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 Eric Newman, Project Archivist at the RAND Corporation
A few pieces of advice I could give based on my experience as an archivist have already been given in these kinds posts before, but they are always worth reiterating. You should try to be available to move to another state, you should be open to working in a position that is only for a limited time, and you should try to work in as many internships and volunteer positions as you can. I read once that an element of risk is essential to having a successful career. In order to be a successful archivist, you will most likely need to risk moving halfway across the country, like I did when I moved from Chicago to California. You will also likely need to risk moving halfway across the country for position that only lasts for a year or so, like I did in the hopes that it would lead to a permanent position or another position nearby. And if you are able to, you will likely need to work in unpaid internships and volunteer positions to get enough experience to land a good paid position, like I did when I continued working in my office job during the week while interning and volunteering in archives on the weekends. But you have heard a lot of this before.
However, one thing that I haven’t come across a lot in these posts is that you also need to be open-minded about what type of archiving you do in your career. Like Jarrett mentioned, I too had a completely different idea of what I would be doing as an archivist than what someone was eventually willing to pay me for. When I enrolled in my first archiving class in grad school, I had dreams of working with 19th and 20th century literary manuscripts fed by my love of literature. Unlike a lot of archivists, my undergraduate education was in English rather than in history, so naturally I wanted to use my background to pursue working in a large academic archive with a great collection of original literary manuscripts. This illusion was not helped by the fact that my first archival internship was at the University of Chicago, where the Head of Archival Processing showed me the original manuscript of T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock on my first tour of Special Collections. But of course these types of jobs are extremely hard to come by.
After graduating from my program with an MLIS and a concentration in Archives and Special Collections, I was unable to get any kind of job in an academic library right away and was also unable to continue my internships in academic libraries, as most universities in the area required you to be currently enrolled in an MLIS program. While most of my previous archival opportunities were closed to me, I decided to work as a volunteer archivist for a few nonprofits. Since nonprofit foundations are always strapped for cash they’re always looking for free labor, which means they’re a great place to look for volunteer opportunities. I found the first nonprofit I volunteered for through one of my former professors who was also on the board of directors at the Ernest Hemingway Foundation. This was a great first position for someone like me who had a passion for books since I got to work with signed first editions of most of Hemingway’s works, as well as ephemera, letters and photographs from his early life and career.
All of my previous internships and volunteer positions were essential in giving me the required experience for me to land my first paid job, which was a part-time, temporary position at another nonprofit arts foundation, the Morrison-Shearer Foundation. The hallmark of Helen Morrison’s collection was a portfolio of black and white portraits of early 20th century artists in the fields of writing, painting and architecture, such as Gertrude Stein, Thornton Wilder, Richard Wright, Marc Chagall, Edward Hopper and Frank Lloyd Wright, which I digitized and uploaded onto their website. But after having been out of grad school for over a year, I had sent out around 150 applications to various academic libraries and had yet to get any job offers in return. It was then that I started to think about applying my experience in nonprofits to working in other fields of archiving, such as museums, historical societies, foundations or businesses.
The first full time, salaried position I ended up being offered was as the Project Archivist for the RAND Corporation. There was once upon a time when I wouldn’t even have considered applying to a position with the word “corporation” in the title, but I was slowly coming to realize that my dream of working with literary collections in a large university library might not come to fruition and that I might need to be more flexible about where I was willing to look for a job. Luckily, while I was unable to find a full time job related to my passion for books, I was able to find a full time job related to my other passion, social justice. Despite the fact that the word “corporation” is in the title, RAND is actually a nonprofit foundation that does a lot of important research in the social sector, such as healthcare, education, labor and the economy. Since RAND is a nonprofit, as well as a business, a research institution and a government contractor, it was my wide range of experiences in various types of archives that landed me the position.
This brings me to my final point, which is that when you are looking for internships and volunteer opportunities, you should try to get as much experience in as many different fields of archiving as possible. During and after my graduate program, I interned or volunteered at an academic library, a public library, a museum, a historical society and a nonprofit foundation. You never know what kind of experience you’ll get in an internship or a volunteer opportunity that you will be able to apply in your first professional position. Since RAND is a cross-section of so many different types of institutions, it is a great first position for someone who is open to what type of archival work they’ll be doing. The experience from this position would allow me to continue working in the nonprofit world, or it would allow me to do something completely different in the corporate, government, or academic worlds. I’ve found that the best way to be successful in my career as an archivist is to keep an open mind and to be willing to work in a variety of different archives positions that use my background, experience and skills.