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: Lindy Smith
Reference Archivist at Bowling Green State University’s Music Library and Sound Recordings Archives
I decided to become a librarian around junior high. The library was the place I went to learn about the world outside my small corner of rural Ohio and books were my escape. I wanted to devote my career to providing the same thing to others. I was told that it didn’t matter what my bachelor’s degree was in if I was going to go on to library school, so I went off to study music at Bowling Green State University. There I discovered the world of academic libraries and decided to be a music librarian.
I attended grad school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where I did my library science degree immediately followed by a second master’s degree in historical musicology (most music librarians have a graduate degree in music). While I was working on my MLIS, I had an assistantship in the Music and Performing Arts Library and while I was working on my music degree, I had an assistantship at the Student Life and Culture Archives. I also volunteered at the Conservation Lab and Sousa Archives and Center for American Music and picked up some additional hourly work in different libraries, archives, and related units on campus. I’d always had an interest in archives and special collections, and my work in all of these units confirmed that it was something I wanted to do professionally.
When it was time for me to start job hunting, this presented some challenges. At the time, openings in the area of music special collections were few and far between. Also, even if one were to open up, there was no guarantee that I would meet the requirements. I had specialized myself into a pretty small corner. To counteract this, I took a step back and applied for openings in both the music library and archives worlds. After about 18 months of searching, I accepted an offer to be the Research Services Archivist at the Ohio State University Archives. There was no music component, but I saw it as a good opportunity to build skills that would be transferrable to other positions in the future. It was a good first job and I was able to work on some interesting projects, but after a few years, I found myself wishing I were working with music again and ready for some new challenges, so I went back on the job market.
The second time around, I was more selective about applying. I was in a stable position, so there wasn’t the same pressure there had been the first time around and I had learned more about what I wanted in a professional situation. This time I also applied for both archives and music library positions, but the job market was looking up and there were a handful of music special collections openings. After nine months of searching, I accepted a position that included responsibilities for both music library and archival tasks. I liked that this would allow me to keep both potential career paths open by strengthening my experience in the music library world while allowing me to grow as an archivist. It was also a good match for the professional situation I had learned I wanted.
So what’s next for me? I’m not sure. As in my past job searches, it’ll ultimately come down to what’s available and appealing when it’s time to move on. For now, I’m focusing on getting established in my current position and trying to get more involved in professional organizations. As someone whose work includes aspects of two professional disciplines, this has been one of the hardest things to balance. I’ve gotten great ideas and encouragement from both music library and archives groups (particularly MLA, MLA Midwest, MAC and SAA), but it’s too many conferences to go to every year, even with good support, and I’m still trying to figure out what works best for me. I’m also really excited to be at the point where I can do things like this blog post to help others with similar career goals navigate their own transitions from students to professional archivists.
So what can you, as a student or new archival professional, learn from my transition?
Keep an open mind
I started my above narrative at the beginning of my interest in LIS in junior high because I think it’s interesting to see how much my experiences have shaped my ambitions. Be willing to let this happen! Just because a job isn’t a perfect match for what you initially thought you wanted doesn’t mean you wouldn’t be great at it and it wouldn’t be a good opportunity to grow and explore previously unexpected career trajectories.
If you want something, ask
People won’t always approach you about taking on projects outside of the scope of your job, but if you let them know you’d be interested in particular types of work, they’ll probably be willing to help make it happen for you. They can’t know you’re interested if you don’t tell them, and, unless it’s completely unreasonable, the worst they can do is say no.
This isn’t always possible or practical, but as long as it’s not causing hardship, take every opportunity you can get to learn and grow. You never know where it might take you. And if opportunities aren’t finding you, go out and find them! Having a reputation as a person who says yes can also make people more likely to offer you other opportunities.
Learn from failure
Negative experiences aren’t fun, but the upside is that they’re perfect for learning new things in a way good experiences aren’t. If everything goes right, you don’t have a chance to come up with creative fixes or think of ways you can improve for the future. If nothing else, you know what not to do the next time.
Fit is subjective
If something isn’t a good fit, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you and it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them. A situation may look great from the outside, but if you get there and it’s not right for you, accept it and move on. Use the experience to learn what you value so you can find a better fit next time.
Rejection is hard for most people to take, but one of the most important things I’ve learned from my experiences at having been on the search committee side of the hiring process is that it’s not personal. If you stick with it and build your skills along the way, you will eventually find something. I finished library school in 2009 and had many classmates who initially struggled with what was then a particularly tough job market. It took some time, but almost all of us are now in a good place.
Find a community
This could be classmates, a local or national student organization (like SNAP or the music library equivalent, MLSG), or a local, regional or national professional organization. It’s so helpful to be able to share struggles with and bounce ideas off others who are or have been in similar situations.