Managing Your Career: One Archivist’s Journey, Pt. 1

When Kate and I first discussed her writing a post for the blog about project archivists, she said she had a lot to share. This has developed into four posts that best work as their own stand alone mini-series. So, for the next four Fridays, we’re going to see Kate go from library student to a curator of special collections. There’s really solid advice for those thinking about applying to graduate school, those in programs now, those graduating in December and May, and those who have been in the field a few years and know it’s time to take the next step. This is the first in the series.

Guest author: Kate Crowe
Curator of Special Collections and Archives at the University of Denver

What follows are a series of topically focused blog posts, all focusing on my journey from library school student (beginning in fall 2004) to project archivist (September 2007) to Curator of Special Collections and Archives (summer 2012). Each will focus on what I did/what happened, and include information on what I wish I’d known and/or done at the time.

While I hope most of it will be applicable to all students and new professionals in cultural heritage work, my entire career has been in academic archives at a mid-size private research university in the American West. Additionally, I’m a white, cisgender, middle/upper middle class lady person (she/her/hers), so all of that factors into my story and my advice as well. So, take it all with a grain of salt and all of the above in mind. I hope you find it helpful!

Choosing A Library School/Getting Through Library School (Part I)

When people ask me “Why libraries?” I usually say that I’m the child of 2 librarians, and so I didn’t really pick libraries, they picked me – also, I am highly unoriginal.

A bit of background: both of my parents received PhDs in library and information science, and my father went on to become Dean of Libraries and then Vice-Chancellor at the University of Kansas (KU). As a result, I literally grew up in large, Midwestern R-1 academic libraries, first at the Ohio State, and then at KU. Both of my parents seemed to have interesting, meaningful jobs, they made enough to give us a nice, middle/upper middle class life, and seemed to genuinely enjoy what they did. So, choosing to go to library school and follow in the “family business” seemed like a no-brainer. I entered library school right after graduating with my undergraduate degree in history. Below, you’ll see what I screwed up, and what I think worked well, and what I wish I’d known or done in retrospect.

What I didn’t do that I wish I had:

Tried harder to get a job in a library while in library school: I had a reasonably decent-paying, full time benefited job in an undergraduate university admissions office when I started library school, and I didn’t try particularly hard to find anything equivalent in a library while I was a graduate student. Looking back, I should’ve tried harder. That being said, everyone has to eat. If you have a decent-paying/benefitted job not in a library/cultural heritage institution, think long and hard before leaving it to accept something that’s a step down in terms of salary/responsibilities, even in your chosen field.

Tried harder to publish and present while in library school: Part of the “eyes on the prize” thinking I alluded to above could have been directed at turning some of my work that I had to churn out in library school into something that benefitted me professionally and focused on topics that I was actually interested in. Instead, I allowed the fact that I didn’t feel like I was being effectively engaged by the school/the faculty to turn me into the grad school equivalent of a sullen teenager. Don’t let this happen to you – you’re better than that. Do:

  1. Find out about any graduate research symposia, grants, or other research support that your school offers, and submit, submit, submit. Even if you don’t get the grant $ or end up getting your presentation accepted, it’s valuable experience for when you’ll need to do the same thing as a new professional (especially in academia).
  2. Add any presentations or publications that result from this work to your CV/resume. This will make your CV/resume look more like a “new professional” and less like a student – which is key to getting employers to take a second look at you for entry level positions.
  3. See which journals/publishers produce work in your area of interest and subscribe to/keep an eye out for calls for proposals. Turn the papers you have to write anyway for class into submissions for those journals/publishers.
  4. If you are GA/TA’ing for a faculty member in your degree program, see if they’re willing to co-write or co-present with you, especially if your areas of interests are the same. Even if not, bend their ear about publishing and presenting – if they’re tenure-track faculty, they have to do it to keep their jobs, so they can be valuable resources.
  5. If your campus/local area has Toastmasters, join. (This is admittedly based on the advice of others – I’ve still yet to join, but I am planning to this year).

As an added incentive to do all of the above, if you are applying for faculty positions in an academic library, you will be expected to present as part of your job interview, and later as a part of the “research” requirement of your job. Get experience in presenting when the stakes are much, much lower.

Taken better care of myself: Graduate school, even if it’s not particularly mentally challenging, is a marathon, not a sprint and that period of time is probably the unhealthiest I’ve ever been, both physically and mentally. So, be kind to yourself. Eat vegetables. Drink water. Read a trashy magazine. Have a glass of wine (or two…or three) sometimes. Don’t freak out if you get a B+ one time. Find people in your program to commiserate with, but don’t spend all your time bitching. The lovely thing about librarians/archivists/museum professionals is that most of us are fun, interesting weirdos – get to know the other fun, interesting weirdos in your program and in the profession, and talk to them about stuff other than libraries/library school. I did do this to some degree, but I didn’t do it enough.

What I did do that I would recommend:

Choose an ALA-accredited graduate program for your MLIS/MLS that will meet your needs and will not saddle you with an undue amount of student debt: This one is tricky, because everyone’s circumstances are different. I also have several caveats to this advice, which are:

  1. The professional network you build as part of your time in graduate school is important, and where you attend school and the focus of that school will affect your network. All of that will in turn affect your connections when it’s job-hunting time, and over the course of your professional career – not a small thing.
  2. If you attend a school that does not focus on what you know you want to be your professional focus (for example, Emporia State’s strength is school/children’s librarians, and my focus was archives), you will need to be exceptionally motivated to gain the skills you need to succeed professionally, and a lot of that will need to happen outside the classroom.

My primary point with this advice is that entry-level positions right out of library school do not typically pay well (though how “not well” is unclear, especially given the problematic methodology of the most recent Library Journal salary survey, so it’s wise to think twice before attending a school with a high price tag, especially if you receive little/no financial aid. Additionally, in my anecdotal/personal experience, the name and reputation of the school you attended will not factor into hiring decisions beyond your first position, and likely not even then.

Become involved in professional organizations: I became very involved in the regional archives association (Kansas City Area Archivists), became their Education/Programming Co-Chair, and organized a one-day conference. It was a great experience, and a great resume-builder. Had I stayed in the area, it also did some of the work of creating a good regional network of professional references and/or job leads post-graduation. While I did attend the Society of American Archivists’ annual meeting in 2007/the summer after I graduated from library school, and was a student member during school, SNAP didn’t exist then (it didn’t officially exist until 2012), so I wasn’t as professionally engaged at a national level as I might have been. I wish I’d focused more on becoming more engaged nationally.

Realize/acknowledge early on that library school is, to some degree, a means to an end and focus “eyes on the prize”: Again, several caveats here. You will have amazing professors (I hope more than a few). You will make great friendships and connections in graduate school. That said, I did not find much of my library school experience to be particularly enlightening or challenging (sorry, ESU/SLIM, but them’s the breaks), and I’ve heard the same from many others who attended other programs. I did, however, acknowledge that in order to get the job I wanted, I had to get the degree, so I buckled down and just did the damn thing. If you really want to work in libraries, focus your attention on the light at the end of the tunnel, not the tunnel itself, and just move through it. Get as much out of it as you can, but don’t give up halfway through. That degree, like it or not, is one of your main tickets to a j-o-b.

Coming up next, first time job hunting/interviewing….

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One thought on “Managing Your Career: One Archivist’s Journey, Pt. 1

  1. Pingback: Managing Your Career: One Archivist’s Journey, Pt. 2 | SNAP roundtable

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