Thursday, March 14, 2013

So, You Want to Be an Archivist?, by Lauren Arnsman


Making the decision to go to library school was kind of a spur-of-the-moment idea for me. So, too, was deciding to become an archivist. The thing that pushed me into the archival field was my interest in history and my nosy curious nature. I’ve always been interested in the stories behind things and where X comes from. My first internship was at the Detroit Opera House, starting their online archive. It was kind of tedious, scanning program after program, but I loved it. As I made my way through classes that I found interesting, I realized I was taking a lot of archive-based classes as well as classes that would help me more as an archivist than a librarian. All of a sudden, there I was: BOOM! Archivist!

You: “What is an archivist, though?”

Good question! (As a side note, always be ready to answer this question: “what do you *do* exactly?”) Archiving boils down to providing access to information determined to have long-term value. In that sense, librarians and archivists are similar. Here’s where they differ: a big part of my job is assessing the worth of the information and organizing it so it makes sense.  This is essentially the task of every archivist. My position is unique at my institution because I am what’s known as a Lone Arranger. I am the sole archival person in the organization that I work for, a community college in Southwest Michigan. Not only do I process collections, arrange and organize them, but I also upload digital versions to the archives website. I will say this, as much as I love the work that I do, it can be a little lonely.

You: Sweet! You mean I can work BY MYSELF?!

Well, kinda. A lot of people assume being an archivist means you’re shoved in a basement, so if you hate people, be an archivist! This is waaaaaaaay not true. A HUGE part of archives in ANY organization is outreach. Where do you think the stuff comes from? You have to network and make contacts within the community so people know the repository is there. Otherwise, there isn’t much point in having the archive to begin with. Also, ultimately the goal is to get people inside the archives to show off all the awesome things that are there, so you do have to be good at customer service. The other thing that is still hard for me sometimes is being my own advocate. It’s hard because I’m in a state, Michigan, where the economy has been rough for a while and with budgets tightening, I have to justify *why* I’m needed. This is why it’s so important to have an answer to “what do you do?” I have to prove my worth to continue doing what I love.

You: Why would I want to be an archivist, anyway?

One of the reasons I love my job is because I see it as one big puzzle. There are small puzzles within the big puzzle: I have to figure out when photographs were taken, and then I have to decide how to arrange the photos (and other items) in a way that would make it easy for anyone off the street to come in and browse. I also get to talk about the puzzles. That’s the part of advocacy and outreach I love, meeting others and either getting them interested in the subject for the first time or showing people just how deep the information goes. I like knowing the entire history of a thing and now, it’s my career. 

Lauren Arnsman is the archivist at Kellogg Community College. You can find her on Twitter, @unrealsnow, where she talks about the important things: cats, movies, and books.


  1. When I started LibSchool I was going to be an archivist as well. I still love the idea of it. You rock, Lauren!

  2. Great post. I actually came to libraries from museums/archives, but am still nosy, er, fascinated with the puzzle-solving you describe. I definitely love the finding/assessing/organizing/sharing part of archival work that I have also found in libraries. Other crossovers for me were organizing public exhibits and programs (I was a curator as well as archivist at a smallish historical society and then became the manager of a smallish library, so a bit of a jill-of-all-trades in both positions), and managing volunteers.