What's the worst part of being an archivist?
August 18, 2008 11:02 PM   Subscribe

I'm thinking of going back to school to study public history, but I'm not sure what angle yet. Tell me all the juicy (read: horrible) details about being an archivist. The stuff I'm not likely to get from schools or job descriptions.
posted by Roman Graves to Education (10 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I am not an archivist, but when I was in university I worked part time as an archival assistant in the special collections department. I loved it and I learned a lot from it.

I think it depends on what type of material you're working with. For me, I worked in theatre archives, and various theatres would send boxes of things like house programs, photographs, newspaper clippings, set models, etc. and it was my job to take all the staples out (a lot of that job was actually staple removal), gluing down the articles on special paper with the special glue, and creating fonds (filing systems).

It was really interesting work, I learned TONS about the history of theatre in my area, and the time usually went by really fast because I could just listen to my walkman and cut, paste, remove staples and sort stuff.

The archivists themselves don't do this sort of thing, and a friend I used to work with back then went on to become an archivist and she seems to like it.

If possible, I'd recommend getting a job or volunteer position as an archival assistant as you'll be able to get a good feel for the environment and talk to the archivists.

For me, it opened up a whole new world of history in working with primary sources -- which you don't get to do a lot of the time when studying history.
posted by Flying Squirrel at 11:41 PM on August 18, 2008

I'm doing an archival internship right now -- which is great, in certain ways, but also something to think carefully about. Partly because it can get a little boring - a lot of what you (at least, a lot of what I do) is filing and organizing, which can be really fascinating, but also very tedious. Mostly, though, my objections stem from the fact that a lot of the work seems to be done in isolation -- even for the higher-ups in my department, there's very little interaction between offices, and it's not uncommon for whole days to go by in total silence, just going through the collections

This can be a great thing or a terrible thing, depending on your personality and need for social interaction. It's a fantastic job if you like really settling down and working through a project on your own -- I second all of Flying Squirrel's enthusiasm, there are a lot of really cool things about it that you won't find elsewhere, especially if you want to work with primary sources. On the other hand, it's an extreme level of "alone time," which some people may find hard to deal with. I certainly did - that's pretty much the only reason why I wouldn't consider doing it full-time.

Hope that helps! Good luck!
posted by puckish at 12:11 AM on August 19, 2008

I did an archival studies course last year (I'm a librarian). I was working on a building plans collection which required a lot of lifting and wrapping of old, dirty, enormous plans. Entire books of architectural drawings, and those things are huge. It got tiring having to move the darn things around, wrap them properly, clean them up, and do all the describing and labelling.

I think it definitely depends what your tolerance is for this sort of thing and whether you are interested in the materials. I spent a full week in a basement on my own with only an iPod to keep me company.

You may need a background other than archives if you want to work in film collections, or other specialised areas since a lot of the work besides the physical and description requires an advanced knowledge of the materials. It can be fascinating, but you have to love it. I really admire the dedication of archivists.
posted by wingless_angel at 12:19 AM on August 19, 2008

It's going to be difficult to get an archivist position without an MLIS.
posted by HotPatatta at 3:59 AM on August 19, 2008

Echoing HotPatatta: archivists are usually a subset of Librarians. I worked in public history, which was a lot of goddamn unprofessional volunteers that refused to take care of their collections. There's a lot of resistance to change and grant-grubbing.
posted by cobaltnine at 6:41 AM on August 19, 2008

A lot of the people who work in my office don't have MLSs, so I wouldn't worry about that. Having a masters in something (perhaps related to the subject of the archive) and a little experience should be enough.

What people said about archival work being pretty solitary, is true, while all the catch-phrase things about team work, probably hold true, in practice you're probably working without interaction for about 80% of the day. I'm at the bottom of the pecking order, and literally, I said Hi/waved at a couple of people, but otherwise didn't talk to *anyone* all day yesterday, and that wasn't particularly strange.

This is a good thing if you're introverted and/or like working alone. If you like closer interaction with people (co-workers/patrons) then maybe best to find either a really busy archive or one that is full/really organized.

That brings us to the second point of archival work: There's always something to do, always a dark pile of g-d-knows-what on a dark shelf that needs sorting, a finding aid to be constructed, materials to be transcribed and catalogued. Always. On the upside, most projects are pretty small, and deadlines tend to be pretty soft. If that sounds good, then rock on. If it doesn't, make sure the pace of the archive you happen to work at/for is to your liking.
posted by tychoish at 7:40 AM on August 19, 2008

It pays worse than other forms of librarianship, even public libraries. Which takes some doing.
posted by QIbHom at 10:27 AM on August 19, 2008

I work as a manuscripts curator in a large UK library -- I'm not a qualified archivist, but my job requires me to do a lot of the things that an archivist does.

Like any job, it has its good points and its bad points, but I'll concentrate on the bad points, since that seems to be what you want to know. A lot of my work is very repetitive and not very intellectually demanding: it consists of removing staples, inserting paperclips, sorting and labelling files and putting them into acid-free folders. I don't find this a problem as long as the material is intrinsically interesting (and it often is), but I do find it dispiriting when the material is of minor historical significance and there seems little justification for keeping it. My duty as an archivist is 'not to reason why', but to catalogue the material and make it available in the hope that someone, someday, will want to read it.

The compensation, of course, is when you unpack a box of documents, or untie the string around a bundle of letters, and realise that you've stumbled on something really interesting. That's what makes the job worthwhile. But it doesn't happen every day. Bear in mind, too, that the 'public history' aspects -- sharing and communicating with a wider audience -- may only be a small part of the job. I find that side of the job tremendously fulfilling and I'd love to do more of it -- but new stuff is coming in all the time and there's always more cataloguing work to be done ..

A lot depends on the type of archives you're working with. But if your image of 'being an archivist' is about deciphering the handwriting on a dusty eighteenth-century document, you may be in for a shock. (Such jobs do exist, but they're getting rarer.) Most archive work these days is done in large business and corporate archives and involves a whole new set of skills, e.g. familiarity with data protection issues. Anyone working on modern archives will also have to get used to working with digital files. I get my thrills from untying the string around a bundle of letters, but my successors will probably get their thrills from recovering corrupted files off a twenty-year-old floppy disk.
posted by verstegan at 1:52 AM on August 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. I'm not going to pick a best answer because these are all great, and hopefully they'll keep coming.
posted by Roman Graves at 2:39 AM on August 20, 2008

I'm one of those successors you're talking about verstegan. I'm interested in digital humanities and the long term preservation of electronic records. I just finished a postgrad diploma in archives management and am about to start a thesis with an archival theory-public history theme to it. Send me an email if you want to ask me some questions.

As for the negative aspects, I'm going to run out of town for this, but I really hate genealogy. Nothing bores me more than having someone browbeat me about the finer details of the De-Nazified domestic cats of London 1937-48 Register or how Great Uncle Monty single-handedly beat off an entire battallion of Karelian mosquitos during the Phony War back in 1940. I'm not sure what came first, whether I hated genealogy to start with, or grew to hate it after prolonged over-exposure to granny hunters. It could be an occupational hazard or could just be my own personal flavour of misanthropy. Just ignore me.

Have you read any Rosenzweig? Just thought of him because of your interest in public history. Scarcity or Abundance
posted by BAKERSFIELD! at 4:12 AM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

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