Session 501: Taken for Granted: How Term Positions Affect New Professionals and the Repositories That Employ Them (lightning session)

Session 501: Taken for Granted: How Term Positions Affect New Professionals and the Repositories That Employ Them (lightning session)
Guest authors Gabrielle Spiers and Meghan Courtney


Maureen Callahan, Archivist, Metadata Specialist, Yale University, Manuscripts and Archives


Steve Bingo, Project Archivist, Washington State University Libraries

Liz Caringola, Historic Maryland Newspapers Librarian, University of Maryland, College Park

Mark Greene, Director, American Heritage Center, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming

Alex Lorch, Archives Program Officer, National Historical Publications and Records Commission

Dan Santamaria, Assistant University Archivist, Princeton University

Steve Bingo

Bingo is a new professional with experience working as a term archivist at two different institutions. He is mostly satisfied with his experiences but there are some frustrations. He mentions the Goldman and Lausch survey of recent archival grads and their job search experiences, career satisfaction, satisfaction with archival education, and overall life satisfaction.

Bingo and his wife had to choose where to go to support his wife’s career, so he spent a while as a stay at home father. His first archival position included a 140-mile round trip commute, which was very difficult for his family life. It was a great job, but since it was contract there were no raises on his jungle gym (a reference to the Lean In session).

In his current position, Bingo’s supervisors engage in some big picture thinking and this has given him the opportunity to apply skills beyond just the job description. He has access to professional development funds and supervisory experience.

Liz Caringola

As a contract archivist, Caringola has stuggled with issues of documentation. Where does a contract archivist fit? Does he or she participate in committees or get raises? Supervisors at University of Maryland put in effort to find out for her, and her current role does include participating in things like committees. She hopes the benefits of that participation turn into a permanent position somewhere.

When an institution takes on a contract archivist, they should have an established policy for how that position functions. For example, Carignola accepted a salary she was told was non-negotiable, but later discovered that the grant was written for more salary than she got. Her supervisor had no idea. This illustrates the larger issue of institutions being unprepared for term positions.

She does give her supervisors a lot of credit for supporting her, and stresses that supervisors must know policies surrounding contract work and advocate for their contract employees. This helps contract archivists to focus on their work and know their value to the institution and profession. Supervisors should advocate for changes in policies where necessary and speak out because the contract archivists sometimes can’t.

Mark Greene

“Ask not what you can do for a repository, but what a repository can do for you.”

Greene had a recent experience employing several contract archivists on an NHPRC grant, who all got full-time positions afterwards (2 at his institution, 2 elsewhere).

He notes that contract archivists are owed more than “a paycheck, a reference, and a goodbye lunch.” The same care is required in hiring for contract positions as permanent jobs, and while contract positions can function as a good start for many careers, the quality of work produced should be the same as it would be in a permanent position. He allows term archivists to do things beyond what their job descriptions allow so that they have a wide variety of skills to bring to the table later on.

Grant archivists learn skills and collaboration techniques, and are often fresh out of school. To help facilitate the transition, he finds it useful to include contract archivists in departmental meetings, committee work, and staff meetings. He made sure to write the grant so that it included funds for professional development and raises.  He feels that this is key in helping contract archivists find full-time positions.

Dan Santamaria

Santamaria is just finishing a position at Princeton, but the best part of his job has been working with term staff.

A high percentage of term staff impacts the repository overall. Princeton is a great example, as all of the professional positions were temporary jobs until very recently. With the 4th largest endowment in the country, many people are surprised to learn that this is how Princeton runs things. In general, the institution gives reasons for this like “flexibility” or “efficiency.” If that’s the goal, the model of using mostly temporary archivists is a failure.

Santamaria has been on 30 search committees in the past 10 years. This is a cautionary tale, because:

  • It takes a lot of time and intellectual effort to hire people.
  • When people join the team it takes roughly 6 months to a year before people reach maximum efficiency in their work. People have to move, learn trust with the director and staff, and learn new systems.
  • Unfortunately, this left no path to advancement at Princeton
  • Santamaria fears that this term employment model creates a subclass of archival professionals.

In 2011 the entire Mudd staff turned over except 1 person. These were people who won awards from SAA for their work.

This has an effect on other archivists as well. No one benefits from widespread insecurity at work. It creates a separation between permanent archivists and term archivists. Those on permanent positions stay for a long time, but aren’t engaging with term archivists doing good work.

