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: Lauren Menges
Archivist for the Leatherby Libraries, Chapman University
The best advice I can give any aspiring archivist is: be patient. I graduated from library school in 2009, and only now in 2016 do I feel like I finally landed the kind of job I’ve wanted all along. The path to one’s “dream job” can often be long and winding, but if you’re truly committed to it and don’t give up, it can happen.
I decided to go to library school while I was an undergraduate. I was an English Literature major and always had a love of books. One of my English classes visited the Special Collections library to look at some early editions of Frankenstein, and that class was what put me on my career path. Until then, I had no idea what I wanted to do after college. But watching and listening to the librarian that day, I suddenly had an “ah-ha” moment where I realized that I could picture myself doing what she was doing. I was instantly hooked. After that class, I contacted the librarian about setting up an academic internship for the following semester. That was my first foray into the special collections world, and I knew it was what I wanted to pursue after college. During my senior year I applied to library schools, and decided to attend the University of Pittsburgh’s MLIS program.
During library school I balanced archives classes with academic library classes. I did my field placement in the university’s special collections library. Unfortunately, I graduated at an especially tough time for everyone on the job hunt, not to mention someone looking for their first library job ever. Despite applying for nearly every job I could find (which wasn’t very many), I could not land a library job. I ended up taking a job at a Barnes and Noble – not exactly what I was hoping for, but the only thing that seemed even remotely close to my desired line of work. Ironically, if I hadn’t worked at B&N, I wouldn’t have gotten what was to eventually become my first real library job. Interestingly (sadly?), I was not the only person with a library degree working there. It was by meeting another librarian there that I got my first library job. She had been working part-time at B&N as well as part-time as the librarian for a technical college. She had recently accepted a full-time library job elsewhere, and helped get me on the short-list for candidates for the job at the technical college. I was hired there part-time as a reference and instruction librarian. Eventually they took me on full-time.
Now, as happy as I was to have finally landed a real library job a full year after graduating from library school, it was not a special collections or archives related job. Nevertheless, I worked hard at the job that I had, and tried to get as many “transferable” skills out of it as I could. Turns out, that strategy worked. Reference and instruction are two areas that are invaluable no matter what kind of library work you want to do. After working in that job for two years, I started looking elsewhere in late 2012. After a few months of looking, I was hired as the Manuscripts Digitization Project Librarian at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill for a grant-funded project. Although I didn’t have direct experience with digitization, I had enough combined experience from my previous position and courses I took in library school for them to take a chance on me. I was excited at this opportunity to finally be working in a special collections environment; however, even this job wasn’t exactly my “dream” job. As happy as I was to be working with primary materials, it was only in the area of digitization. I wasn’t getting any experience in traditional archival work. But again, I tried to get as much out of it as I could. I made lots of contacts and got experience participating in the professional community through presenting at various conferences.
After the project concluded, it was time to start job-hunting again. During that time, I made the move in late 2014 to southern California in support of my partner’s career. Being location-bound this time around made things a little trickier. Although by now I had stored up a fair amount of work experience, I was limited geographically in the jobs I could apply for. After a few months of trying, I landed two part-time jobs. One was as a part-time reference librarian at Chapman University, and the other was a part-time position as a Digitization and Metadata Assistant at the University of California, Irvine. Obviously, working two part-time jobs is not anyone’s ideal situation. But again, I can’t stress enough that if I hadn’t taken this career path, I would not have ended up where I am now. I was getting good experience at both places. At UCI, although I was doing digitization again, I was still in a special collections library. My boss there was incredibly supportive of my long-term career goals, and took every opportunity to help me achieve them. She let me spend a few hours every week working with one of their archivists learning traditional processing.
I spent nearly a year in these two jobs, when, flash-forward to 2016 when I was hired full time at Chapman as an archivist. It truly was a case of “right place right time.” The folks at Chapman knew I wanted to work in special collections, and they recently received some new funding to establish a full-time archivist position. I was selected for the position and have been working in it for almost two months. Only now do I truly feel like I have the “right” job for me. I now oversee two major archives at Chapman: the Huell Howser Archive and the Center for American War Letters Archive. I do processing, outreach, reference, exhibit design – all of the fun and interesting things I’ve always wanted to do. I get to do everything that I love about library work, and I am so grateful for the way everything turned out.
As you can see, my path to becoming an archivist was a roundabout one at times. I made the best of every opportunity I had even though I wasn’t doing what I really wanted to be doing for a long time. The best thing I can say is to just stick with it, and know that sometimes the wrong job can lead to the right one.