another department head was hired.

I had already determined I would apply for the position of department head, since I was effectively already doing that job as the sole full time employee in the department. This meant that I would have to go through the academic interview process again, twice in one year. That thought was less than appealing, but I knew that I was fully qualified for the position (according to the job posting and the fact that I had been doing that job already for the last several months) and I owed it to myself to try.

Everything I did after being hired initially was to prepare myself for the next level of employment, to be hired as the Special Collections and Archives Librarian and department head of my unit. While I understand that not everyone will be applying for academic archivist positions, I think that many of the tactics I used will be useful for any recent grad seeking employment. This list below encompasses some of the key decisions I made and choices I implemented that I feel made me successful in my current position.

  • Make friends

As a new employee at Southeast Missouri State University, I didn’t know a soul. I was new to the community and my university. (I realize that relocation for employment is impossible for some, but for unattached recent graduates, it can be a lonely necessity.) I went out of my way to be social, reach out to other departments within the library, across campus, and even around the community. I took folks up on every offer of lunch, tours, and coffee just to meet people and make friends. This made the transition so much less lonely, but also began to open myself up to opportunities for collaboration in different areas. It can be very easy to put our heads down and focus on our archival tasks singularly, and forget that friendships and relationships can be forged outside of our own departments. Aside from helping to keep archivists sane, this tactic can help keep archives relevant by engaging in and highlighting new projects and efforts.

  • Take on additional responsibility

As a new employee in the library at Southeast Missouri State University, I made sure to recognize and seek out additional opportunities to highlight my department and bring success and good publicity to the library. This opportunity presented itself in the form of the library’s 75th anniversary celebration. I became chair of the celebration committee and planned out a year-long celebration which included special exhibits, guest speakers and an evening gala. This celebration garnered the library a lot of positive press and taught me valuable lessons in planning and leadership. But it was a lot of work! And I struggled to keep up with my departmental responsibilities. I worked longer and harder during this time to prove myself. This was a stressful process but it showed my ability and willingness to step up and lead.

  • Become active in your professional society

Shortly after being hired as the archival assistant, I made sure to start becoming active in SAA and in particular the SNAP roundtable. I was elected as a SNAP steering committee member, which has led to other opportunities to build professional skills. It is gratifying to brainstorm unique ideas to help other recent grads/new professionals succeed and also helpful to understand the inner workings of our professional society. Picking up these skills will be beneficial as I develop as an archivist and build my professional career.

And as an additional plug for SAA, I am not embarrassed to admit that as a new professional, I have relied heavily on SAA listservs for advice. Being the only archivist in my academic library and lacking a mentor nearby to discuss everyday issues, these listservs have provided insightful for me as a newbie archivist. Making use of listservs is one tip I feel every new professional can benefit from.

  • Seek a mentor & follow good advice

During this challenging and unsure time, I made sure to keep my ears open for sound advice. I listened to my immediate family, who were very tuned into my situation. I believe it was also crucial for me to listen to and work closely with my mentor who was my supervisor from my time as a GA at Illinois. He gave me great advice during this time and the support I needed, including acting as a reference for me during both interviews. Building a relationship with a mentor was one of the best things I did to help myself for a career while in grad school. I still have a congenial and social relationship with my mentor and I hope to pay the favor forward by serving as a strong mentor to my graduate assistants and my student workers. In fact, my last GA at Southeast Missouri State University was accepted to my alma mater for library school and through my connections, I was able to secure him a volunteer position with the University Archives. He has since turned that volunteer position into a paid hourly position. I am very proud of him!

  • Keep interviewing

I also knew to have a backup plan. In case Southeast Missouri State University chooses not to promote me after proving myself in a difficult situation, I had to have alternative employment opportunities. The level of work I had been doing for the last several months required much more responsibility than I was being compensated for and I knew then that I was capable of more. You shouldn’t feel afraid to know (and demand) what you’re worth, especially after securing your first job and as you continue to build your resume. Plus, interviewing, both phone and in person, is always great practice for the future.

I am happy to report that I was hired as the official department head and Special Collections and Archives Librarian at Southeast Missouri State University in April 2014. I made sure to highlight all the different things I had done throughout the interview process to make sure my accomplishments were known and in line with what was expected of the position. The fruits of my labor certainly paid off in this instance.

So I think, what it really means to become a “new professional” is that you need to carve out your own path, find your way and begin to develop your career quickly, without hesitation. Each move should be a calculated one to help you advance and round out your resume. And remember, you don’t have to conquer Rome in a day. You can focus these calculated moves on a six month or yearly basis. Set small goals and work on achieving them. This will often mean additional work outside of school, homework, regular job duties and volunteer time. But by building key relationships and developing strong skills professionally (and for your resume), you will hopefully find success as a new professional in the archival field.

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