How I Conquered the Certified Archivist Exam

You might remember Michael Barera from his Transitions post last year. His recent SNAP listserv post generated a lot of interest so we asked him to give us his take on the Certified Archivist exam and why he decided to pursue the designation. Read prior SNAP posts on studying for the ACA exam here and don’t miss the Early Bird Application Deadline on February 15th.

I’m Michael Barera, a new archival professional working at Texas A&M University-Commerce. I first came across the Certified Archivist (CA) designation while I was in graduate school at the University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI) between 2012 and 2014, where it was addressed in the curriculum but not really emphasized. During both my time at UMSI and during my job search (spring 2014-spring 2015), I did not seriously consider pursuing certification.

Why I decided to pursue becoming a Certified Archivist

I moved to the Southwest to take a job, where the CA (comparatively) is more widespread and valuable than in any other region of the country. When I first started reading The Southwestern Archivist after becoming a member of my regional archival organization, the Society of Southwest Archivists (SSA), in summer 2015, I noticed that all contributors who had CAs were conspicuously identified as such in the newsletter’s bylines. That same summer, I kept hearing about the Academy of Certified Archivists (ACA), chiefly through listening to then-ACA president Mott Linn speak to SNAP at the 2015 SAA Annual Meeting in Cleveland and by reading his article “Not Waiting for Godot” (about the history of the ACA) in The American Archivist. By the start of fall 2015, the CA was something that I definitely had on my career radar, although I was not thinking about taking the exam in the immediate future.

My supervisor, Head of Special Collections and Archives Andrea Weddle, is a CA herself and encouraged me to pursue certification. At the end of the 2015 calendar year, I met with Andrea as part of my annual review process, during which I asked her about studying for the CA, initially as more of a potential mid-range goal than an immediate one. She encouraged me to pursue certification, telling me that she wouldn’t be surprised if I would be able to pass the exam without studying. I was really startled by this notion, and while I ultimately wound up studying intensively, it was this remark that really resonated with me and made me see the CA as a much more realistic and short-term goal than I had previously thought.

Similarly, my employer, Texas A&M University-Commerce, is very supportive of professional development for its library employees. From the aforementioned annual review process, I also had to prepare a self-evaluation for 2015 and create goals for 2016. After thinking about what Andrea had told me, I decided to make “study for and take the CA exam” my first goal for 2016, which Andrea approved. Aside from the highly reflective and very beneficial self-evaluation and goal requirements, A&M-Commerce also supports and encourages its employees to be active and participating members in both national and regional professional organizations. This makes it very easy for me to attend both SAA’s and SSA’s annual meetings, to the point at which I can almost take it for granted that I’ll be going to both every year. This level of institutional support was very helpful in my quest for the CA, from goal setting to keeping up with new developments in the field to simply being able to go to a CA exam location.

Finally, for personal reasons, I wanted to study to increase my knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs). Based on the timing, two years after I graduated from UMSI, I viewed my preparation for the CA exam as a sort of “second education,” which I found especially useful in substantially improving my KSAs related to traditional archival fundamentals. This is completely personal perspective, but I feel that the rock-solid, “back-to-basics” approach of the CA exam and study process was a perfect complement to the more diverse, innovative, and exploratory curriculum at UMSI, and perhaps other i-schools around the country. From a simply personal professional development perspective, what really benefited me was studying for the exam, even more so than taking it.

Personal experience studying for the exam

Start early and plan ahead: I started studying in January, giving myself a solid seven months to prepare. I paced myself, so in the first five months of the year (January-May) I read and took notes on all the materials on my study list. I read and took notes thoroughly for SAA’s Archival Fundamentals Series II (AFS II) books, and considerably less thoroughly for the other books and articles on the ACA’s recommended reading list (see below). This gave me two whole months (June and July) to just study from my notes, without worrying about having to read or encounter new material, which I believe helped me tremendously.

