[Ask an Archivist]: Does an Undergraduate Degree in History Matter?

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Ask an Archivist Question:

Will holding an undergraduate in history combined with my MLIS degree give me an advantage in Archival work? I want to work in an archives that houses historical documents – especially African-American or women’s history area.

Ask an Archivist Answers:

If you are interested in working in a specialized position (or repository) that focuses on women’s collections or African American history, then having an undergraduate focus in these areas is a very good idea. I suspect that many such repositories might actually look for advanced degrees in those areas. For more generalist positions in academic archives, having a background in history can be helpful, but I’ve hired terrific archivists who majored in anthropology and political science. The key, I think, was their research experience; they had both worked with historical materials (that was how they became aware of archives in the first place). I believe that having experience doing research gives you an understanding for how the materials we process, preserve and provide access to are use; it gives you a better understanding of at least part of your user base.

Carrie Daniels
University Archivist and Director, Archives and Special Collections, University of Louisville

The usefulness of a BA in history really depends on the type of job you’re after.  Oftentimes, you’ll see position descriptions for project jobs or curatorial jobs asking for knowledge or expertise in a particular historical era or subject.  There are other jobs, usually at academic institutions, that might list a second master’s degree as a preferred qualification, particularly when acquisitions are a big part of that job.  However, in my opinion, it’s far more important that you master archival thinking, especially in technical services.  Knowing how to analyze a collection and structure information for access is subject agnostic and applies to any job in any repository.  And you can guarantee that even if you work in an institution that collects broadly in your specialty, you’ll still encounter material that you’re unfamiliar with or that is complicated in some way that your history degree doesn’t help you figure out.  But the skills you’ve learned during your MLIS should enable you to make that collection accessible and useful to patrons, regardless of why they’re using it (remember also that many researchers aren’t historians so approaching collections only as a historian would can be problematic when it comes to access).

Sarah Quigley
Manuscript Archivist, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, & Rare Book Library, Emory University

It depends – additional coursework in an area of specialty is always a plus – but a dual major or second master’s would be better in terms of improved employability and the experience you would gain at that level. However, if the undergrad degree is more appropriate makes more sense with your time and financial commitments right now, then go for it. If you are starting with an undergrad and don’t already have one in another major and then planning to get the MLIS after, my answer is yes, do the history undergrad.

Sandra Varry
Heritage Protocol & University Archivist, 
Florida State University

In general, no, your undergraduate degree will matter relatively little, except in the dwindling number of repositories that consider a background in history and historical method important for fully understanding collection content and the way in which researchers of all stripes conduct their work.  The more significant exception to the rule is if your undergraduate major included a concentration in African-American and/or women’s history, in which case if/when you interview for a position focused on either of those areas your major will likely be beneficial (though not likely determinative).

That said, I would not recommend restricting your search to positions specifically based around African-American and/or women’s history, simply because this will significantly reduce the number of positions available to apply for.  And it is truly possible, if hired by a repository without much interest in African-American and/or women’s history, for you to play a role in expanding the archive’s interest into one or both of those areas.  I’ve seen it several times, where a new hire, over the course of, say, 3-5 years, have a clear impact on an institution’s collecting or outreach areas.  All good luck in your job search.

Mark A. Greene
Former Director & Emeritus Senior Archivist, American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming

I think your undergraduate degree gives you a slight advantage in certain archives. Yes if the setting is a history archives then a degree in history might be good. But if an archive is a Women’s History archive, then the undergraduate major of Women’s History will outshine a straight history degree. And if you wanted to work at a corporate archives then perhaps hiring agents might be really interested in someone with a business degree along with the MLIS.  Your resume and cover letter will either help or hinder you when search committees are looking at the documents.  But when it comes to the actual telephone/Skype/onsite interview, your answers and your personality count even more than your academic credentials. People hiring are looking for someone who can fit into the culture of their repository. You may be totally qualified, but someone else might be a better fit or that exact job.

