New City, New Archives

Against all odds, I seem to have landed myself an archives job.  Over the past six weeks or so, I’ve been pulling up my roots in Boston and finding a new place to live, leasing a car, packing, and moving.  As an information professional to my very bones, I managed this with a spreadsheet, of course.  I’m still in New England, but a bit farther south in Rhode Island, and will be a lone arranger.

When I was little I hated moving — we only did it once, and stayed in the same town, but as a particularly dramatic child I was attached to places and couldn’t imagine leaving my room, the huge pine tree in the back yard, or our big shed.  Since college graduation, I have moved twelve times, and I’m not getting any better at it.  My new apartment is starting to feel like home already though, and since I’ve left The Hub I have a lot more space to spread out and relax.

Kerosene lamps, circa 1973-1974

I broke my oil lamp while moving in. They’re very homey objects. (Image by David Falconer, courtesy of the U. S. National Archives on Flickr.)

Simplifying (a more elegant phrase than “decluttering and throwing out crap I don’t need) is always harder as an archivist, because you wonder if you’re inadvertently destroying a critical part of your personal documentary history.  Reorganizing my books in a new space poses new challenges, although I’ve never been devoted to organizing my personal library like some of my colleagues — like every bad reference story, I tend to remember my books by what color they are and their physical location.  It’s a relief knowing that I will most likely be here long-term, and can create a home for myself.

I’ve already gotten a library card, naturally, and have started exploring my new city, looking for organizations with which my small archives could partner.  This is a very culturally and historically rich area, and I’m not sure what kind of resources I will have to offer programming on my own.   At the NEA Spring Meeting last month, I was excited to learn about The RHODI Project and the opportunities such a network will provide for partnering and networking in a state where I hardly know anyone.  It’s going to be a challenging  job, and a lot of work, but I’m excited to get started next week.

As a Real Professional now, I don’t yet know what’s appropriate to discuss on my blog about my job.  It’s hard to strike a balance between personal and professional — too professional and the blog could get bland, too personal and I could come off as unprofessional or have problems with people I don’t want contacting me doing so.  (I may have hinted at this before — I had an unpleasant situation a few years ago where an estranged member of my extended family tracked me down online and started harassing me.)  Going forward, I’d like to keep using this blog to engage with other archivists, but I might start writing about other aspects of my life settling into my new home as well.  I don’t want to drift too far offshore in my subject matter, but I would also like to have reason to post more often without giving live updates of my work days.

I’ve also been thinking about changing the name of the blog, possibly to “historivist,” my Twitter handle.  I don’t know if buying a domain is worth it for me at this point, but “autoarchive” was not a well-thought-out name two and a half years ago.  Regardless of what happens on this blog, we can always talk archives on Twitter, or, since I have professional development support at my new institution, in person!

Redesigning My Archives Curriculum, Part II

Although I’ve been thinking about how best to rearrange the archives curriculum at my alma mater for some time, when I actually sat down to map out courses and assignments, it took me less than ten minutes.  I mapped out the courses and their major assignments and started drawing arrows.  The result is a three- to four-course concentration that is more rigorous and eliminates the work that I and some of my classmates found less rewarding.

These children look about as excited as I was during every grad school lecture.

“Counting-frames in classroom,” Nationaal Archief, Netherlands, Flickr Commons.

I haven’t taken out either of the internships, but I do think something needs to be done about the field’s dependence on unpaid labor. Archival science programs need to realize the power they have to put pressure on repositories to ensure students are not being exploited. I would like to see more service learning — for example, instead of encoding a fake finding aid, students could encode a real one for a repository outside of an internship — in the classroom, making class assignments more practical and making it less necessary to devote huge chunks of time to interning.

Here are my ideas for courses and some of my personal reasons behind them:

Introduction to Archives:  Including a short internship over the course of the semester, this class would introduce students both to archival theory and to archival standards like EAD, MARC, and DACS.  Ideally, students would process a real collection and write a finding aid as part of their internship, but as long as students process something real (even if it’s their own papers), I think it’s more valuable than a group project that processes a fake collection.  My experience was that during my first internship I wrote an EAD finding aid before I took the separate class on Archival Access, so I do not see a reason why these two classes should be separate.

Preservation Course: Students can choose a preservation concentration, whether it’s general preservation management, digital stewardship, etc. I think archival programs need to include conservation in their curricula as well. While professional conservators often have science backgrounds, it would be useful for students to know the basics of conservation because they might be lone arrangers or working in repositories without the resources to hire a professional conservator. I was really interested in learning a little about conservation for my 130-hour internship, but was told by the head of the internship program, “conservation is not an archival activity.”

