Preface: I was asked to give a short presentation as a part of a “alternative careers with a history degree” panel session at a Phi Alpha Theta conference in Feb 2011. The following is NOT that presentation. It’s all the clutter I had to get out of my head before I wrote something a little more appropriate to the occasion. You have been warned.
Oh, and as it turned out? A few of the professors in the room ended up getting a little verbal (defensive, snarky, call it what you will) because as a panel we ignored the option of becoming post-secondary history educators. Apparently the purpose of the luncheon session hadn’t been explained thoroughly to everybody in the room. But since it ended up in a good discussion, who's to say that was bad?
I am not an Architect.
I am occasionally an anarchist, but that is more about my personal opinions than about my professional life.
I am an Archivist. Not Ark-ive-ist, Ark-iv-ist.
I am NOT a librarian. Librarians, while generally a swell bunch of people with whom I associate frequently, do not do what archivists do. Neither do museum curators, and by the way, they’re a lot of fun to hang out with as well.
So now that I’ve told you what I’m not, let’s talk about what it is that I do. I work with original, unique, one-of-a-kind information resources not only to preserve them, but more importantly, to provide access to them. And since that’s possibly the world’s most boring elevator speech since Walter Mondale was Vice-President, let me change approaches.
What do I do? I get to watch people’s home movies, read diaries, look through photographs, review divorce case files, and at no point do I actually have to write or publish a learned paper on any of those things, though I have done that as well. I get to work with the raw materials of history on a daily basis. I go out and convince people to donate these materials to the Archives, I care for these materials, I provide descriptions of the materials, and I assist researchers in identifying and using the primary sources they need to complete their research. The work that I do not only makes it possible for historians to do the work that they do, but also for researchers in many other fields, like medicine, anthropology, vulcanology, economics, law, and education to name just a few of the researcher types I've worked with over the past few years. My decisions about what to collect and what not to keep may have ramifications for any study of the past for many years to come.
So now you’re saying: great! Power, money, and reading love letters on work time! And all with a history degree! Where do I sign up?
As you might guess, it’s not quite that simple. While you can get archives-related jobs with an undergraduate degree in history, you’re probably not going to be able to get a job that pays well enough to survive on. Though you probably won’t need a doctoral degree, a masters with a focus in archives is pretty much required for most professional positions.
Let me take this to the negative, for just a moment. I suspect a lot of people went into archives for all the wrong reasons. For some, there’s a lot of romance in the idea. They thought that they were going to get to “touch the stuff of history.” Or that they’d spend all their time fiddling around with little pieces of Japanese paper fixing rips in Renaissance manuscripts. I’m almost certain that some archivists I’ve met got into the profession because they thought it would allow them to hide at the back of the house and never again have to deal with another human being.
None of those things are true. The stuff of history? Probably has mouse droppings or mold on it, depending on where it was stored before it came to the archives. The Renaissance manuscripts? Mostly nobody even gets to touch those, much less effect repairs, not to mention that most places don’t have a lot Renaissance-era documents and can’t even support a part-time professional paper conservator and the job opportunities for conservators are getting thinner and thinner on the ground (it’s not exactly like they’re making more old manuscripts. Well, outside the forgery market, anyhow). The people who want to hide? Wrong job. Really, really wrong job. Most archives out there are 1-5 person shops. Chances are, some part of your job will involve working with the public, since access is, or should be, the primary mission of any archives. And if you’re in a big enough organization that you can specialize to a degree where you don’t have to work with the public? That just means that you have tons of co-workers about.
As you can probably tell, I’m not much of a romantic, at least when it comes to my career. There, pragmatism has to win out. Look, I love my job and most days I’m pretty good at it. For me, it was the right choice and about 18 years after entering the profession, I’ve got the job I always wanted. I’m working with the types of collections with which I want to work, I’ve created a wonderful team of workers in my department. I have a lot of support from my administration. Of course, it helps that I get regular grants and last year pulled in the single largest monetary donation the library has ever received. I get to teach when I want, but I don’t have to teach things I don’t want to teach. I have great, collegial relationships with my fellow archivists all over the state and we work together to strengthen our collections instead of fighting over them. I get to work on great projects like the Alaska’s Digital Archives. I’m being paid well and, I’d argue, appropriately to my level of expertise, experience, and responsibility. But it also took me over a decade and a half to hit this point. And despite being a professional archivist and having the title of head of Archives and Special Collections, there are those days when most of my day is spent shaking out boxes in hopes that dead mice—or worse, live spiders—don’t land on my feet. Or moving thousands of pounds of boxes of paper or photographs or films, 50 pounds at a time.
Here I’ll make you an offer. If you’re interested in remaining in the history field—to a point—but you don’t want to teach, you don’t want to have to write lengthy essays on the futility of engaging in a land war in Asia, and you don’t want to grade anybody else’s paper on the futility of engaging in a land war in Asia, but you like working with people, you like working with documents whether textual, photographic, or otherwise, you may want to consider Archives as a career field. Would you like some direct exposure to what it is archivists do? Consider doing a short-term volunteer project with us. We can sit you down with a small collection and our template for a collection description and work with you to have you write up a finding aid to a collection, or we can have you digitize some university photographs and write up the description that goes with the image online. Or you can work with one of our bigger collections and do some of the rehousing, or indexing, or folder level listings to expand the description we already have. You can get an idea for the types of materials Archives collects and what some of the day-to-day work entails. If that sounds like something you’d like to do, get in touch. We can probably figure something out.