Gerrianne Schaad
College Archivist, Florida Southern College

Although a degree in history should give you firsthand knowledge of how primary source materials can be used for historical scholarship – it is not a prerequisite to work in the archives. The work of an archivist is so diverse that a wide variety of undergraduate disciplines can be useful. For example, a background in education or sociology could prepare you to work in instructional services or reference for a manuscript collection. The MLS with an archival concentration will give you the core skill set to be a successful archivist. My experience on search committees demonstrates that the nature and quality of your internships or volunteer experiences makes a bigger difference in our evaluation of candidates for jobs than their undergraduate major. If you are determined to work in a specialized collection, make sure that your application materials reflect a fairly constant professional or scholarly focus on that particular topic. The more foundational knowledge and context that you have about a particular subject, the more valuable your presence will be; whether it is in collection development, technical services, or reference archivist position.

Chaitra Powell
African American Collections and Outreach Archivist, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

As entry-level positions in archives and special collections departments continue to be highly competitive, I would say that your undergraduate training would prepare you well for working with a historical collection. That being said, you may be competing against applicants who have a MA in History or even a PhD along with their MLIS. I advise new career professionals to make your academic and professional background work for you as you prepare your application materials. How did that undergraduate training advance your interest in the archives field? How would it help you to best serve patrons or perform outreach? Weaving those details into your cover letter and even parts of your cv, where appropriate, will help you to stand out.

Lori Birrell
Historical Manuscripts Librarian, University of Rochester

It really depends on the jobs out there.  I always recommend that people new to the job market check out Archives Gig, which is a very comprehensive archives job site.  Browsing through the job postings – especially the ones that interest you — will give you an idea of the qualifications and degrees that people are looking for.

In general, the MLIS is the deciding factor.  However, if you’re looking for an academic repository you will often find that a second Masters is either preferred or required (sometimes the subject is specified – like history; sometimes it is not), and the undergraduate degree tends to be less significant.  I have seen an undergrad in history as required (in addition to the MLIS) for NARA positions, though, so as I say it depends on the position. 

I know it’s controversial, but I still say that the thing that makes the most difference is the work that you do while you are in your MLIS program.  The degrees other than the MLIS are generally what people look for as background.  However, while in your MLIS you have the opportunity to gain both classroom knowledge and real-world experience in archival practice.  With that in mind, you should look at MLIS programs that support experience.  Look for programs where students regularly are hired to work in the university’s archives and special collections.  Consider internships (paid if you can get them!)  Consider fieldwork classes (where work counts for course credit).  Programs sometimes are connected to the community and can provide opportunities for students to do short term freelance projects (sometimes paid) for organizations in the area.  Finally, if you have the time and the inclination, volunteer…. 

 Gaining experience is great, but as an MLIS student you should also consider joining the professional organizations as well.  Your regional organization is a great way to make connections and learn more about the profession.  There are frequently ways for students to be involved in conferences – either helping to organize or presenting.  You can find a list of regional archival organizations here.  Look at schools with SAA Student chapters. Student memberships in professional organizations are inexpensive. 

You should also look to the professional organizations for scholarship opportunities.  Most of the regionals have them, and SAA has a host of them.  SAA also offers a lot of resources for students.

The good news is that the archives profession –- through its regionals and SAA — tries hard to make it very easy for students to become involved and gain experience.  The undergraduate degree is preparatory, but the work that you do during your MLIS will help form your career.

Amy Cooper Cary
Head of Special Collections & Archives, Marquette University


3 thoughts on “[Ask an Archivist]: Does an Undergraduate Degree in History Matter?

  1. Fran

    I’m surprised that no one has mentioned a background in compsci, which is increasingly important in archival work.

  2. Anne Foster

    Federal archives positions (GS1420 series) require a certain number of course credits in American history to even make it past the first screening. Different HR folks may be more lenient and count art history or anthro course, others might only count those with a HIST course code. I’ve known a couple people who made it in the system with lenient examiners and then were denied promotion by a strict one. Having a history degree is easier.


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