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: Ashley Stevens
Education & Outreach Coordinator, Archives and Information Services, Texas State Library and Archives Commission
One piece of advice I would give is this: when it comes to your career path, be flexible. I had no plans of becoming an archivist. I did not even know that archives was a career option. Originally, I wanted to be a college history professor. I wanted to teach Renaissance history at a university. That was the plan. I applied to two Masters Programs. Both programs rejected me. At the time, that stung. A lot. I was, and still am, a bit of an overachiever so to fail at something was a big hit to the ego. Looking back, rejection was the best thing that ever happened to me.
In that year off, I took the time to think about what I wanted to do. Did I really want to teach? Surprisingly, the answer was no. My passion for history was still there but the desire to teach in a classroom was not. I held a B.A. in History and a couple thousand dollars worth of debt getting it. I HAD to make this degree work for me. What could I do with a history degree? I decided I would give graduate school one more shot. If I did not get in, I planned to pick up and move to England. Between researching graduate schools and starting the paperwork for a travel visa, I embarked on my last ditch effort for my history degree to matter. I checked out schools in South Carolina after a visit to Charleston with a friend. I stumbled upon the University of South Carolina’s dual Masters Program in Public History and Library & Information Science. The program had three tracks: historic preservation, museums, and archives. I decided on archives because it looked the most interesting of the three.
When I got accepted, I said goodbye to my dreams of moving to England and buckled down to become an archivist. My work with Teaching American History in South Carolina informed the kind of archivist I wanted to be. The program provided professional development to history and social studies teachers by immersing them in primary source documents. Each year, I worked one-on-one with 25 teachers to shape their history lessons and locate archival documents to enhance the lesson for their students. Seeing these teachers, and their students, interact with records had a profound impact on me. I cannot fully articulate it. This is what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to just preserve documents. I wanted records to be used by people. I wanted to build connections. I wanted to become an outreach archivist.
My first job out of graduate school was a one-year processing archivist job for the National Park Service. I took it because I needed the experience. I needed to get my foot in the door. While my TAHSC experience was great, I am an archivist. How could I shape my career to fit me if I didn’t have the basics? For one year, I lived 3,000 miles away from my family to learn that lesson. My time in California was by far the hardest career choice but also the most interesting. Who else can say they lived in a national park? After a brief stint of unemployment, I applied for a job that made use of my federal archival experience but included education work, specifically working with teachers. It was that little bullet point in the job announcement that I pushed the door to my career path even wider.
In my time at the National Archives at Philadelphia, I really started to hone and develop my outreach skills while balancing my straight archival work. I worked with the Education department, revamped the office’s social media strategy, and gave talks at conferences. Like most things in life, there comes a time when you’ve reached as far as you are going to go. After two and a half years, I left my beloved NARA and I accepted the position of Education and Outreach Coordinator at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. In this newly created position, I am essentially writing the book on what it means to do outreach for their Archives division. The job has its challenges but also some pretty sweet rewards. I am learning new things all the time and developing new skill sets.
Becoming an outreach or public services archivist is not a clear cut path. Realistically, there are a handful of jobs that explicitly have that title. That doesn’t mean you should give up on your dream, rather you have to rethink it. I think we’re fortunate that the archival profession is undergoing an internal revolution as more archivists and institutions are realizing the importance and value of outreach.
There will be bumps along the way, sharp detours, and retracing your steps all together as you figure it out. Or, sometimes, it’s blazing a completely different trail that will leave you feeling lonely at times and questioning if your decision was the right one. That’s the fun-slash-terrifying thing about building a career. I can say this as someone who is a little further down the road than you. I can tell you this, when I think about where my career has gone, the places I’ve seen, the people I’ve met, and the work that I’ve done, I cannot imagine doing anything else – not even being a college professor teaching Renaissance history.