Transitions: Reflections from an Archivist in Flux

[Comments contributed by a new professional who chose to remain anonymous.]

As a student whose entire life is dictated by the frenetic grad school lifestyle it’s easy to think of an archives as someplace stable, but such a situation is rarely the reality. New software is developed, standards are replaced, and best practices change. Sometimes even the physical location of an archives will move.

One of our SNAP members is a new professional experiencing some of these changes in their current position. As someone who is navigating transitions on multiple levels (from student to professional as well as on the job) they wanted to share some of the things they have learned through the process. These shifts can be difficult, and it’s helpful to have the benefit of others’ experience when we encounter them in our own professional lives.

  • Everyone has a backlog.  The key to the backlog is in the acquisition – why was it acquired?  Was it a frivolous acquisition to please someone so it was tucked away on the shelf and forgotten?  What is the significance of the collection?  Is there a gift-in-kind form or other documentation on its transfer and rights?  If this information is missing, the collections can languish for decades.  Collections acquired well will be processed quicker, but those more mysterious or underdocumented collections are what usually make up the perennial backlog.
  • Archives has evolved as a profession, but that means that workflows that we take for granted while working among professional archivists while we were in school have not always been implemented afield.
  • There are large differences between librarians and archivists in culture, approach, expectations, and workflows and it will be challenging to establish a common understanding when terminologies even are used differently ranging from “archive” (often referring to a collection of old materials), “series” (function as a “collection” for cataloging), “records” (sound recordings).  Administrators often don’t understand the time required to process collections and may not be aware of the legal requirements for handling sensitive materials or necessarily the implications of Intellectual Property status.
  • When suggesting changes to operations, be prepared to justify your decisions by DACS and other published guidelines by SAA and RBMS because people don’t like to hear that they have been doing things “wrong” and don’t like change.
  • Be prepared that implementing change may take a span of years.  Being too aggressive in demanding change often produces pushback, even if it is for the better of the organization.  Relationships with colleagues, besides being important on a personal level, are also necessary for reappointment to the job.  Being patient, cheerful, persuasive, but not pushy, is key to gaining buy-in for the change you want to see.

Sometimes transitions are not always easy, and not very easy to publicly describe (if you can see what I mean).