Repository and Records Management: I have a lot to say about this. Such a class would combine the archives management and records management courses. Since records management usually deals with materials generated in-house, I think it makes sense to include that in a course about managing an archive. (I still think “an archives” sounds absurd; sorry, America.) Both of these classes as I took them involved a ton of group work based on fake scenarios, and I think combining them would get rid of some of the cat-herding and schedule witchcraft that come with group projects.

In the archives management class I took, we completed an NHPRC Basic Processing Grant, and the emphasis was on following instructions rather than innovative solutions. As someone interested in digitization who wants to put her archival technology skills into a career, I found this to be a pointless exercise. It would be much more useful and engage students more creatively if they could choose the NHPRC grant they wanted to write. To be honest, I felt that the motivation behind assigning the same grant under one of a handful of scenarios to everyone was to make them easy to grade, not to teach us how to solve problems. (I also think this is the motivation behind group projects. Yes, we need to learn how to work in groups, but unlike in a real workplace, in a group project you can’t fire lazy people.) The class I took also had a strategic planning project based on a scenario, and that is a very useful skill to have. Keeping that group project but eliminating the records management group project would be effective. The current events in records management presentation was kind of fun, and a better use of time than lectures or the business films from the 80s (like this and this) we watched in my archives management class.

Advanced Internship: First, I’d like to say that this should be optional. General-track library science students are not required to work an internship, so I think it’s ridiculous to require the archive students to work one, especially if they already have part-time jobs in archives. At the very least, it should be easier for working students to fulfill the requirements for the course without taking on more work. Furthermore, if a site wants to pay a student, that should be allowed if it’s legal in that state; for the library science internship course, payment is at the discretion of the site, but the archives program won’t allow paid work. (Personal note: I had to turn down an guaranteed offer for a paid summer internship because I was not allowed to get paid during the advanced internship.) I also think 130 hours is a lot of time to work for free, and perhaps a smaller number of hours would be more manageable.

As the course exists now, the class meets three to four times a semester. Two of the classes I attended were dedicated to how to write a résumé and how to conduct oneself during a job interview — basic things like showing up on time and not dressing provocatively. I envision class time being used more productively to discuss developments in the field as well as internship experiences. In addition to weekly journal entries and the experience paper, the other major assignment should be the literature review that students currently write as part of the introductory course. This assignment would be a lot more meaningful if completed later in the program.

Of course, this is just based on my experience as a student, and this post is just a thought-exercise.  I have no background in education or archival pedagogy, but I think these seem pretty sound.  A Master’s program with an archives management concentration could reduce the number of required classes but keep the same number of credits, allowing students to specialize through electives and enter the field with greater knowledge related to their professional interests, whether those interests are technology or art or copyright or cultural heritage.  I’m interested to hear from other students, professionals, or even instructors about the proliferation of requirements and if any of my suggestions would make sense.

Redesigning My Archives Curriculum, Part I

Applying for jobs has shown me just how much I don’t know about the present and the future of the archives profession.  It’s been frustrating for me and for my friends in similar situations.  I believe in professional development, continuing education, and lifelong learning, but I also wonder what I spend the past two and a half years doing if not gaining basic competency for the field.  There were plenty of classes I desired to take, especially technology and cultural heritage courses, that I could not fit in because the archives concentration only allowed for one elective.  At the same time, since I worked in special collections and archives before and during grad school, my concentration did not seem like it introduced that much new knowledge.


This linear foot of paper represents the past two and a half years of my life and the foundations of my career.

I noticed midway through my program that many courses were spread thin.  From week to week there might not be that much reading, and there were only a handful of assignments over the semester.  Often classes were dismissed early.  There simply was not enough course material to generate 12 weeks of three-hour class sessions.  As an alum of a rigorous liberal arts school (as well as of a state post-graduate certificate program), this was certainly a change of pace.  While at times I appreciated the lightened workload because I was also employed and taking intense history classes, I also wondered why I was paying over $3000 for a class.  The curriculum definitely could have been more effective.

After a recent conversation with a friend who graduated from my cohort and who took the same classes as me — and who is not working a traditional archives job — I decided to go ahead with the thought-exercise of redesigning the archives curriculum I had to fulfill.  Below are a list of required archives courses (not including required general-track LIS courses) and the major assignments for each.  This post would be far too long if I also included a proposal for how to change them, but that will come next.  From this list of courses you can probably figure out where I went to school, but I’m not out to create a PR problem for my alma mater by making my dissatisfaction Web-searchable.

