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: Michael Barera
Archivist, Texas A&M University- Commerce
I am a spring 2014 graduate of the University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI) now employed as an archivist at Texas A&M University – Commerce , located northeast of Dallas in the DFW Metroplex. As fellow UMSI alumni Mark Sprang and Jarrett Drake have already noted, one of the core strengths of the curriculum is the Practical Engagement Program (PEP), which requires all students to participate in internships and/or part-time jobs for at least four months. I actually participated in this program twice, in two separate forms, interning in three different positions at two different organizations: as an audiovisual archival intern and Wikipedian in Residence at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, and as a member of a digital humanities project at the University of Michigan Library.
Like my curriculum more broadly, which included archival staples such as courses on appraisal and digitization for preservation alongside offerings on dead media and website design, my PEP experiences were very diverse and really helped prepared me for a real-world job. While my audiovisual archival internship at the Ford Presidential Library helped me hone archival skills such as high-resolution, metadata-enhanced digitization, my digital humanities position sharpened my soft skills and gave me a different perspective on libraries and group projects. My service-learning alternative spring break experience in 2014 at the Benson Ford Research Center, the archive at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, was structured similarly to PEP and provided me with intensive hands-on engagement with a different archival skill, MPLP.
For the rest of my post, I’d like to provide four keys that I’ve learned from my own experiences, and then provide my advice on the two things I would have done differently if I could do it all over again.
Four keys from my experiences:
- Soft skills are really important: Sometimes it is easy to forget about soft skills when you’re focused on studying archival theory and practice, but they are incredibly important, especially in an academic library setting or any other workplace where archivists are in the minority. While soft skills perhaps can’t be taught the same way more technical skills are, they are very important to practice. Many of my duties, especially those that don’t directly involve archival activities, such as my service on the Library Marketing Committee, have benefited directly from soft skills related to clear communication, collaborating with others, and meeting deadlines.
- Don’t be shy about what makes you different: No two archivists are the same; every archivist brings a different skill set to the table. My advice is to really emphasize what makes you unique and stand out from other archivists in a certain area. For me, it is my Wikipedia experience and expertise, which has some pretty interesting applications in archives. I always made a point of mentioning it in my cover letters and finding a way to integrate it into my interviews. I’ve also continued to look for ways to apply it since I’ve begun my current job, and this month our digital librarian and I will begin a copyright clearance project on our digital collections with the goal of identifying public domain materials, porting that content to Wikimedia Commons, and then ultimately integrating it into relevant Wikipedia articles.
Don’t get discouraged if your job search is long and hard: I certainly underestimated the length and difficulty of my job search. Mine ultimately took 13 months and 195 applications, but I was ultimately offered a job by an institution that I really love. It is easy to become discouraged by such a job search, but I kept my head down and continued applying to every job that I believed I was remotely qualified for (ie, no University Archivist or State Archivist positions), even though some of them were clearly stretches. You need to be persistent in your search, and mentally preparing yourself for a long process at the start would probably be beneficial.
- Always have your eyes peeled for opportunities to aid your institution: Once you are hired, I’d highly recommend that you constantly stay alert for ways in which you can help your institution, however obscure or unusual they may be. Some are easy, such as volunteering to represent the library at a commencement ceremony. Others take quite a bit more work. Two such areas where I found opportunity and made significant contributions to my institution within my first year of employment have been the creation of a guide to all our newspaper holdings (both on microfilm and accessed via online databases) and a new recycling program in our building. Though it took many hours to create, the newspaper guide saves substantial time on most of our reference requests, as now individual newspapers don’t have to be sought out on a case-by-case basis. Additionally, the tabular form of the guide allows for easy browsing by date or by county, which were essentially impossible to do beforehand and have come in handy on a couple of recent reference requests. The recycling program began as an offer extended by the university’s housing program, which had purchased a recycling dumpster and invited the rest of the university to use it along with them, and has already developed into a robust program that has now been in smooth and continuous operation for over three months and has kept roughly 2,000 gallons of recyclables out of landfills.
Two things I’d do differently if I could do it all over again:
- I would have taken the ACA exam right out of grad school: Part of this is biased by where I work, in the Southwest, which is the region that leads the country in per capita Academy of Certified Archivists certification. However, I now realize that I would have been very well qualified to take the exam right out of grad school (more qualified than I thought at the time), and in retrospect I should have done that while I was still in the early stages of my job search in 2014. Don’t doubt your own skills; take the ACA exam at the SAA annual meeting the summer after you graduate.
- I would have volunteered for extra volunteer experiences as soon as I graduated: I made a mistake by not anticipating how long and difficult my job search would be. With the benefit of hindsight, I should have volunteered in an archive right out of grad school, in order to gain extra experience and sharpen my skills instead of focusing entirely on my job search. At both the Michigan History Project, where I solely digitized negatives, and the Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan Special Collections Library, where I assisted the curator in numerous different ways, I gained valuable experience and also built up my resume. It was a great idea to volunteer for both of them during my job search, starting in fall 2014, but I just wish I had done so sooner.