Study SAA’s Archival Fundamentals Series II intensively and thoroughly: I essentially treated these seven books as my core “textbooks” for taking the exam, reading them slowly and carefully (averaging about 15-20 pages an hour) and taking detailed notes, with the intention of studying only from the notes and not returning to the books after I read them. This decision proved to be a really good one: on the five domains (out of seven) of the exam that correspond directly to titles in AFS II, I cleared the pass/fail mark for all those sections by 20-30 percentage points, while on the other two domains that don’t correspond exactly to these books, I passed by just 5-10 percentage points each.

Browse and skim the other readings on ACA’s suggested reading list: This is less important, from my perspective, but still necessary in preparing for the CA exam. I essentially treated them as supplementary materials for the exam, not quite like but somewhat similar to “optional readings” on a college syllabus (which I would skim instead of thoroughly read, like I always did for required readings, but still take notes on). I obtained all the books on the ACA’s recommended reading list through inter-library loan (ILL) at my employer, a university library.

Take thorough notes and study from them: As I mentioned before, I’d highly recommend taking detailed notes while reading and ultimately studying from them instead of the books themselves. Also, be sure to give yourself enough time at the end of your preparation process just for studying, not covering new material. In the end, I gave myself two whole months, spending two hours a night studying five days a week, for a total of 80 hours. I think that this was absolutely key in my success on the exam, and (more broadly and perhaps more importantly) in my effective retention of what I learned while reading, especially the AFS II books. (Click here to access all my notes, for the AFS II books and the rest of the ACA’s recommended reading list alike.)

Give yourself “breaks” during your study period to prevent burnout: I did not study on Saturdays or Sundays at all, and I took a number of Fridays off as well during the first few months of my study regimen. This will help keep your mind fresh and prevent studying from becoming too stressful. Also, remember to keep doing what you love to do in your free time, whatever that may be. It really, really does help.

Personal experience taking the exam

Don’t panic!  The exam is difficult and the passing score is much lower than what you’re used to getting in grad school. Also, feel free to skip around: when I took the exam, I actually completed it largely back to front after being (preliminarily) stumped on an early question, which really helped keep my stress level down. Basic advice for taking standardized tests certainly applies here: try to eliminate answers and make an educated guess if you’re unsure, take your time (you’ll have plenty), and look over your answers before turning your answer sheet in, etc.

Why I see certification as valuable

It benefits me as an archivist: Studying for the exam noticeably increased my archival KSAs, made me more keen on professional development (I’m currently reading SAA’s “Trends in Archival Practice” series after finishing AFS II), and will help me to connect with service opportunities as an archivist (at ACA at least, but probably also SSA and SAA once I start connecting with other CAs; plus, having the opportunity to write this blog post and share my study tips and notes is a form of service in and of itself).

It benefits my employer: It gives them more confidence in my KSAs, even though they didn’t ask for a CA when my position was posted a couple years ago. Also, it makes our Special Collections department stronger as a whole: Andrea told me that none of my predecessors had CAs, so this is the first time that there are two CAs in the department working together. Furthermore, I think that having two CAs instead of one might give A&M-Commerce a bit more prestige among its peers as an employer of archivists than it had before, but this is only conjecture.

It benefits the profession: Like Mott Linn does, I personally believe that certifying individual archivists is a more effective way to measure the KSAs of individual archivists and (collectively) the profession as a whole than accrediting library science/information studies programs currently does, or even better than the SAA accrediting individual archives programs would do in the hypothetical. From my perspective, studying for and taking the CA exam was a more thorough assessment of my archives-related KSAs than my education at UMSI, as rigorous and informative as the latter was. Plus, I think certification gives the profession a bit more identity and trustworthiness in the eyes of people who aren’t intimately familiar with our work, especially to resource allocators and perhaps even library directors who aren’t formally trained in archival science.

An obvious comparison here is to what the CPA does for accountants, which is how my business degree-holding father conceptualizes the CA. At the end of the day, he understands how the CA designation communicates that I’ve attained a certain level of archival KSAs even without knowing the specifics; this is precisely the sort of quality-assurance standard I believe we need to have to relate and ultimately advocate as a profession to non-archivists of all types.

Michael Barera

One thought on “How I Conquered the Certified Archivist Exam

  1. Pingback: Chat with Us Tonight, February 6th! | SNAP roundtable

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