From Student to Professional

This post originally appeared on the SAA Students and New Archives Professionals Roundtable Blog in their “Transitions” series, “which highlights the experiences of recent graduates and early career archivists.”

I graduated from the MSLIS program at Drexel University, with a concentration in Archives, in December of 2013. About 6 months later, I found myself gainfully employed (although temporarily) as a Project Archivist with the National Park Service in Anchorage, Alaska. My move from student to new professional, while rife with the standard issues we all face, was also compounded with issues of moving roughly 4,000 miles away from almost everyone I know and all the support structures I had built for myself over the years. Luckily, the education and preparatory experience I had in Philadelphia gave me a solid foundation to succeed in this new adventure.

I came to the archives field late in life. In my “youth,” I earned degrees in music performance and spent much of my 20s and early 30s working as a freelance cellist in various locales. As I begin to question the future and what I could see myself happily doing for the rest of my life, but in a more stable environment, I began to look at Library Science as a perfect option.

Fast forwarding to about three months before graduation, I had just begun work as an Archives Processor with the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL) Hidden Collections project. This was the perfect environment to learn real-world processing skills and put all the theoretical knowledge I had learned at school to work. In this collaborative environment, working with other students near graduation and under the direction of a remarkable supervisor and mentor, we all gained skills that will serve us well throughout our professional careers. Taking that position was a leap for me. I left a full-time job with great benefits for a part-time job with none in the hopes that it would help pave the road for a career in my new profession. It turned out to be one of the best choices in my life. If you are a student currently, I urge you to seek out situations where you can work with people that will teach and challenge you wherever possible. Attaining the degree alone is not enough.

Thanks in large part to the work with PACSCL, I was hired for my position in Alaska. This was another huge leap that I felt I had to take. It was a great position that would give me further experience in the field and it was a bit of an adventure. As a musician and a rather independent person, I’d become somewhat of a gypsy – moving from place to place and never really feeling like staying put, so I thought, “What the [heck],” and said yes.

My position in Anchorage is basically a processing archivist. I’m working through all the records (close to 200 linear feet) of the largest national park in America. I’m using the principles of minimal[i] and maximal[ii] processing to streamline the way the park service here has traditionally cared for its paper records. Thanks to these more efficient processing ideals, I’ve been able to process all of the park’s records rather than roughly half of them, as was originally proposed. Additionally, I’ve also gotten to do some accessioning, budgeting, forecasting, and reference work while here. Working as somewhat of a “lone arranger” has also allowed me to take more responsibility for arrangement and description decisions, given me more project management experience, and increased the trust I have in my own instincts. So, all-in-all, the experience I’ve gained has been wonderful.

There are, of course, some downsides. Though I work with others in the Cultural Resources department, I am the only archivist on staff here. My supervisor is very knowledgeable and helpful, but for certain issues of processing and preservation, I generally find myself turning to colleagues from Philadelphia and beyond. By maintaining those relationships, which are now a comfortable blend of professional and personal, I can reach out for advice and also to share interesting and humorous finds.

Another downside I’ve noticed stems from the temporary nature of my position. Knowing that my time here is limited has created certain social restraints. It’s difficult to invest too much in a place when you know from the start that you won’t be around all that long. This has lead to some isolation, both socially and professionally. I’ve also come to see that these project positions aren’t just hard on the archivist; they’re hard on the institution too. After working through 200 feet of documents, I feel I’m just getting a somewhat-solid grasp on the inner workings of the National Park Service. And with each state or region and each park having its own unique issues, moving on to the next collection would only add to my understanding. However, I’m not going to be adding on; I’m going to be moving on. I’ll move on to a new position with new issues and, when funding becomes available, the park service will have to find another archivist for their next project who will have to go through all of this learning and adjustment again. This story could go similarly for any institution. I understand the financial reasons behind the system we’ve created here – project funding, grants, etc. – however, I think the drawbacks from that system may be pricier than it seems at first glance. But I digress.

A poster[iii] I saw at the 2014 SAA meeting showed that it generally takes 6 to 12 months for people to assimilate into a new location and I can attest that it has taken me about 6 months to start feeling like I have a small support base of friends here, and soon I’ll be moving on. While the work I’ve done here has been fulfilling, and I’ve seen some amazing things in Alaska, I am now of the mindset that my next position needs to be permanent, or at least in a place where I plan on spending a significant portion of the rest of my life. Everyone handles these changes differently, and Alaska is obviously more remote than most temporary positions will take you, but keep this idea in mind as you look for your first professional position and be honest about how you’ll deal with feeling isolated for an extended period of time. For me, I think my gypsy days are numbered.

