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: LaToya Devezin
African American Community Archivist for the Austin History Center
I fell into preservation work, museums, and public libraries in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. When I moved back to my hometown of New Orleans in 2006 after graduating from college, the city still reeked of indescribable smells of death, mold, and decay. I witnessed the devastation of most of the city’s neighborhoods, the lack of available jobs, and the threat of the loss of the unique cultural heritage of a city older than the United States. I found myself trying to find a sense of place in a city that no longer felt familiar to me. The lack of resources, the disenfranchisement, and the failure of my family’s local insurance company to pay our claim, along with so many others, created an interest in preserving the history of underdocumented groups. In the midst of participating in various city cleanup and cultural restoration efforts over the next couple of years, I looked for my first professional job. Through my volunteer work, I fell in love with preserving New Orleans’ history and I learned of Southern University at New Orleans’ Museum Studies Graduate Program.
While completing my museum studies coursework, I realized that I enjoyed working in the registrar department while interning at the New Orleans African American Museum and the New Orleans Museum of Art. As a student at Southern, I gained as much practical experience as I could with volunteering to curate and design exhibits, presenting at conferences, and assisting anyone who asked for help. I listened to the words of one of my colleagues, “Be a sponge.” I absorbed anything that I could about the profession and read the literature. I made wonderful connections at Southern, and these colleagues supported me through my work and school experiences. I value these relationships, and I still keep in touch with my colleagues today. I noticed the similarities of libraries, archives, and museums while taking a course on collections management, so I applied for positions in each of these organizations. I landed my first professional job as a library associate in the African American Resource Center of the New Orleans Public Library in 2009 before I finished the program at Southern in 2010. As an associate, I planned programs, exhibits, wrote grants, managed volunteers, planned projects, redesigned library space, and managed the archives and the daily operation of the Resource Center. I enjoyed my work, but I realized that though I did the work of a librarian and archivist, I was not receiving adequate pay for my work. When I reviewed the job description for librarians and archivists, I noticed that I had to get an MLIS to be promoted. I was promoted as far as I could go without an MLIS. My mentor suggested that I apply for library school, and she wrote me a recommendation for my application to Louisiana State University’s library and information science graduate program. I did not want to take out too many loans for library school, so I looked for scholarships and applied to ALA’s Spectrum Scholar program for increasing diversity in libraries, and I received the scholarship. I was promoted to Assistant Manager of the African American Resource Center while in library school, and I became the Manager of the African American Resource Center after I graduated from LSU in 2013.
My work at the New Orleans Public Library allowed me to travel all over the country to conferences for professional development, develop my outreach and programming skills, become a better manager, and go to library school. I made great connections there, and I am grateful for the opportunities I received. After working there for five years, I wanted to work full-time as an archivist in the same subject area, and learn about a new library system, so I applied for archival positions throughout the Southern and Eastern regions of the United States. I am now working as the African American Community Archivist for the Austin History Center. In my new position, I seek out archival materials from the African American community in Austin and Travis County through outreach efforts and programming. I also give presentations, conduct oral history interviews, coordinate programs and events, provide reference service to the public and acts as a subject specialist in the history of Austin’s African American community. I had a longer transition from student to new professional than most, but I feel that my experiences provided me with a different perspective for working as an archivist.
To all of the students, new graduates, and new professionals, I would advise you to be sponges. Learn as much as you can by networking with other archivists, going to conferences, joining professional organizations, and deciding on your career goals. Find a mentor working in your dream job, and ask them for advice. I would not have considered library school without the support of my group of mentors in libraries, archives, and museums. When you go to conferences, sign up for the resume and interview review sessions. Going to these sessions at the Public Library Association (PLA) Conference helped me receive more interest in my applications. After I implemented the advice I received on improving my resume and interview skills, I began to receive job offers. Participating in a leadership role in a professional organization provides another way for you to network and meet more archivists. Lastly, I would advise you to be confident. Remember, those who interview you want you to do well. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.