  • Introduction to Archives.  This class includes a 60-hour internship.  Aside from weekly journal entries and two short papers about this internship, students also write an 8-10 page literature review on an archives-related topic and work in groups to process a very small fake collection and write a text-based finding aid.
  • Archival Access and Use.  In this course, students learn the practical side of archives — writing textual and EAD finding aids, MARC records for fake archival collections, etc.
  • Preservation course.  There are a few options for this.  I took Digital Stewardship because I am interested in digital archives and digital humanities.  That class in particular required a lot of work, and assigned frequent practical exercises involving data curation technologies and file migration in addition to a large group project related to digital preservation.
  • Records Management.  Geared toward the corporate side of archives and large, modern, and changing collections, this class assigned three business memos responding to mock scenarios and a group presentation solving a records management problem.  Students also gave individual presentations on a current events topic related to records management.
  • Archives Management.  There is a much longer title for this course, but I always called it “archives management” because archives students have the option of replacing the library management class required for all students with this course.  The major assignments were interviewing an archives manager, writing an 8-page paper about it, and presenting on the interview; writing an NHPRC Basic Processing grant for a fake archival collection scenario; and working in a small group to create a strategic plan to accompany the fake archival scenario.
  • Advanced Archival Internship.  Because this internship requires 130 hours, the class only meets 3-4 times during the semester to discuss student experiences, how to write résumés and cover letters, and how handle job interviews.  The only assignments are weekly journal entries and a brief response paper at the end of the term.
  • Archives, History, and Collective Memory.  This class is only required for students in the dual-Master’s Archives/History program. Each week was on a different topic — monuments, images, etc. — and in addition to brief weekly response papers, students wrote a book report (yes, a book report) on a novel or popular history and participated in a group project on something related to collective memory.

In case you’re counting, that is 190 hours of free labor and at least nine projects organized around fake or mock collections scenarios.  Additionally, it is very easy to go through this program without taking any classes that deal with technology in archives or digitization.  A basic technology class is required for all students, and Records Management discusses electronic records somewhat, but any student who wants to be an archivist from 1975 can do so.  I do have quite a few ideas on how to consolidate these assignments into tighter, more rigorous classes, allowing more space in the program to diversify our education and skills, which will follow in another post.  I’m curious how other grad students, archivists, and professionals react to this list and how it compares to their educational experiences.


Saul Leiter,

Saul Leiter, “Paris, 1959,” via Fifty One Fine Art Photography

Tomorrow I’m submitting my Master’s thesis to the History Department, unsure whether it is actually done or whether I’m just tired of looking at it. So much writing these past few weeks — I’ve been clacking away at the public library, to the point that I should probably start sending a portion of my rent check there.

I presented my thesis last week, as we don’t have a formal defense, and my father was able to come down to see me explain what on Earth I’ve been doing for the past eight months. One of my skills is making visually-appealing PowerPoint presentations, so it went quite well.  Mostly I was glad to get it over with, just as I will be glad to turn in “Lady Adventurer as Imperialist” tomorrow.

I had thought that on the eve of my last action as a graduate student I would feel differently than I do, perhaps something akin to what I felt when I turned in my undergraduate honors project or the the night before I graduated from college. Instead, I just feel deflated.

This semester took a lot out of me, even though there have been other semesters where I worked full-time and went to school full-time, too. It was the semester I lost my patience, the semester I was unable to respond with warmth to my students or colleagues. I’m so glad it’s all behind me, that I can close the book on two and half years of what has not been a great experience and try to start something new.

An open future should be very exciting, but it is also daunting. The job market, of course, has not improved. (I recently saw a job listening that stated up-front it would require regular evenings and weekends in addition to 40 hours a week for not-so-stellar pay.) Something will turn up, people keep telling me, and I’m sure it will. I might just be living off boxed mac ‘n cheese for awhile. A friend and I have a lot of crafts planned, and I’d quite like to get back to a different sort of writing, having not touched any of my fiction in some time. (It’s too bad NaNoWriMo isn’t in the spring!) Experiencing this kind of financial instability in a city as expensive as Boston is not sustainable, and I’m worried about how I’m going to deal with my hefty student loan payments when I don’t have a full-time job. Like a Victorian waif with a pen, I will shiver out the winter in my bedsit hoping to find work and scribble away at a novel in the meantime.

The holidays will be a good time to recharge and clear my life of a lot of the bad feelings I’ve been harboring. I made it; now I need to learn how to really be happy about it.