This uncertainty puts project archivists in a perilous position where they aren’t always able to push for change. Though all the term archivists he’s worked with have full-time positions now, he notes that term jobs used to be confined to a specific project or collection. Now the term jobs require critical thinking skills, time management, problem solving, and user relations skills. These qualities are difficult to find, and you should be able to hang on to people who have them.

Santamaria advises those in positions to offer project/term jobs not to accept those terms uncritically.

Alex Lorch

A grant = an employee, in many proposals. It feels great to be able to employ someone, and notes that it’s not always fresh graduates who work in term positions. A temporary project is not always equal to an entry-level job.

Lorch outlined his own career path from working a term job at Southern Methodist to working for Neiman Marcus and later the Library of Virginia. He had an advocate that helped him term a term job into a permanent position.

Now, as a program officer, he is in the position to offer some advice to those writing grants for term positions:

  • Write a job description that is specific to the project, not a canned description of duties.
  • Justify the salary based on comparable jobs.
  • Know that a project archivist may leave before the job is over.
  • Hiring for term positions often takes more work than a permanent job, and getting 100-200 applications is not uncommon.
  • Be aware of the side issues that will take up time.

Callahan asks if anyone has seen “baked in” requirements to make project archivists’ lives better?

Santamaria notes that Mudd has upped their efforts to integrate project archivists into the work of the repository rather than keep them segregated doing digitization projects. They justify this also as “program building.” The flip side: while project archivists get to be involved, there is a danger that when core functions are performed by temporary staff, they aren’t always prepared or compensated for that type of work.

Lorch notes that he likes to see staff involvement and professional development considerations on grant applications.

What do you suggest as term workers?

Bingo: It’s helpful to be able to see the different stages of a digitization project and understand more of the repositories’ functions.

Caringola: Professional development money is very useful. Also, having a relationship with your supervisor.

Callahan: As administrators, how do you build opportunities in your repository for decision-making?

Greene: There’s a fine line between engaging term employees in institutional work and having grant scope focus. The granting agencies can encourage this by letting repositories know that they can integrate term archivists into staff. He admits he’s avoided that integration in the past because he didn’t want to contradict terms of grant.

Callahan: Alex, what are the rules on that?

Lorch: The NHPRC doesn’t micromanage who you hire, but the hope is that the project will be sustainable after a grant gets it started. It’s implicit that a grant-funded archivist should be involved in the functions of the repository, but perhaps that isn’t as clear as it should be.

Audience Q &A:

Audience Member: As a person currently working on a grant-funded project, she’s used to hearing, “We’d love to keep you on, but…” She notes that institutional red tape stops the creation of a position even where there are funds available, because she can’t wait 2 years for paperwork to go through. Does the panel have any experience at a higher level that can help?

Callahan: It does take a lot of time and effort to create a project. Administrators can think about creating programs rather than projects, which require a great deal of effort in short-term funding and hiring.

Santamaria: Yes, he’s seen a lot of this, and he does feel personally responsible. But again, this point goes to the basics of advocacy. As a person doing hiring, you need to have a plan for what happens next.

Lorch: You do have to advocate for yourself and be “pleasantly persistent.” At the same time, always be looking. If you get a job offer but you’d rather stay at your term job in a permanent role, bring that offer to the table and see if they can offer you something.

Bingo: It’s sad that, as newer archivists, we are waiting for people to retire in many cases.

Callahan: Sure, maybe the idea of a 30-year career is gone, but that’s due to the casualization of labor, not because that model is necessarily best for the repository.

Audience member: Why not write into the grant that a part of the job is ensuring your own sustainability? That some of the time spent will be in writing future grants to sustain your project?

Audience Member: As a person who has just hired someone for a 3-year term job, how can she provide support and help her term archivist to future success?

  • Greene: Say you are willing to do so. Offer to review her CV and cover letter, or conduct practice interviews. Look into your own networks for jobs that are evolving but may not have been posted yet. Send notes to directors you think may be looking to hire. “Advocate within your network.”
  • Bingo: Wishes they would have asked what skills term people need to be better candidates.
  • Santamaria: Let them know that you don’t expect them to be there exactly 2 years just because that’s what the grant says.
  • Caringola: Have the employee bring in descriptions of permanent positions they’d like to have, and talk about the skills they’ll need to be good candidates for those jobs.

Summary by Gabrielle Spiers and Meghan Courtney


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