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.
Guest author Jarrett M. Drake
Though I now work as a Digital Archivist with responsibilities for acquiring and enabling access to contemporary born-digital records at my institution’s University Archives, I initially embarked on a career as an archivist with the goal of working in a late 19th or early 20th century manuscript repository. Much of this passion derived from my academic interests as an undergraduate history major as well as the types of repositories in which I had landed paraprofessional employment. I expected, unequivocally, that I would earn my stripes as a processor of manuscript or personal collections before subsequently bolting for a doctoral program in history, thereby providing the perfect blend of academic and professional pedigree that would prepare me for the perfect position.
I completed my master’s degree in information science with a specialization in archives and records management from the University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI) in May of 2013, and it is to the credit of my graduate program that I am now doing something completely different than what I had initially imagined. I can attribute one part of the stark difference between my initial plan and my current role to the variety of coursework offered in my graduate program, from seminars on social memory and information policy to lectures on archival appraisal and managing electronic records.
But I would attribute the other part to the structure of my school’s Practical Engagement Program, which is an internship program students must complete before graduation. 12 weekly assignments bolster the program and ensure that students reflect on their experience, not merely go through the motions. For one of my assignments, I interviewed the now-retired director of the Bentley Historical Library, Fran Blouin, and asked him what he wished he learned prior to starting his career in the profession. Fran replied with the answer that all graduate students secretly fear: nothing.
Fran stressed that the best thing any new professional can do is to develop the skill to quickly learn new skills. Archivists are not fortunetellers, and the only assurance in our dynamic field is the assurance of change. This is an aphorism I have returned to constantly over my first 15 months in the field, and it’s the most useful thing I learned in graduate school.
But learning new skills and concepts as a professional looks differently than when in school, and rarely does it derive from a mandate. For example, I have:
- taken the initiative to enhance my technical skills through free edX courses in introduction to Linux and other Linux outlets;
- mined course syllabi of UMSI classes I was unable to take (as well as course syllabi from other well-known archival programs such as UT-Austin and UNC-CH) to identify and complete readings related to my field;
- created a bookmark folder in my web browser that’s filled with links to the archival and digital preservation literature from all over the world, including many open-access publications such as D-Lib Magazine, DPC Technology Watch Reports, and Practical Technology for Archivists. While my institution pays for subscriptions to other journals such as Archival Science, the American Archivist, and Archives & Manuscripts, one might well access these periodicals at the nearest large public university.
Coupled with the webinars and white papers published by national leaders like the NDSA, CLIR, and the BitCurator Consortium, I spent a large part of my transition taking Fran’s words to heart and immersing myself in new skills and concepts. Indeed, reading and learning in silo can only take you but so far, which is why I identified user communities and forums that share my interests and address common problems.
In these spaces, bright collegial minds have answered my questions and I have also learned from the questions asked by bright collegial minds. The conversations have led to direct email correspondence for clarification and, refreshingly, face-to-face encounters at professional meetings. The acquisition of new skills and knowledge has a snowball effect of sorts, and lurking behind each learning venue is another clump of information begging to be absorbed.
I’ll try to conclude this post where I began it. Coming into my role as a digital archivist was not easy for me, especially given the plans with which I entered graduate school. I contemplated the job offer for days and talked with advisers both personal and professional. Even after committing, I showed up on day one with a reserved reticence, unsure of whether or how I would end up enjoying a niche of archives that hitherto hadn’t interested me as much as others. But in my early moments of uncertainty, the transition into a professional archivist became as clear for me as it ever had before: don’t long for the job you think you love, but instead learn to love the job you land. It’s in the latter that you will learn what it truly means to be a professional.
Plus, learning to love your job is secretly one of the best jobs around. Trust me.