Embracing Uncertainty

Last weekend, I left my map at home.  I was headed to the finish line of the BAA Half-Marathon to support a friend, and once I got off the Orange Line at Forest Hills I wasn’t sure where to go.  As I often do before visiting an unfamiliar area, I had drawn myself a map the previous night.  Unfortunately, that map remained on my desk when I left the house for the day.  When I emerged on the street, a runner told me he was going to meet his daughter and run with her for the end of the race and asked where he ought to go.  I wasn’t sure and hoped I pointed him in the right direction.

Why didn’t you use Google Maps?  you’re probably thinking.  Why didn’t you look any of this up?

I’m one of the only people I know without a smart phone.  Using the same slow (but indestructible!) “dumb phone” for the past two years isn’t intended to be a statement.  I’ve never been scared of technology, so I suppose that means I ended up in the right profession.  I tried to get one once, solely so I could have maps and check just how late my deplorable bus is going to be, but my carrier in Maine doesn’t own any towers down here in the big city and so my data plan would have been restricted to too small an amount to make the smart phone worth it.

And so I draw maps and learned to navigate the city with my wits.  I learned to wait for the bus.  I read books on public transportation (sometimes on my Nook, just to prove I’m not a complete Luddite).  I have to remind my friends constantly that my text inbox fills up quickly and that my phone freezes when I get group texts or too many texts in a row.

Last weekend, I followed other spectators and we asked each other about the route instead of all looking for the answers online.  I had to actually try to remember the map I’d drawn and compare it to my surroundings.  In a small way, I was embracing the uncertainty of whether I was going in the right direction or what time I would get there.  I hesitate to declare that smart phones are the end of society, but videos like I Forgot My Phone and The Innovation of Loneliness raise questions about how we interact with technology and with each other.  Do we really want machines mitigating all of our experiences?  I roll my eyes whenever I see someone wearing Google Glass — is being outside with other human beings not enough?  Are we taking in too many things without experiencing any of them fully?

Not having a smart phone is an inconvenience, but it also makes it harder to ignore what’s in front of me, to waste time, or put off face-to-face encounters with text-based ones.   Someday I will probably get a smart phone, and as a result worry less about getting lost or spending half an hour waiting for the bus.  In the meantime, though, I have to accept situations I cannot control.  Embracing the uncertainty of not having immediate answers is a good lesson for life, too — not just getting around without Google Maps or Facebook in my hand.  Very little in my life and career feels stable right now, and I need to accept that uncertainty rather than resist it.


Not an Edifying Post: Some Frustrations as I Conclude Graduate School

I realized yesterday that I barely remember how to write a finding aid.  Since this is one of the core competencies of being an archivist, I was a little worried.  And since I’ve racked up about $100,000 in student debt paying for grad school to become an archivist, I also wondered what on Earth I’ve been learning over the past two years.

Is all this studying going to translate to real success?  Library scene in Goshen College Library, March 1948. Courtesy of Mennonite Church USA Archives via Flickr Commons.

You’re probably wondering how I got to this point.  At my archives job — which is awesome, innovative, and friendly — I don’t write finding aids.  I digitize collections; I create metadata; I build databases.  I’ve encoded exactly two EAD finding aids in my life.  The first was during my introductory archives internship a year and a half ago, where I worked on a beautiful collection under a great supervisor and wrote a finding aid long before I had to do it in class.  Later, I encoded a finding aid for an assignment for an online class.  And that’s it.  I was supposed to write one for the internship I had this summer, but neither the internship nor my program (which reviews, assigns, and signs off on all this free labor we do) thought that perhaps processing a 50-foot collection and writing a finding aid might be too much work for a 130-hour project.  I’m sure there are aspiring archivists in my program who have never used EAD except for that one assignment in that one class.

Perhaps I sound bitter and ungrateful, or like a bad student.  (As it happens, I have a 3.94.)  I’m just having a hard time, as my graduation looms a mere three months ahead, coping with the financial strain I’ve taken on to try to become an archivist.  I believe that my program stretches out very little content over too many required classes, leaving only one elective (two, for newer students, since the program is now more credits) to specialize or develop knowledge in an area of interest.  If I could have taken more electives, maybe I would feel qualified to apply for jobs in libraries, too.  But I don’t; I’ve taken too many classes with no academic rigor, done too many messy group assignments and too few projects that I could put in a portfolio.

I’ve worked a lot, but since my program has not given me a cent of funding I’ve had to take jobs that pay rather than resume-builders.  While I have worked very hard to develop an array of experiences in records management and the digital humanities, my program — the actual classes I attended — have done next to nothing to prepare me.  I can count the number of truly useful classes I’ve taken on one hand.  None of them, notably, were required archives classes.

