How do I find a career mentor in the archives/preservation field?
July 19, 2014 4:10 PM   Subscribe

I've had difficulty finding a career mentor in the archives/preservation field because of a lack of local resources and the fact that I obtained my Masters degree online, which was rather 'alienating' and didn't really allow for the kind of student-professor relationship that blooms into recommendation letters and networking. Are there ways of seeking out (real, committed) mentors either online, or in my area (northern Virginia/Washington DC), preferably involving me providing volunteer work?

I recently obtained my Masters in Archives, Preservation and Records Management from a prestigious university in said field, but I obtained the degree through their online program. It was no less rigorous than it was for on-site students, and online students were expected to spend one weekend on campus per semester for a special weekend class session in which you met with your fellow online students and your professors.

Sadly, the archives program decided not to participate in these on-site sessions after the first two (the rest of the library program still brought their online students to campus). Although my grades were very good, I never built that close relationship with any of my professors (or even TAs or fellow students) that I know I would have had we all been in a physical classroom together during those two years.

I recently tried to volunteer at my local library's archival room for local history, but that turned into a disaster because it was being run by a set of people who were more concerned with a non-archives project at the time and were not receptive to my offers to provide volunteer (free!) assistance with many of the archival projects they had in need of serious work - i.e. transcribing oral history audio recordings, writing up finding aids to assist researchers, conducting preservation surveys to determine what preservation needs existed for their books, microfilm and other collections.

My understanding is that when you volunteer, the organization is expected to help find you work that not only helps them, but also helps YOU the volunteer achieve your personal end goals for your career or other objectives. This is unlike a paid position, where you'd obviously have to do whatever project they ask you to do because they're paying you to do it. A volunteer relationship should be more reciprocal. In my case, it was not and so I passed on it.

I just feel lost - I've got my degree, but no practical work experience (I work in a professional but completely unrelated field) and I'm very eager to do whatever practical work experience I can find. I applied last night for a volunteer position as an archivist for a local opera that may or may not work out, but I'd still like to know what other options I have to find a rewarding volunteer experience in the archives (my personal interest is audio/film preservation and conservation) or, better yet, a mentor who can guide me on what I need to do to bulk up my practical experience/resume and also act, potentially, as a reference for me when applying for positions.
posted by nightrecordings to Work & Money (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
My understanding is that when you volunteer, the organization is expected to help find you work that not only helps them, but also helps YOU the volunteer achieve your personal end goals for your career or other objectives. This is unlike a paid position, where you'd obviously have to do whatever project they ask you to do because they're paying you to do it. A volunteer relationship should be more reciprocal.

I absolutely cannot speak to the way that this tends to work out in libraries, although I have been a volunteer at several museums and other kinds of arts and cultural organizations. That said, your expectation that an organization would try to align volunteer projects with each volunteer's "personal end goals" seems highly unrealistic to me. There simply isn't the infrastructure for that at many places. As a volunteer, you kind of have to roll with whatever the organization and its paid staff have decided are priorities, and that's often fungible work - physical labor/repetitive tasks, or managing small projects or special events.

The description of what you're looking for sounds more like a formal internship opportunity. The kind of reciprocity that you're describing is implicit in such positions - it's meant to benefit the organization, since you're a junior colleague in their field (and often working for free), but you're taking on that work with the expectation that you'll gain professional experience and (hopefully) contacts. Although it's not always the case anymore, you'd probably have much closer contact with a professional mentor than if you were a volunteer.

Since you're in DC/NoVA, you're close to lots of larger museums and historical organizations that have established internship programs. For example, it looks like the Library of Congress has a number of internships available that are explicitly geared towards people with library experience, rather than a general pool of volunteers. One of the Smithsonian Units might be looking for an intern with your expertise. (I'm sure there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other libraries and historical organizations I'm overlooking here, but you get the idea.)

Another thought - does your program have an alumni network of some kind? Archives/preservation jobs often involve national searches, and you may find an alum or two has ended up in your own backyard, even though the program's home base is far away.
posted by Austenite at 6:08 PM on July 19, 2014

The Society of American Archivists has a mentoring program. I would guess that the DC area would also have some local archivists groups. So also check any of those out.
Alternatively you could join some of their email lists that cover audio and/or film and try getting in touch with some of the people who post there and sound interesting to you to see if they could do some informal mentoring.
And I agree with austenite that it sounds more like you want an internship.
posted by grapesaresour at 6:13 PM on July 19, 2014

Do you know about ARSC? You should think about joining. It's worth it just to get ARSC Journal twice a year, but if you can attend the annual conference (for 2015 it's in Pittsburgh) you will get to meet a bunch of sound archivists personally, as well as audio professionals and private collectors like me. For first-time attendees, travel grants are available, and there's a mentoring program. If everything works out I'll be giving a paper in Pittsburgh, and I hope to see you there.
posted by in278s at 6:30 PM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Smithsonian has a number of archives. You can see a list of them here. Most all of them will have web pages with contact information. Look them up and see if any are of interest to you, then contact those directly and ask about internships and volunteer opportunities. A number of them will have audio and film holdings.
posted by gudrun at 7:09 PM on July 19, 2014

First, I was an archivist in the DC area, but was unemployed for awhile and now I'm doing semi-related work as a consultant and trying to get back in. As you are likely aware the job situation is not great (and I went to school in the area and had a few internships/volunteer experiences as well as 3 professional grant funded term positions, so I say this as someone with experience in the field). I've had one positioned where I supervised a few interns and volunteers and one thing that you might not be aware of is that volunteers can be a lot of work for supervisors/institutions as they can require lots of supervision and/or instruction before they be useful. This is especially true if you are trying to provide the with type of meaningful experience that you understandably desire. The "cost" for free help is time and in this era of downsizing and funding cuts, time is a precious commodity so you're going to have to sell yourself as harder or harder as anyone seeking a paid position, as unfair as that may be.

I would agree that you would be better served in an internship, particularly at a large institution ----such as the Smithsonian or NARA--that already has an infrastructure in place to handle them. It's really unfortunate that you missed out on summer internships, as this is when there are the most opportunities and assuming that you graduated this spring, you would have been eligible. That being said, you might try lining up something one for the fall; I think that NARA might be your best bet for year-round internships.

Also, if you haven't signed up for it already and can swing it financially, SAA annual meeting/conference is in DC next month. This would be an opportunity noy only to network, but also sign up for and meet-up with a mentor. They are also taking requests for career counseling appointments.
posted by kaybdc at 7:34 PM on July 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

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