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: Caitlin Stamm
Reference Librarian, General Theological Seminary
Let me start by saying this: I basically hit the jackpot with my first job out of library school. When I started at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois in 2013, I knew I wanted to work with special collections and archival material. When I started taking classes, though, I was surprised to find how many types of libraries fall under the “special collections” umbrella.
My internships and student work opportunities were the most useful for me in identifying where I would be a good fit professionally. During my first year, I interned under a lone arranger at a small university archives. It was instructive to see all of the different skills one needs to build and maintain a collection. I also held a practicum at the Burke Library, a major theological library, in New York. Working with theological materials of all stripes—general collections, rare, and archival—helped me further define my desired career and ascertain how to achieve it. During my second and final year at UIUC, I worked (with fellow Transitions writer Anna Trammell!) at the University’s Student Life and Culture Archives, where I got experience processing, describing, and utilizing archives. When I graduated in May 2015, I knew I wanted to work with special and archival materials in a smaller theological library.
I started working at the Keller Library at the General Theological Seminary in New York in October 2015 after a whirlwind of an application and interview process. At the Keller Library, we support the seminarians, faculty, and clergy of the Episcopal Church with a diverse collection of administrative records, bishops’ papers, and historical manuscript material, in addition to large general and special collections.
As a member of a small (two-person) staff and the only staff member with archival and preservation training, I can see the benefit of the classes I took and practical education I received in library school, but I’m also realizing all of the things that I didn’t have the chance to learn. Every day, I’m adding to an ever-growing list of things to learn or try or explore. After settling in and getting accustomed to the needs of the school, I’m starting to implement some changes that will hopefully benefit me, future staff, and the institution’s community. I didn’t expect to feel such responsibility—I feel the weight of each decision I make. Is this the right choice for now? For twenty years from now? Will the next librarian/archivist understand why I chose to do this? Will this improve how users interact with the collection? I’m excited by these challenges my job presents me.
Some things that have become increasingly clear to me during my few months on the job are:
Find mentors. Stay in touch. Don’t be afraid to ask them for help.
My practicum at the Burke Library, which was pivotal for me in my development as a theological librarian, came about after I emailed a guest lecturer from my Theological Librarianship course. I never expected her to respond, but she did, and offered to let me come and work directly under her. Once I graduated, I emailed her again, and she sent me the information on the position I have now.
I’m realizing that people in this profession are usually willing to go out of their way to help students and new professionals. If you’re like me and get nervous about the thought of cold calling someone, do it anyway. It’s good to get in the habit of going after what you want!
Know what you have to offer.
Part of what helped me get a job I love was being able to identify what I liked, what I could do well, and the kinds of skills I would need for my ideal job. Reading job descriptions to see the necessary abilities and experiences and observing librarians and archivists as they worked helped me anticipate the different hats I would need to wear. I was able to develop a diverse course load that fit my (and future employers’) needs exactly. Knowing that I enjoyed and was good at reference, research, and outreach from my work in library school helped me find a job that lets me do all three.
Get settled in before you change things.
When I look at our collection—particularly our archives—I see so much work that can be done. Every day that I’m here, though, I’m learning why past staff members made the choices they did with this collection—choices that weren’t clear to me on my first day on the job. Waiting to be fully assimilated before making changes has helped me get to know the collection, the environment, its priorities and needs, and why changes were made in the past.
Getting settled in and thinking through changes has also helped me identify and articulate the “why” for the choices I make. Many of the changes I’ve begun implementing have been welcome enough (or are subtle enough to have gone unnoticed). Some changes, though–even ones I haven’t though would be a big deal to anyone–have brought questions and concerns. Being able to predict these questions and defend these changes often offset annoyances or confusion. People don’t like change; being able to give a reason helps, though.
Make yourself available.
I’m a young person working in an institution where nearly everyone—including the students I serve and the library workers I supervise—is older than me. My main goal as a new professional is to make myself totally available to the community I serve. I may not be able to match them in age or institutional knowledge, but I try to make sure everyone feels welcome, their questions are answered fully and promptly, and they leave the library having had a positive experience. It’s important for me as a younger person to show my community that I have excitement and an eagerness to pitch in. I’m slowly seeing the fruits of this, as the number of reference interactions I’ve had has steadily grown as the students and faculty see my eagerness to help.