Managing Your Career: One Archivist’s Journey, Pt. 3

Over the past few Fridays, Kate has been detailing her journey from library student to curator of a special collection. Previous posts can be read here.

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

My First Professional Position (Part III)

Entry-level positions are tricky. Employers (if they’re worth working for) will realize that there is a limit to what they can realistically expect to get, sans training/coaching from an entry level position and that they will need to put in a fair amount of time to ensure that employees are set up for success. At the same time, many institutions are under-resourced, and your direct supervisor’s time will likely be limited, so they will generally looking for someone who is smart, a quick study, will ask questions if need be, but is generally a self-starter who will go off and do the work without a need for a lot of direction. This goes double if your entry level position involves implementing some new technology (digital repository, institutional repository, web archiving/digital archives) or program (digital humanities) that isn’t yet well understood, especially in terms of infrastructure, by a lot of library administrators.

My first professional position was a contract position (non-benefitted, time limited, but requiring an MLIS) as a project archivist for a 2-year Athletics and Recreation department including processing, cataloging, and digitization projects, all of which was being done within an entirely new collection management system and a consortial digital repository, and which led to a faculty position at the same institution. Here’s what I did, and what I wish I’d done differently in the process:

What I did do that I would recommend:

Try to be as useful as possible, talk as little as possible (initially), listen as much as possible, and become progressively more vocal as you get your feet under you (while still listening as much as possible). 

My father’s advice to me upon entering the professional workplace was (paraphrasing) “Keep your head down, work hard, and shut up.” I wouldn’t go that far, but it is worth it to spend a fair amount of time (and what that “fair amount of time” is will vary depending on the complexity of your job and institutional environment) doing a LOT of listening.

 If you’re entering a position that’s existed for a considerable amount of time and is newly vacant, especially if it’s been reconfigured between when it was last filled and when it was posted again, invite some of the folks who have been around the library for awhile out to coffee and get their thoughts on the role that position has played in the library in the past – good and bad. If you’re a newbie, they’ll probably be somewhat guarded, but you will likely get some good contextual information and it will show your new colleagues that you genuinely care about understanding how you and your job fit into the bigger picture – that can count for a lot.

 If your position is new (which mine was), and it’s largely based on a given amount of “success” in a specific amount of time in order for the position to continue (which mine also was), figure out what metrics you need to hit in order to be successful and move forward with that in mind and let that account for a lot of your decision-making about how you spend your time on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis. If you don’t believe you have the resources you need to be successful, say so ASAP, as diplomatically as possible, and work with your supervisor to either get your needs met or have the metrics for success adjusted. The positive flipside to this is that if the administration doesn’t quite know what to expect in terms of outcomes and what a given position might actually look like when implemented, you may have a lot of freedom to define what you do and how you do it. If this is the case (and it was with me) – use this freedom wisely, work with your supervisor to define outcomes and metrics for success, and proceed accordingly.

 Related, it may be that your position is structured in such a way that you can’t meet your goals unless you receive additional work and buy-in from other folks who do not report to you (see also: “responsibility without authority”) and whose supervisors have not bought into the project or its goals.  This can be politically tricky – in this case, your supervisor (and possibly even their supervisor) may not have thought through all of the pieces that need to fit together to make the process successful.  Again, express your concerns  to your direct supervisor early on, and as diplomatically as possible.

 Start producing publications and presentations right away. Even if you get hired into a non-faculty position, if you think you might ever want to become a librarian at an institution where librarians have faculty status, do what you can to publish or present as much as you are able.  This is where having developed a strong network in grad school, both of fellow students and faculty, as well as networks through professional organizations, is key – it’s how you’ll find co-presenters, co-authors, etc.  Start in your own institution first; your supervisor or other faculty members you’re working with may be interested in writing up or presenting with you.

What I did not do that I would recommend you do:

Don’t feel tied down to writing about, presenting on, or serving on committees that are directly related to your job. I wrote a lot about metadata and process the first few years of my professional life solely because I felt that I could only write about the process of what I did. As a result, I ended up writing a lot fewer articles and presenting a lot less than I could’ve because it wasn’t a subject I felt passionately about. If you feel passionately about and want to work toward an area of librarianship or archives that you’re not currently employed in, great! Find a way to make your professional position and your experience doing what you currently do adjacent to what you care deeply about; you may not care about metadata mapping and increases in process efficiency, but you might care deeply about problematic LC classification terminology. Volunteer for service opportunities in areas you do care about, write about them, present about them – then, when a job that fits your professional ambitions does come up, it will make clear what you are passionate about and have direct experience in through your research and service.

If you see any personnel issues begin to arise – supervisors, issues with your direct reports or other colleagues/employees – document, document, document.  This is more relevant based on experiences at my pre-library jobs, but it’s good advice nonetheless. Documentation could be as simple as creating a document where you keep a list of incidents by date, describing each incident in terms of your observations of others’ behavior, but also could include e-mails, or other documentation.  I’m a big fan of summarizing verbal conversations in a summary e-mail after the fact – not just for documentation’s sake, this practice can be very helpful to ensure all parties are clear on decisions made, next steps, etc – but it’s also good for documenting patterns of behavior, your responses, etc.

This may seem like overkill at a new job, but a) HR likes to be able to see documented patterns, b) recent grads (and, even moreso, recent grads of color/lgbtiqa/gender-non-conforming, etc.) are often in more vulnerable, lower-status positions, and c) the issue that often arises with anything HR-related when it comes time to act is a lack of documentation, both on the part of your supervisor or HR person, both of whom may genuinely want to help you and/or impose consequences but can’t, absent documentation from them or from you. They are also, frankly, more likely to pay attention to issues you bring up if you make it clear that you’re aware that you are part of a federally protected class (race, color, religion, national origin, age, sex, pregnancy, citizenship, veteran status, etc.) under U.S. anti-discrimination law, especially if you believe that any of the issues you’re encountering are due to your status as a member of this class.

Become your own best advocate: The flip side of “keep your head down and shut up” is that if you spend all your time working and “producing,” others in the library (and the University) may have no idea what you do on a daily basis and (if it’s relevant) how it might serve their needs. I was lucky in that my supervisor when I was hired was incredibly vocal about the importance of my position and its service to the mission and visibility of the library, but I shouldn’t have counted on that alone.

The need to advocate for yourself and your position is especially likely in a new position that requires implementation of newer technology (a digital repository, collection management system, web archiving software, etc.) and/or a less-understood field (digital humanities) where the administration may be aware of the term and some of the cachet that it might bring to the library, but less aware of what’s needed to support such a program beyond allocating the resources to a position that will “do digital humanities.” Research robust programs at peer institutions and talk to the people who run them – they are goldmines (which I discovered, years later). Find these people now; it’s another benefit of libraries being a service profession – we like to help!

I would say that, no matter what, in a new job (especially a contract job) in addition to just doing the job, you’ll need to learn to be a compelling advocate for your position and (if relevant) your program’s needs. In doing so, you become a compelling advocate for them to find a reason to keep you. Develop an elevator speech that explains “what you do” and “why you should care (or at least be interested)” that would make sense not just to an administrator in the library, but to the Provost or someone in an academic department.

Next, getting promoted/getting a faculty position…

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