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: Matt Strandmark
Education Archivist, University of Kentucky
I am a spring 2014 graduate from the Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing (Department of Information and Library Science), and Indiana University Graduate School with a Master of Library Science and Master of Arts, History degrees. In July of 2014, I started my first professional position at Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library as their Outreach Archivist and Research Library Fellow. At Emory I worked on community outreach initiatives, both physical and digital, to increase involvement with library programs, provide valuable services to visiting researchers, and enhance access to collections. In November 2015 I accepted the position of Education Archivist at the University of Kentucky’s Special Collections Research Center, where I work with the university’s professors and students to incorporate special collections research into their courses. I am also responsible for managing the library’s exhibit program, serving on the Information Literacy committee, and providing research and reference services to visiting researchers.
While I never thought I would become an archivist while in high school or my undergraduate program, I knew that my love of history would have to surface in my career in some way. After taking time as a junior and senior in college to research the field, I knew that I could be successful doing something that I enjoyed while feeling like I made some sort of difference in the academic field. I thought that I pretty clearly identified a niche in the field where I could fit in: public services and education. I couldn’t (and still can’t) imagine working as a processing archivist, mainly because I most enjoy working with students and researchers and interacting with many people. Like many other archivists, I enjoy solving problems and creating tangible results with my work. I thought that my main strength coming into this field was my development of interpersonal skills that I developed in a variety of employment opportunities while in high school and college: as a grill cook and waiter at a local diner, a retail paint salesman, a newspaper sports clerk, and an academic tutor. I also built on leadership and teamwork skills that I developed as a varsity high school and college athlete. I pretty quickly found out that not all librarians or archivists enjoy public speaking and personal interaction as much as I do, so I worked to fit my career goals into these pre-developed skills.
I have had good success in the two library job interviews that I’ve had so far as a professional. While I’m certainly lucky to have found not only one but two jobs, I will say that the one thing those interviews had in common was that I rigorously prepared for them in a way that was most likely not matched by other applicants. Once I found out that I had a phone interview for both positions I made it my 24/7 mission to know everything that I possibly could about the institution, the position, ongoing projects, and other news. I found the strategic plans and memorized them so that I could discuss them in the interview. New grant projects? I congratulated them and was able to discuss them easily. Digital exhibits? I was able to recall ones that I had seen online and relate them to similar experiences.
After I found out that I landed in-person interviews for these positions I took this preparation one step further by coming up with ideas and suggestions that built on the strategic plans and initiatives that were obviously important to the institutions. It is one thing to be able to talk about professional methods and standards in interviews, but it is something else entirely to be able to be able to talk about how your efforts could contribute directly to the goals of the archive or library where you are interviewing. Think of it this way: would you be more impressed by a doctor who knew every single procedure under the sun, or one who can talk directly about your procedure and how to make it successful? This also applies to your resumes and cover letters. I’m not going to repeat something you’ve probably already read 1,000 times, customize these documents when applying for every single job. Every single one, no exceptions. If not, you are really just wasting your time and the time of the hiring committee.
This piece of advice is by far the most important thing that I can pass on to anyone looking for a job now or who will be looking for one in the future. The two jobs I’ve landed have not been because necessarily had a complete understanding of every part of the position, but if you can prepare by showing that your skills and experiences will make you a success in the role, it will be very difficult for them to turn you down.
The single most important thing you can do while in library school is to immerse yourself in part time employment opportunities. Let’s face it, the coursework in library school is really not that challenging. Useful? Yes, most of the time, but it does not consume all of your time. I took four classes per semester in two different master’s programs the two years I was in graduate school, and still had time to hold 8 different part time positions, including two half-time assistantships. In addition to providing you a tiny bit of income, these experiences are what you can point to as you start to apply to that crucial first professional position. I know that a major gripe in our profession is the lack of entry level positions, although I think this is starting to be remedied in some ways (employers being more mindful of creating opportunities for those with little or no previous full-time experience). One way to insulate yourself from this problem is to seek out and do well in a variety of positions while you’re in graduate school, so that you can have some experience to refer to in interviews, and so that you can be better suited and prepared for a wider variety of careers. Chances are, the jobs you apply to will incorporate multiple skills, so that you can apply your past experiences to these responsibilities during your interviews. One comment that I heard when I started my first full-time position was that my future coworkers were impressed by the volume and variety of professional experiences that I had completed while in graduate school.
Working as a librarian or archivist is a great career: it’s fulfilling yet challenging, low-stress yet productive, and interesting yet somewhat predictable. If you accumulate diverse experiences while in graduate school, develop your “soft skills”, prepare aggressively for applications and interviews, and appreciate your work, you will be successful. More importantly, you will build a career that you actually enjoy and value. Archivists really can have it all!