Transitions Series: Alex Berman

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 Alex Berman

Grad school is a bubble. While you’re there, grades, clubs, etc., are the hallmarks of success. I was a mediocre student (mostly self-inflicted) and participated in almost NO clubs, conferences, or anything like that while in school. In fact, graduating from Simmons GSLIS was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done because I felt profoundly unprepared. I had a good GPA and recommendations , but there are a LOT of GSLIS students with GREAT GPAs and recommendations. I knew I was moving to NYC, but nothing beyond that. My fiancée (now wife) and I had just gotten engaged and I was moderately employed with no immediate prospects for permanent employment.

It was tough seeing people, especially good friends, easily segue into working in a library or archive. Not me – I had no idea what I wanted to do. I knew pretty early on in the program that I wasn’t well suited for working in a library or archive. Since I was also moving away from Boston (to NYC) I conducted my job search with two parameters in mind – the job had to be located in NYC and it had to pay a living wage. I used job boards, like indeed.com, INALJ, and Monster in my search. After 300 job applications, I received one interview and one offer – to work for a publisher.

I went from thinking I’d be a librarian or archivist to being a “content manager.” What surprised me more than anything else is that I used my LIS skillset every day. If you’ve never practiced information architecture – it can be boiled into a couple of distinct categories:

  1. Organize information into overarching categories
  2. Create a relevant taxonomy/taxonomies
  3. Visualize this content and structure
  4. Leverage said content/structure to create new and interesting product

There’s also a healthy dose of graphic design, presentation skills, and content analysis thrown into the mix – but overall, the list above should look pretty familiar to any 101 LIS student.

After a few years, I decided it was time to move on from my first job. At this point it was clear that the LIS field was not in my future, but I also recognized the value of my education. I landed a gig as the Product Manager for the Reader’s Digest Association’s internal CMS + intranet systems. After that, I transitioned into advertising as the NYC Project Manager for SapientNitro’s Social Studio, and right now, I lead the User Experience Team for Rubenstein Technology Group. The common thread in all of this is my LIS degree – and the relevant skills I learned along the way.

In hindsight – I’ve arrived at where I am almost by happenstance. I’ve gone from thinking I’d be a historian (2009) to an archivist (2010) to an information architect (2011-13) to a publishing technology guru (2013-14) to an ad man (2014-15) and now I’m managing a team of front end developers. Why? Because of my GSLIS program….seriously. Every move up the ladder has been because I know how to work, leverage, analyze, and collate information. Basically, if I hadn’t taken the 101 metadata, cataloging, or archival retrieval classes, I never would have had these skills. I’ve learned a lot about myself – and how to survive layoffs, high rent, student loans, high vet bills, and a wedding. My advice can be distilled into the following points:

  1. Don’t feel constrained by your program or degree. At every point in my career the LIS degree has been a differentiator. You know how to organize and leverage data – that’s an incredibly valuable skill and not a terribly common one. An LIS program can easily (and often does) make it seem like there are only 2 (broad) tracks for your career – not true. You can take that degree and work in almost any information (read: any) based field you want to work in. The challenge is selling yourself, your skills, and your value.
  1. Keep an open mind.

I have firsthand experience with this one. You NEVER know where life will lead you. Never discount something because it’s not 100% what you THINK you want. I never, ever thought I’d work in social media advertising, book publishing, magazine publishing, or manage an entire team of front end developers. In fact, if there’s ONE thing I’ve learned over the last couple of years it’s that in following opportunities and taking risks I’ve managed to carve out a niche that’s financially, professionally, and personally rewarding.

  1. Be kind. Everyone always says “NETWORK!” – I say be kind to people. More than anything else people remember people that are:
    1. Effective
    2. Considerate
    3. Timely
    4. Not assholes

During my last job search my relationships helped me tremendously; LinkedIn is pretty helpful, but a personal relationship is your “get out of jail (phone screen) free” card. Good communication is key: one guy told me that he could tell I wasn’t an “average agency person” because I responded in a timely fashion.

  1. Continue learning + being engaged

Participate in your chosen community, write blog posts, tweet, post to Facebook, read, learn, etc. The most important thing you can do after grad school is continue learning. Most people are content with letting this slide after school – don’t be those people. It is so easy to get bogged down in your work, but staying current will give you a leg up on the old farts like me.

  1. Always do what’s best for you.

This tip is probably the hardest lesson I’ve learned over the last 5 years. At the end of the day you have to do what’s best for you and your family. Don’t buy the rhetoric fed to you by many employers – even if they consider you “family”, when push comes to shove your employer will make the best business decision possible. You should do the same – I’m not advocating job hopping, but that you should be cognizant of your needs, desires, ambitions, etc., and use them as your PRIMARY drivers.

  1. Never lose your “Why”

I’m stealing this from my wife – so she gets full credit for introducing me to this concept. What’s your “Why?” Mine is to bring joy, comfort, and laughter to the people/animals I love. It’s what drives me each and every day – maybe not consciously, but it’s always there. Never lose this concept of “Why.” Every company needs a value proposition and so do you – this is your “WHY.” It’ll keep you going even when things are SUPER lame. I was laid off in both 2014 and 2015 – this idea of “WHY” is what kept me going through these last couple of years.

In conclusion – I will probably never work in a library or archive. In fact, I spent the first year or so out of school complaining about how useless my degree was and how I wasn’t using this horrendously expensive education at all. Hindsight is a great way to change that perspective. Now, I’m glad I attended Simmons GSLIS. Not only did I learn some great skills, but I made some amazing friends as well.

Back to the matter at hand – the job market is tough, scary, and intimidating. Just remember – your skills are a differentiator in almost any field so long as you figure out your spin, your why, and your goals. Seriously, you are NOT restricted to working in a library or archive. If it’s not your calling then try something else. Maybe you’re super visual – being an information architect could be a great fit. Maybe you glom more onto the creative side of things – advertising or a design firm might be a great fit for you. Or if you’re like me, you go into project management. Basically, the world is your oyster – and your LIS degree is your golden ticket – as long as you keep an open mind and never forget your Why.

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