Changing Course (Within Archives) During Graduate School

Winter break allowed me free time to read a bunch of the other blogs that I like to at least pretend to follow during the rest of the semester. There are really great options addressing different topics, some of which are on our list. Specifically, though, I had the opportunity to catch up with Hack Library School, and two of the recent articles made me think about my own journey within library school.

First, Carissa Hansen posted about reading her personal statement from her grad school applications now that she’s been in grad school for a semester. The column is solid advice for anyone applying to schools now, but that’s not the part that stuck with me. Rather, it was the re-reading part that prompted me to pull up my statement. I had to! I took the post almost as a dare. I only vaguely remembered what I’d written. Re-reading it reminded me of how much I’ve changed my focus during the past two years. Next, I found the piece on learning LIS tech as a novice by Dylan Burns. Oh, how I relate…

I was convinced when I started graduate school that I was going to be an archivist in a federal government position, and I adamantly wanted to work with physical collections. Then, I wanted to work in a museum, preferably focused on the colonial or early federal periods. A semester into grad school, I was convinced I was going to either be a reference archivist or an outreach archivist. In every iteration of the above, the ultimate plan was to work with congressional collections, and that’s still where I want to end up. However, it wasn’t until late in the program that I came around to “the digital stuff.” In fact, I distinctly remember telling my advisor during my first semester that I had no idea why I was his advisee because I wasn’t going to do digital anything. And I followed that with an emphatic “ever.”*

Famous. Last. Words.

As I approach my final semester, I’ve taken courses in electronic records management, data curation, and digital forensics, and I completed a MOOC to learn Python because I couldn’t fit programming into my schedule. I’ve created digital workflows for an internship and lived to write about it. I’m applying to digital archivist and electronic records management job openings – though I’m still applying to reference and outreach jobs, too.

And occasionally, I ask myself: How in the world did I get here?

Actually, this is probably a natural progression for many aspiring archivists (or other information professionals, too). When we come into graduate school to study archival science, we have an idea that it’s a broad field, but I suspect most of us don’t really know how broad “broad” is. I didn’t. Others have worked in an archive, and they perhaps start with more knowledge than the rest of us, but even the “old hats” can find a surprise niche during the two years they’re in a program. Perhaps it came, like me, from a required class, but the professor’s knowledge and enthusiasm made it exciting. Or perhaps you have an advisor or mentor who has helped you wade through problems in a particular area that was out of your scope, but during the process, you found out you enjoyed what you were working on.

My change of heart came at the tail end of electronic records management during the spring semester of my first year (though I still wasn’t fully sold on the idea that I could enjoy being a digital archivist until well into the fall of my second year). That class had numerous “aha” moments for me, and we worked with programs, making them less intimidating and more accessible to even those of us who weren’t techie librarian/archivist types. Further, Kelly Eubank is an engaged teacher, wanting to make sure we understood the “whys” behind the “hows.” I also have a patient and kind advisor. When I’ve had questions at the previously-mentioned internship, I’ve been able to pose them to him and get thorough explanations, which helped tremendously. Eventually, the frustrating stuff became fun.

At my library school, we have the opportunity as second years to serve as mentors to first years in the program. One of my first pieces of advice to my mentees was to be open to things other than just what you think you’re interested in. That very motherly advice of “you won’t know if you like it until you try it?” I’ve learned over the past two years just how true it is.


*This becomes exponentially funnier when I explain that my advisor is Cal Lee.

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