So maybe I’ll end up an archivist, but it’s much more likely that I won’t.  It’s frustrating to remember how, at the first information session I attended two and a half years ago, program representatives lauded how strong The Field was and handed out sample jobs and salaries of recent graduates; this summer, the professor who heads up the internship program very frankly told us that we could expect the search for a full-time job to take six months.

I have a great love for archives, libraries, and the information profession.  In grad school and its related experiences I’ve met some wonderful, intelligent people with big ideas.  I wonder, though, if this was all worth the money and the two and a half years of nonstop work it will have taken me to earn two Master’s degrees.  Given the job market I’m looking at, I don’t see myself much better off than I was four years ago when I graduated with my Bachelors’s.  I see myself sort of bouncing around trying to find a job, not building a career. Despite my program’s high U.S. News & World Report ranking, I’m not confident in the archival education I received.  It’s scary to think about the commitment I’ve made to grad school and this profession and wonder if it will pay off at all.  So I may sound bitter or angry, but I’m really just scared.

Looking back at THATCamp Libraries & at Publishing

Back in February, I attended my first “unconference,” THATCamp Libraries 2013.  It was an amazing experience, adapting to news, ideas, and even the weather.  I had been asked to write a review of it for an online, open-access archives journal, and even though I was swamped with three classes and three jobs, I did so.  The article went through peer review, and I ended up gutting it to focus only on archives-related activities and conversations I had that day; my biggest lesson from THATCamp, though, was that libraries, archives, and museums (and galleries!  GLAMs!) have a lot to learn from one another.  The article still got rejected for not providing enough analysis, which was incredibly frustrating and discouraging, especially since I had been invited to write the review and the unstructured and varied nature of an unconference makes it difficult to analyze consistently (and in 500 words).  In addition to the conversations described below, I also attended sessions on social media and gaming that just didn’t fit the review guidelines.  I still wanted to share my review, though!

Collaboration turns a group of information professionals from an array of fields into colleagues over the course of a day. THATCamp Libraries, a “The Humanities And Technology Camp” in which attendees propose and choose unstructured sessions, was held at Simmons College on February 23. The “unconference” format produced a wide-ranging and timely slate of sessions in which all attendees had the opportunity to speak, share their work, ask questions, and tackle problems together. Of particular relevance to archives were a morning workshop on digital scholarship and afternoon session on improving and developing GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, museums) workshops.

In a morning workshop called Building Collections to Support Digital Scholarship, archivist Ian Graham from Wellesley College presented several digital humanities projects. The first collection, the high-profile Browning Letters, was digitized and made available through a partnership with Baylor University. Another project involved creating an Omeka digital collection of the letters of American sculptor Anne Whitney (1821-1915). Wellesley found pedagogical value in digitizing a collection so that faculty could teach it and then involving students in the collection’s description process. The students added to the collection by providing their transcriptions to the files using community transcription tool Scripto, and used these primary sources in their coursework. Although this workshop was part of the day’s structured presentation component, everyone present had the chance to speak and ask each other questions about digitization concerns at their institutions, such as software, privacy, and even reading nineteenth-century penmanship.

This enthusiasm for student involvement in archives continued in an afternoon session focused on building better GLAM workshops. Academic librarians, archivists, and museum professionals exchanged strategies for building worthwhile learning experiences, such as creating a “takeaway”—such as a handout, a Zotero library, or a new skill—for the audience during the instruction session. Session participants from a range of backgrounds agreed on the need for interactivity and encouraging users to come back for continued research. Some of the ideas generated included library and archive team teaching and problem-based archives learning through interpretation of primary sources. Archives can move beyond giving a basic tour or perform show-and-tell by engaging students in problem-based primary source learning or working on an ongoing project that adds value to the archive.

Several attendees, including a few archivists, gave two-minute Lightning Talks, showcasing new projects or collections to all attendees. A few examples of new digital humanities projects were the Fairfield Museum and History Center and University of Southern Maine Franco-American Collection online exhibits, and the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Adams Timeline. These talks were also an opportunity for attendees to present a question about their project, inviting collaboration.

THATCamp Libraries provided in-person and online exchange for archivists, librarians, and other attendees. Archives can learn from teaching strategies of librarians and museum professionals to engage users rather than becoming sites of “show and tell.” Additionally, by developing technical resources for archival collections that promote use and make it convenient, archives can increase their relevance to their institutions and communities.