October 22, 2013 § Leave a Comment
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.
September 21, 2013 § 1 Comment
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.
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.
July 14, 2013 § Leave a Comment
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.
May 5, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I know the infrequency with which I update this blog is deplorable, but the semester’s just ended. Let me tell you about this semester. In addition to taking three classes, I had three jobs: my digitization assistant position, which I have blogged about before; a research assistantship; and, for two months, I also worked in my programs Admissions Office. It was an incredibly difficult semester, and I was exhausted to the point of tears most of the time. To be frank, though, in order to pay my tuition and live in an incredibly expensive city, I had to work this hard. I had drastically underestimated how much money I would need when I requested my loans last spring.
That’s the place I’m coming from in commenting on my friend Jan’s blog post “Thoughts on Interns in the Archives,” an excellent assessment of the archival profession’s dependency on free labor and the hardship this places on students. It has also been a topic of discussion on the Students and New Archives Professionals (SNAP) listserv. Most of the responses have been from very frustrated students who feel pressure to gain as much experience as possible, only to get taken advantage of and not have the experience translate to a full-time job. A couple of people seemed appalled that students would complain about the opportunities that internships offer. I wanted to reply, but I would rather participate in the discussion in a more anonymous way. This summer I will complete the second of my two required internships, and don’t want any of the people involved in that to think I am ungrateful. I’ve been very fortunate to have a great introductory internship experience, and am looking forward this summer’s project. While I have no complaints about the actual work, I also find the financial situation surrounding unpaid internships quite anxiety-making.
What’s disheartening is that at my program these two internships (one is 60 hours, the other 130) are required for the archives concentration, and very expensive not only in tuition costs, but in taking time away from when we could be working paid jobs. General track library students are not required to complete internships, and, if they do, the program doesn’t seem to mind if they get paid.
I worked a paid FT records management internship last summer, have archival volunteering experience, and have a PT archives job now (in addition to always working several non-archives PT jobs to help pay the bills). Many of my classmates have archives jobs, but we are still required to work two unpaid internships. My paid internship from last summer wanted to hire me again this year, but I had to decline since I’m not allowed to get both money and credit. Instead, I ended up paying $3387 out of pocket* in order to work the required, unpaid internship. It’s going to be great experience, and like I said I’m really looking forward to it, but it’s unfortunate that none of the other experience I have (paid or volunteer) could count toward this requirement.
I hope this doesn’t come off as whining about the unpaid internships, or that I’m reluctant to do work for free. We are very lucky to have the infrastructure in place to have two opportunities to gain experience and I have worked with great people and collections. Not everyone has been as fortunate as me, however, and I think it would be prudent of grad programs in the future to consider greater flexibility the types of experiences for which they award credit. The financial cost for graduate students to work without pay is high, though, and gets higher every year.
The reality of the situation is that I should be working another part-time job this summer to pay the bills, which I won’t be able to do because of this internship. (I’m also supposed to be completing research for my thesis, but I’m not quite sure when I will even have time to do that.) Instead, I will most likely clean out my savings account. In all honesty, I came to graduate school because I knew that my full-time job wasn’t going anywhere, and even though I have excellent grades from one of the best colleges in the country, I needed to further my education to find rewarding work. Library school has put me in three times as much debt as undergrad did, and even after all this free labor there are no guarantees I’ll find work even in the first year of my job search.
I hope my anxiety about this is understandable. I don’t know how the profession can ease its dependence on free labor, but in a way that’s not even the problem here. Nonprofit institutions will always need volunteers. However, LIS programs learn to recognize just how much money this experience is costing us. One of the responses to Jan’s post pointed out that if graduate education in library science is so expensive, then we are definitely losing out on a lot of amazing people who just can’t justify accruing over $100,000 in debt to maybe get a $40,000 salary. If our programs allow students to earn credit and money, perhaps the internship experience will not be so difficult.
January 13, 2013 § 1 Comment
Recently I started a new project at work, one which will require redaction as well as digitization. The collection contains letters sent to a nationally-syndicated advice column focused on young people, with a temporal scope of the late 1980s to the early 2000s. The bulk of the collection was processed traditionally and redacted on paper a few years ago, but we’re going to try digitizing an additional donation. Many of the letters are signed with pseudonyms — think of the letters to “Dear Abby” — but each letter will nevertheless require detailed reading and redaction of any identifying information. I think this is where I can finally use “accretion” in a sentence – the new accretion is two linear feet.
While there are plenty of letters about friendship and adolescence, there is also a lot of heavy stuff: sexual abuse, alcoholism, animal abuse, drugs, gangs. I find that I need to take a lot more breaks working with this material than I ever have with any other collection. And I did know I signed up for this; during my job interview we discussed that part of the experimental and innovative nature of the job would be finding better ways to process and deliver sensitive materials. The last collection I worked on, the clippings of a cultural historian focused on sexuality and gender, was full of salacious material but it dealt with acts between consenting adults. Some of the materials in this new collection are absolutely heartbreaking. They are also necessary.
One of my supervisors told me that the existing collection is used quite frequently by researchers. As difficult as processing this collection will be for me, I will be aiding in the delivery of this primary resource to researchers who may be working in child psychology, sociology, social work, or any other number of fields. It’s worth hoping that making this material available in its redacted form will allow people to gain an understanding of some of the terrible things young people can go through, and that the people in those areas of expertise can act accordingly. As archivists we can only hope that the information we make accessible is used toward some sort of justice.
