[Ask a Business Archivist]: Can I Earn Enough as a Beginning Archivist to Survive in a City?

This is the third post in a collaborative series with the Business Archives Section. You can read all posts from this series here. Have a SNAP-related question for the archivists? Check out our anonymous submission form here.

Ask a Business Archivist Question:

I’m a career changer, going to grad school in my sixties. I’d like to ask if it is possible to earn enough money as a beginning archivist to survive in a place like Washington DC, Boston, or New York. I’m beginning to suspect that it isn’t, hoping to find out otherwise. Positions I’m seeing listed don’t seem to pay much more than minimum wage. I’m worried that I may be wasting my time by getting a degree. Any advice?

Ask an Archivist Answers:

My advice is to be persistent, network among colleagues, follow as many professional organization job postings as you can, ask lots of questions of potential employers (you never know what else might be available or what else they might be able to offer you). I was lucky enough to get a full-time archives job many moons ago while I was still in grad school for my MLIS on the basis of having taken a basic archives course and a records management course.  I work in a major city and just hired a recently graduated archivist for a full-time position who had done work on a part-time grant funded project and came highly recommended by a colleague.  I don’t know how this person survived on the part-time job, but we pay more than minimum wage and offer decent benefits, so hopefully it will work for our new hire.

Joseph Coen
Archivist, R. C. Diocese of Brooklyn

With a heavy heart, I have to say your suspicions are well founded. Even in major cities, some archival jobs pay as low as 17$/hour. Generally corporate archives and universities have higher paying jobs, but they are also more competitive and often require multiple advanced degrees and/or commensurate experience. In addition, I am seeing more and more positions that are only part-time or fixed-term. History is a passion for people, so there are many interns and volunteers out there willing to do the work for little or no pay. I genuinely don’t want to discourage you from following your dream, but there is an economic reality that I think should be discussed more openly at grad schools. You will have to weigh the cost/time of the degree with the potential for practical employment. To that end, I would advise thoroughly researching the job market in those cities, the average salaries, and also sometimes forgotten – the number of local universities granting degrees in archival sciences (while there are more jobs posted in large cities there are also more recent grads/job candidates that live locally.) Sometimes it can take months or even years to find a position, so if your circumstances require you to earn a certain amount right away to pay your bills, the risk may be even greater. To hopefully end on a positive note, there are alternatives to the traditional route: I do know some fellow archival studies graduates have leveraged their master’s degrees to get non-archivist jobs in records management, law firms, and tech/digital assets which tend to pay a higher salary.

Allison Seagram
Archivist, Pediatric History Center

My general advice would be to seek out a para-professional/part-time job at an institution first and then see if you can work your way up to a more professional position while getting the degree.  Easier said than done, but if cost is a consideration, the initial barrier is getting that first job at a repository—even if it’s not your ideal one—and then making yourself indispensable there.  Go part time for the degree to help ease the cost burden and mitigate loss if you decide not to complete the degree.

Ron Oppenheim, J.D., MS
Corporate Archivist, Liberty Mutual Insurance

Entry into this profession is challenging in many ways: difficulty in finding a first position, difficulty finding positions that pay well, difficulty finding positions in a city you don’t want to leave, etc. If you are settled in an expensive city it may be beneficial to broaden your job search beyond just archival work. Consider what other positions you may be able to apply your degree and past experience to, such as librarianship, records manager, or other fields that rely on information science skills. You may find that some of these jobs pay better. Also, consider the entire employment package: salary, health and dental coverage, PTO/vacation/sick time, professional development expenses, flexible work schedules. In addition to the money you earn, which if these are important to you and where might you negotiate other than just on salary?

Jennifer I. Johnson
Senior Archivist, Cargill

First of all congrats on taking the leap of faith and going for a career change in your sixties! With that said, I’m willing to bet you are making this move due to the passion you have for the archives profession and it was definitely not about the money. However, it’s hard to judge how you define a “living wage” and what it takes for you to survive in your household at this point in your life. If this is a major concern for you, think about tailoring your job searches and applications to archive positions in the corporate sector. For the most part corporations will factor in standard of living, have full benefits and offer competitive salaries because they have a more defined financial foundation compared to other hiring institutions. Plus, chances are you’ll find more of these opportunities in bigger cities.

Eric Chin
Senior Archivist, NBC Universal

It is certainly possible to earn enough money in an entry-level position and live in a more expensive city, but it definitely isn’t easy. Success depends on defining what it means to “survive” for you and your current financial (and family) obligations. Car payments, school payments, house payments, an income-earning partner, etc. can all greatly affect what you need your income to be. Unfortunately, there is a pretty large pay range for entry-level positions, and that information is not always provided up front. Most positions I have applied for did not disclose their salary until well into the interview process, which can be extremely frustrating. The exception to this would be jobs in the public-sector which are required to disclose salary information with the job listing, such as government archives (city, state, federal) or public universities. Take heart that jobs paying above minimum wage do exist! My advice would be to determine what a living wage would be for you, expand your job search to archives-adjacent roles (like records management, information management, and librarianship), and utilize your school’s career center to see if they can give you information on recent graduate’s beginning salaries (and perhaps connect you with someone to talk to who lives in a city you’re interested in relocating to).

Lauren Gaylord
Archivist, Pixar Animation Studios