Transitions: Jenn Parent

Hi, I’m Jenn Parent. I’m a very early career archivist, just a bit over six months in, and I’d like to share with you a tiny bit of my background, how I moved to the information world, and a one or two tips I learned along the way.

For about 15 years, I worked in bookstores, both national chains and independents, starting as a seller and ending as a manager. I enjoyed the work; liked helping people, enjoyed creating displays meant to entice and hopefully engage, and putting things in order? Well, that made me super happy – if it’s in order – someone can find it and use it! But a bookstore has limited resources, a finite way to satisfy a patron’s needs – I wanted to do more. I was looking for a job that entailed outreach, engagement, information, and access for users – hello, librarianship!

I felt an MLIS was the best course for what I wanted, which at that time was working in libraries, preferably special libraries. However, I first had to knock out my undergrad degree, which I had not completed the first time. So in January 2011, I started completely over at Kennesaw State University (Kennesaw, Georgia) and in May 2014, I graduated with a Bachelor’s in Anthropology.

During my time at KSU, thanks to courses in public history, I gained an interest in archives along with librarianship and decided I wanted to explore that as well.  I engaged in three internships; working in the archives at a historic house museum, a theology library archive, and helping a local museum develop a preservation and processing plan for a 40,000 photograph collection that had been found in a basement. Each of these offered a unique perspective, insights into organizational structures and challenges based on type of institution, and helped solidify my interest in archives. I also made a point of learning to network, by joining and participating in local professional organizations.

Immediately after graduation from KSU, I was privileged enough to be able to work as an unpaid library intern for a summer at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. This was an amazing experience, and though it was not paid, it offered much in the way of professional development, including a brown bag luncheon about using social media to engage library and museum patrons. After my Smithsonian internship ended, I moved to Seattle to begin my MLIS program – with a graduate assistant job as a social media specialist for one of the campus libraries, all thanks to that brown bag luncheon!

While at the University of Washington iSchool, I was part of the online cohort at the iSchool, a program designed as part-time and is completed over 3 years instead of 2. I opted to do this so I would be able to take advantage of internships and volunteering between work and school. I was able to engage in four internships over my three years, two of which were remote work. I volunteered often as a peer mentor, an iSchool ambassador, served on committees, and was active in student groups, including an officer role one year (as Online Student Rep for the student chapter of the Special Libraries Association). I also networked by participating in professional organizations, and attending conferences and local events, such as mixers and lectures.  I felt confident I had done all of the “right” things to secure a job upon (or before) graduation.

A full six months before graduation, I started an earnest job search. I was geographically flexible, had a polished resume (thanks to many reviews by peers and advisors), and an excellent skill set. I earned several interviews and was one of the final two candidates a few times, only to be not chosen. I expected this; after all our field is quite competitive and dozens of people apply for the same single opening, but still, over time, it started to take a toll.  To reduce this, I started being a bit more discerning about the jobs I applied for, not that I had applied willy-nilly to everything, but I took a bit more care in making sure it was something I really wanted to go for. I also reminded myself that it was not personal, though this was not always successful. Self-care became more important, and I encourage anyone in the job-seeking realm to embrace cheering yourself on, however that works for you. For me, it was the occasional cupcake treat, administered as needed. Regardless, in the end, it took a lot of time and rejection to get to an offer, just a day after graduation.

So it was that at the end of June, I started my new career as an archivist for The Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington. My first priority, which was to assist an ongoing grant-funded project, was also a first for the Museum – a complete project to fully process, catalog, digitize, and make collections materials available online. This 18-month long project was supported by the Council and on Library and Information Resources with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and resulted in a digital repository, which went live on Friday, December 1st, showcasing unique archival materials from approximately 50 collections related to World War I, collections that include the personal accounts of WWI aviators, technical information about the aircraft they flew, and ephemera that documents their wartime experience.

My focus was on processing and cataloging the last six of the nearly 50 collections in preparation for digitization.  This entailed arranging and rehousing the materials in acid-free enclosures and folders (making custom ones, if needed) and creating detailed finding aids with a folder-by-folder description and important biographical and/or historical information on the subject or donor. The collections include a variety of materials, including military orders and records, scrapbooks, photographs and negatives, journals and logbooks, correspondence via letters, postcards, and telegrams, maps, technical documents, sheet music, and serials and newspapers, among other items.

Aside from the WWI project, I also regularly add new accessions, contribute to our Instagram account (follow us!), participate in our monthly “Coffee with a Curator” (an hour long lecture series with an accompanying pop-up exhibit), and process and catalog new and backlogged collections.  As I look back on my first six months here, I realized I have already learned so much, including how to accession, how to process (and all that that entails), and even how to make “Frankenfolders” (something grad school did NOT mention I’d be doing) for uniquely sized items.

I’d sum up a few tips from my own experience, if I may, which will mostly apply to early career or job-hunting folks and aren’t really original, but I think they are important enough to stress:

It’s okay to be afraid, to doubt, and to have to triage and just get by at times:

I started education over in my late 30’s – it was scary and thrilling and I doubted myself often.  Grad school was often a study of triage, so many demands, not enough time – but I refined my time management, flexibility, learned how to say no and managed to have some fun along the way.

I’m starting a new career in my mid-40s – terrifying and exhilarating all together. I’m learning on the job which means mistakes and failing but remember FAIL just means first attempt at learning!

Networking is important:

And it is not always comfortable, especially for introverts, of which there are more than a few in our field. My advice is to start small, make a goal of talking to a set amount of new people at an event or mixed, or try one-on-one networking, like informational interviews over coffee. Maybe volunteer for a shift at a welcome table at a conference, or lead a book group at the local library. Do what’s comfortable and a bit more if you can. Our field is broad, but knowing people here and there will help you professionally, perhaps for a job, a presentation opportunity, or even a resource need.

Set limits and learn to say no (or at least not right now!):

In grad school, people had a tendency to say yes to everything, and then become overloaded and stressed out.  If you are still in grad school, focus on what you want to be/do, what you need to achieve that, and then selectively choose opportunities that serve your path and interest you. This also leaves open room and time and energy for surprise opportunities which will inevitably arise. This same advice can apply to work situations, you don’t have to say yes to everything and in fact you shouldn’t. Spreading yourself too thin reduces the quality of your work.  Learn to be okay with no, not right now, and setting limits. It’s not easy, but it gets easier with practice.

Last but not least:

Most importantly, be kind to yourself; grad school is hard, job hunting is hard, learning a new job is hard – remember to support yourself, cheer yourself, and reward yourself. Cupcakes work, trust me!