Manager of Archival Services, College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture
2017 SAA Nominating Committee Member
With transitions, there is always potential for both opportunity and failure. These sides of the same coin allow for growth and an understanding about how one sees oneself in the universe. I think that the transitions that I have made both personally and professionally have allowed me to grow not only as an archivist, but also as a person. Many people say that you learn on the job, which is definitely the case, and sometimes it may seem that you are making it up as you go, but I have to say that my graduate course work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) helped to provide me with the theory that I am thankful for.
Although I have held only two “full-time” professional archival positions, I have worked in the profession for almost ten years as a student worker or as an intern. For four years, I was the University Archivist at Chicago State University in Chicago, IL, but I recently started working as the Manager of Archival Services at the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture in Charleston, SC. Both of these positions have provided me the opportunity to expand my skills and abilities in the areas of supervisor, manager of budgets, developing and implementing public programming and archival policies, reference and instruction, donor management, and facility matters (i.e. space and environment issues).
This post will be a mix of lessons learned and advice for new professionals.
When you are a new professional transitioning to a new workplace or organization, it is best to study and learn the official organizational structure, but also the unofficial organizational structure. This refers to the fact that although on paper a person/position is responsible for doing a particular business function, in reality, it is usually the person below them that does the real work. This can be determined by observing and talking with other colleagues at the institution. Making this discovery early on will help to make your job easier in the future, as well as to make you a more effective employee and manager. Furthermore, depending on what area it is in, there is a potential for you to make a change in the operating procedure. Being the new employee within the institution allows you to see things that other employees have normalized.
However, I do have to caution new professionals that are straight from graduate school with limited workplace experience and that want to start new programs and processes that they may run up against administrative hurdles and obstacles. These may be due to fiscal constraints, new strategic plan, and personnel/personality issues. While all of these can be challenging, taking an iterative approach to your ultimate goal is great way to be successful, but also take time along the way and feel accomplished in each completion. Furthermore, if you feel depressed or unmotivated from the activities in your workplace, partake in professional organizations/associations/groups, so that you feel connected to the profession, help to make you feel less alone, and still obtain fulfillment in another area of your life. These networks and relationships that you develop will help you sustain yourself emotionally and professionally.
I cannot emphasize the importance of professional organizations/associations, and I was blessed to obtain a scholarship to attend an American Library Association (ALA) conference in undergrad, which allowed me a look into the profession early on. I have continued to participate in them (transitioning more to Society of American Archivists (SAA)) due to the people that I have met, the new ideas and concepts learned, and the sense of community that one gets at a conference or by an e-mail from a colleague.
The third piece of advice is really vital, especially if you are the only archivist at your institution: making those archival connections helps you stay grounded. Being involved in professional organizations (local, regional, or national) opens you up to mentoring opportunities, where you are either a mentee or a mentor. Often people look for mentors, who are “elder”, either in terms of professional experience or in age, but do not forget the importance of peer mentoring and support, which can develop from your classmates or from people that you meet at conferences. It is important to note that your engagement with professional associations will fluctuate depending on your priorities (i.e. family, school, work, health, etc.), and you should explore other associations besides SAA depending on your interest. Some of these other organizations include: Association for Moving Image Archivists (AMIA), Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), Association for State and Local History (AASLH), Association for American Historians (AHA), Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association (PCA/ACA), etc.
In my statement on this blog when I was running for nominating committee, I think that Student and New Professionals Section (SNAP) members can be great assets as SAA continues to grow and develop for the archives and archivists of the 21st century. Advocating within the larger SAA organizational structure can be difficult (as it too has a history), but that is why diverse voices are needed within the structure, so that it can change. Furthermore, I believe that the more progressive and diverse people there are in decision making process (whether in SAA or in our organizations/institutions) the better off we will be, leaning on the adage, “rising tides lifts all ships.” However, as the political and social climate will remind us (well some of us), that we either are not a part of the crew or not even on the ship and we have to resist this in our personal lives, as well as our professional ones, so that there are ships and life vests available for all. Therefore, we would be better served by using the motto of the National Association of Colored Women Clubs (NACW) “Lifting as We Climb.”
I have aimed to take the above approach in my career as a manager as well, because you are responsible for making sure that your employees remain current and have the skills that they need to complete their jobs, as well as to push them to the next level. This means different things for different classifications of staffing, depending on if they are in a union with promotion potential, or if they have bonuses associated with continuing education, or if they are faculty and if they are on a tenure or non-tenure track. All of these varied classifications can mean that work expectations can be disparate, specifically in terms of production outside of the “normal” business hours and what can be asked of a particular employee. Thus, if you are a manager with these types of employees, it is advisable to learn about the particulars as soon as possible by talking with them, your direct supervisor, or Human Resources so that you are covered and not surprised when you are not informed. Furthermore, as a manager, I had to get used to the fact that my employees’ work reflected upon me, so not only did I have do my job, but I may have to be the back-up employee to others if they could not complete their duties as their performance (good or bad) represented me. Consequently, before taking on a management position, one has to be ready for this occurrence.
I started this piece talking about transitions and lessons, and to sum it up, I have three takeaways for you:
- Do not be afraid to fail;
- Flexibility is your friend; and
- Make and keep connections
With these in your pocket, you will be equipped to not only be a leader in the archival/information profession, but also in life.
P.S. Recommend yourself or another candidate for SAA leadership positions here.