Be that as it may, the training I received from Drexel has served me well. I have a strong foundation of theories and principles on which to grow, I know where to look for further information on topics that arise, and I have a broad base of knowledge concerning general library and information system topics that support further growth in the field. However, and not to discount anything taught in library science programs (even with the issues we know they all have), the training I received through internships and entry-level positions during and just after graduate school, have given me the most help for transitioning into a professional role. That training and experience, coupled with the professional contacts and connections I’ve made, is more far-reaching than anything I learned in a classroom. My advice to all students and new professionals is to make and cultivate professional connections in your own life and to take calculated risks when they arise.

 

[i] Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner, “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing,” The American Archivist 68, no. 2 (2005): 208-263.

[ii] Robert Cox, “Maximal Processing, or, Archivist on a Pale Horse,” Journal of Archival Organization 8, no. 2 (2010): 134-148.

[iii] Wendy Cole, Steven Wade, Karen Dafoe, and Victoria Hess (Louisiana State University SAA Student Chapter), “Leaving Home: Taking a Job Outside Your Comfort Zone” (poster at the Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archivists, Washington, DC, August 10-16, 2014).

 

Step Two: Process All the Data

Where was I? Oh yes, in my last processing-related post, I had just finished the physical processing of my collection. I’ve now finished all of the folder title data entry and am in the final stages of editing scope notes and other descriptive text. (Side note: I probably need a “Step One-Point-Five: Arrange All the Records” post, but frankly, it’s not that intriguing. “Put things in order.” Done! Back to step two.)

Excel and the joys of XML (which I hardly understand myself) saved me a bunch of time in this process. This collection has 534 boxes (plus some flat files and records not physically in my possession), with 4,631 folder titles. And I spent about 50 hours typing them all into the computer. So far, I’ve also spent about 35 hours editing that data and the scope notes for the collection.

The actual final (post-arrangement and error checking) numbers on the collection size are this:

  • Original collection size: 220 linear feet
  • Final collection size: 184.38 linear feet (or 180.48 cubic feet) (about a 16% reduction in physical size)
Wrangell-St. Elias National park and Preserve
awaiting labels

Processing speed depends on how you look at it. Based on the original size of the collection (which is how I’ve always done this), I’m at just over 3 hours per linear foot. Very speedy. Based on the final size, I’m at 3.50 hours per linear foot or 3.66 hours per cubic foot. Still pretty speedy. Data entry averaged out to a bit over 3.5 feet per hour. And now I’m left with writing and editing narrative text for the finding aid and putting labels on things (post-its are not exactly kosher in archives-land), which is great because . . .

I’m moving to Florida in 2 weeks. I’ve accepted the position of “Processing Archivist” at the University of Florida and I’m very happy to be moving back close to home and taking a job which sounds interesting and has no attached end-date. I’ll be processing across all of their collections, so stay tuned for further tales of processing and, hopefully, humorous finds via Instagram/Twitter (see buttons above). While Alaska has been a unique experience, I’m overjoyed for this new opportunity and happy to be ahead of schedule and finishing up this project before leaving.

Processing After PACSCL

So, here I am in Anchorage, Alaska. It’s been roughly three months since I arrived and I’m slowly settling in. While my social life has all but disappeared here, my work life has been moving along at speeds apparently unanticipated. When I accepted the position, the plan was to process about 500 linear feet of records pertaining to the nation’s largest national park, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. When I arrived, I was shown about 100 feet of records to process, with the rest of the collection remaining in the park’s archives at a far off location (deemed unnecessary for this current project due to having been previously processed). Having now physically processed all of the boxes, removing unnecessarily duplicated documents, bulky binders and spiral bindings, and excessive amounts of empty space, I’m left with just over 76 linear feet of records. 500 feet down to 76 is amazingly reductive. And I still have (a proposed) 9 months left here.

Luckily, a plan was put in place in anticipation of this. After initially surveying the collection in early June, I spoke to my supervisor and let her know that at the speed I’ve been trained to process (4 hours per linear foot, thank you very much PACSCL), it should take only about 3 to 4 months to complete the records on the shelves. Even factoring in the government’s love of meetings, I’ve managed to remain under 3 hours per foot, so far (granted, I still need to do some writing and data entry, but the rough stuff is done). She decided that we would head back to the park (next week!) and get the rest of their records so that I can incorporate those into the new collection arrangement and make one, hopefully coherent, collection of all of the park’s records. Due to the Park Service’s penchant for item level cataloging, we’re not exactly sure how much is left – somewhere between 100 and 200 linear feet. And, there is another project in the works after that (depending on funding and my availability).

The point here is – plan ahead. Especially if you come from a fast-paced, minimal processing background, the archival world you are entering will more than likely expect you to move slower than you do. Former PACSCL project processors have found this to be overwhelmingly the case. Keep your supervisor informed. Don’t try to hide the fact that you are efficient and skilled. Work together to plan ahead. You’ll avoid sitting around with little to do, your employer will (I hope) be happy to get more accomplished than s/he had anticipated, and you may also prove that you are worth keeping on for a longer period than originally planned.