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 Andrea Belair, Archivist at Yale University’s Office of the President
When I hear about how people became involved in archiving, they often start off with their love of history. For me it’s a little bit different. I went to a small liberal arts college set upon the sloping hills of Vermont, and my love was not history—at all, really. My love was music and the Arts. I did not become acquainted with archiving through working in archives, unfortunately; rather, I heard about archivists and what they did through friends, and I was definitely intrigued by the idea.
I moved to New Haven after college, and I worked for a term at Yale University’s Sterling Memorial Library sorting and shelving books. I ended up loving that job. I had wanted to be involved in writing and my thesis project was in creative writing and literature, but I loved being surrounded by books. The job appealed to me, as well, when I could watch my progress, like you might watch your progress as you stack wood and watch one pile reduce to grow in a neat stack in another place. There was something satisfying about it. More than that, the place was calm and beautiful. It was this job that led me to ask other people how I could work in a library in a more steady position, and I was told to pursue a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science. What about working in an archive? Don’t spend a lot of money on your education, I was told. So, after moving to New Jersey and gaining residency in that state, I enrolled in Rutgers University’s MLIS program.
The thing about Rutgers, though, is that they don’t have a specialization in archiving. Those of us who wanted to be archivists were on our own to a certain extent. I became involved in SOURCE, an acronym that stands for Student Organization for Unique and Rare Collections Everywhere, and this allowed me to tour archives and special collections. I organized a tour to Yale University’s archives at both the Beinecke and the Department of Manuscripts and Archives. At Rutgers, I took as many archiving courses as I could—there aren’t many, though. I took courses on Preservation, and I was accepted into a great internship at the Morristown Library’s North Jersey History and Genealogical Center, where I was able to archive digital and analog materials, as well as catalog photograph collections and create a finding aid. This was a great internship and I’d recommend a similar one to any student—one that introduces you to a host of direct and practical applications to what you’ve learned, and gives you a wide variety of skills to have under your belt for when you begin your job search. In addition, I surveyed a fire department museum in New Brunswick, New Jersey—fascinating, but with quickly deteriorating collections. In short, I did what I could with the resources that I had, and I focused on special collections and archives. I tried to be as expansive as possible, though, since I’d been told that archiving jobs were few and far between, so I wanted to prepare myself to work in another capacity as a librarian.
I’ve been pretty fortunate with my career. During school, I worked as a reference librarian, which is very important to anyone looking for an archives position, since these positions will almost always require research and working with many sorts of people. If you are a student and your school offers the such a position, I would definitely recommend having solid skills in reference. After graduating from Rutgers, I worked as Team Leader for a contracting company that reorganized the special collections held at Teachers College at Columbia University. This position, combined with my education and the internship experience, not only helped me gain practical skills like cataloguing and preservation; they sharpened my “people skills” as well. I would recommend finding a job or volunteer position that requires some amount of management of other people or resources, as well as a good deal of information retrieval. And, like most positions, it’s important to be able to work with others and have a good deal of patience working with the public. I’ve encountered many archivists who are less-than welcoming, and I think that we all need to work to make the our interactions as pleasant as possible.
It took a little while, but I was fortunate enough to land a position at Yale University’s Office of the President as an archiving assistant. This way, I came full circle back to Yale University and New Haven, which is where I’d first become interested in working with archiving. The first year was challenging, and I continue to face challenges as my role and duties expand. I know, for example, that my I was not entirely familiar with archival terminology to start off with, and this could make me feel awkward and out of place amongst well-seasoned colleagues. Even now, a couple years later, we’ve been working on a retention schedule in our office, or archiving born-digital records, and I’m constantly finding new challenges when I run across new collections and new ways of preserving or describing information. Professional development, then, is a must for the new archivist, since you’ll constantly encounter things you haven’t learned or applied in school as applications are updated.
When it comes to tips for students, I think that there are several things that I found helpful in my own job search and student experience. Find an internship that has lots of different duties, like cataloging, retrieval and digitization. If you can’t find an internship, try finding a place where you can volunteer your efforts and possibly challenge yourself in the process. In school, they always talked about networking, which has turned out to be helpful, and you can do this by becoming involved in a regional archiving organization, many of which offer mentorship programs. Before I went to school for my MLIS, I made some inquiries as to how to become an archivist, and one that stood out to me was about money. Don’t spend a lot of money to go to school, if you can avoid it, and be prepared to move for an ideal position. Get involved in a student organization dealing with archives and special collections. And finally, as I’ve mentioned already, get reference experience—archivists often have reference and retrieval duties, and it helps to know how the searching process works.
When I think about what I wish I’d learned in school, I have a hard time coming up with anything solid. Most of what I’ve learned and most of the challenges I have faced have been through active participation, and much of this has been through employment. I know one area that I wish I’d gotten more experience in during my education is in writing–whether it be making policies, sharpening my resume, or just writing for a blog like this SNAP article. In this way, then, getting involved with SNAP can be especially beneficial, since it can really help you gain confidence in your writing skills. I’ve lost a lot of my writing skills after leaving the secluded space of Vermont, but I’ve gained mountains of experience in other ways, and I’m very excited about what lies ahead.