Processing difficult or sensitive collections does not quite fit the romantic ideal of the work an archivist performs, does it? There’s the occasional historical scandal uncovered, but we rarely think about the truly tragic stories that archives may lay bare. In our effort to give agency to marginalized voices by stewarding new collections, we have to face the fact that often no voices are more marginalized than those of children. I’m interested in the intersection between history, archives, and activism, and I think working on this collection will help me develop as a stronger, more activism-driven archivist as well as provide a valuable resource for the public. Archiving with an activist’s perspective means doing the difficult work and treating the slivers of tragic stories with diligence and respect.
December 17, 2012 § Leave a Comment
I have a year until I graduate, and I’m already looking at job ads. Next December I will have two Master’s degrees, one in Archives Management and another in History. When I think about everything I have to accomplish in 2013, a year doesn’t seem so far away. Considering how many graduate school loans I’ll have to start paying off when I finish, I am going to have to work hard to get a full-time job soon after classes end.
There are some encouraging facts. My program has one of the highest rates of job placement in the country. Managing archivists have said that having a history degree will give me an advantage in the job market. I have a range of experience, from 19th century correspondence to clinical trial record management to digitization, and when I applied for six jobs at the end of the summer I got interview offers for five. So, fingers crossed.
However, my program maintains a pretty comprehensive jobs blog that has only posted 14 positions for professional archivists or records managers in the past four months. Given how competitive the field is, I have started to worry if I’m getting enough job preparation from my program. I read posts like this one at Hiring Librarian and get worried. Maybe I should be doing more on my own.
The way the archives program works in my school is that I have to take the following: five core LIS classes; an introduction to archives class with a 60-hour internship; records management; a class on archival access that deals with DACS, EAD, etc.; a preservation class; a longer internship with fewer class sessions (for which I still have to pay full tuition, which bothers me); and an elective. One elective. My program has a plethora of great classes I would love to take for that one elective. I’m interested in Rare Book and Special Collections Librarianship, The History of the Book, Art Documentation, Photographic Archives, and Digital Libraries, to name a few. Since I’m interested in special collections and conservation, all of these classes would be relevant to my education.
I guess I’ve just been frustrated with classes I’ve taken that could have packed more material into a semester but didn’t, when I could have been learning so much more. The DACS/EAD etc. class, for example, should be the curriculum component of the introductory internship class, which had paltry class material. I had an amazing internship that required me to write a MARC record and an EAD finding aid, so by the time I got to the class I already had that experience.
I’ve been working incredibly hard but am concerned it won’t be enough. When you put this much time and money (so much money, you guys) into graduate school, there is no room to faff about after graduation looking for a job. I’m looking to pick up more experience outside of my classes, but I’m frustrated to feel like the program I’m in might not be preparing me sufficiently. All I know is that I can’t slow down if I want to succeed.
October 29, 2012 § Leave a Comment
One of my professors refers to our class discussion and writing as “working.” The class is called Memory and the Holocaust, and I knew going into it that it would be one of the most important classes I would ever take. Studying the Holocaust is more than a litany of atrocities; it is an examination of how dynamic ideas of social hygiene, racial purity, and the value of life twist together and apart to result in the murders of at least 11 million people. The numbers are difficult to write, to fathom; moreover, working through ideas that are both complicated and horrible can be emotionally exhausting. But they are absolutely necessary, and I feel like a better historian–and a better citizen of the world–for having engaged in this class.
“For all his attention to my historical education, my father had neglected to tell me this: history’s terrible moments were real. I understand now, decades later, that he could never have told me. Only history itself can convince you of such a truth. And once you’ve seen that truth—really seen it—you can’t look away.”
– The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova
I have cried doing my reading, wanting to put my book or my blurry photocopies down and push these horrible stories from my head. I take breaks quite often. The other students in my class have expressed similar feelings. We press on in order to better understand. One of our first readings, Ian Kershaw’s The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems & Perspectives of Interpretation, quotes historian Wolfgang Sauer as arguing, “The term ‘understanding has, certainly, an ambivalent meaning; we can reject and still ‘understand.’”
Studying the Holocaust is more than an exercise in revulsion. The work is important because it acknowledges the horrors of the past as well as the present, and because it grants those horrors detailed analysis. Oversimplifying the Holocaust does no justice to the millions of people who died in it. Ideologies that may seem at first to have nothing to do with anti-Semitism actually influenced the march toward the Final Solution. Is there anything more important to try to comprehend than how and why genocide happens?
Beyond developing our skills of historical understanding, there is the question of what to do with this. I appreciate the concept of the activist-historian, and that is something with which I identify and wish to pursue. It’s unclear what historians are responsible for doing with their understanding, how we are supposed to apply it to modern life (or not). There are no answers to the question of how historians or citizens should respond and react to the Holocaust. Everyone should bear witness to atrocities that have happened and still happen, because everyone needs to feel the weight of history and human trauma. We can’t forget genocide or imperialism or oppression; we can’t relegate them to the backs of our memories. I think the most important thing is that we do not turn away.