Thursday, March 22, 2018

10 Things I Didn't Learn in Archives School, by Sara Allain

1. Papercuts are a job hazard.
And they really, really hurt. And at least once I got blood on the archival material.

2. It can be lonely.
Archival work can be solitary. I don't mean the kind of loneliness that comes from hanging out in a basement vault all day, though that’s part of it. Being physically alone is one thing, but perhaps more difficult was feeling like I was the only one who cared. It was hard to keep the value to future researchers in mind when no one seemed to care about the collection right now. Developing a supportive network of archivist pals (on twitter, for example!) really helped.

3. You have to talk to people.
A lot of people. I didn't get into archival studies because I thought I'd get to be a hermit, but I wasn't prepared for the amount of talking I'd need to do. Even working in a closed university archive without a reading room, I talked to my colleagues and my manager, of course, but also our chief librarian, the head of special collections, and the dean on a regular basis, not to mention the recruitment department, the student newspaper, and the committee in charge of planning anniversary celebrations for the institution. I lost whole days of processing work (on a deadline!) because I had to handhold an administrator through finding appropriately diverse historical photos of celebrations past.

4. You become an obsessive about your piles.
When I worked as a processing (arrangement & description) archivist, I became a neat freak. I've never been a particularly tidy person, but I would be in the middle of sorting a collection of letters when suddenly I realized it was 5pm and I needed to go home. I'd have a conference room-sized table covered in discrete piles of ephemera, peppered with little folded notes to my colleagues: PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH. IF YOU NEED THIS TABLE, PLEASE LET ME KNOW. PLEASE, PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH MY BEAUTIFUL PILES OF STUFF.

5. You don't have to like all of it...
I learned about archiving as a holistic endeavour - arrangement, description, appraisal, conservation, and access as many aspects of one job. In large or well-resourced institutions, this is patently untrue, of course - there are departments for acquisition, appraisal, and description, with staff members who rarely cross over into other areas. Lots of workplaces, though, are small enough that everyone wears multiple hats. I was, for a time, the only archivist, so I got to wear all the hats. It was during this time that I realized a core truth about myself: I hate writing descriptions. Recognizing and being honest about the parts of the job that appealed to me and the parts that didn't gave me a chance to grow as an archivist in productive ways, and it opened a lot of doors to the world outside of our tiny profession.

6. ... and you don't have to live it.
Being an archivist is a job. Fobazi Ettarh's “Vocational Awe and Librarianship: the Lies We Tell Ourselves” applies to archivists too. Some people live their work, at the workplace and outside it, and that's great if it works for them. But I’m not a lesser archivist because I prefer to have a solid work/personal life divide.

7. You have to justify your work.
In my first job as an archivist, I had to have one particular discussion over and over again: why did the archival collections need specific description software? I ran out of ways to say, "Because archival data is different than [library/digital humanities/scholcomm] data" in a way that made a lasting impact. It was frustrating, and it taught me a sobering truth: my colleagues who weren't archivists didn't know much about archives. I learned to be patient. I learned to repeat myself. I learned to stick to my belief that our collections deserved to be properly resourced. And I learned to do it with a smile on my face… most of the time.

8. You can do something else.
The archival world is small, and we're all competing for jobs, and there isn't enough work for the number of archivists who are graduating every year. I lucked into a good job as an archivist, but soon realized that the day-to-day work of a lone arranger just wasn’t for me. I was able to convert my diverse experience into a totally different kind of library job (communications!), and then moved right out of archives altogether and into software development. Look around and you'll find that lots of professions are looking for smart, passionate stuff-organizers.

9. No one has the answers.
Email, social media, digital preservation - we're still figuring it out. I regularly feel lost when it comes to these topics, but I’ve realized over time that it's okay to feel lost because we're all lost, as a profession. It's easy to focus on the small majority of people and institutions that are making headway - they're the folks who present at conferences and write papers and tweet about their amazing work. They’re wonderful! They're truly doing some exceptional work. But it's also okay to be the person who is doing the little things. You want to be ahead of the game on digital preservation? Make sure that your content isn't stored on a hard-drive and you'll be doing more than many. As we continue to push the boundaries of what archiving comprises in the 21st Century, it's okay to take an inch rather than a mile. Positive incremental change can be as powerful as the big leaps.

10. There's this moment.
I've talked to a lot of archivists about The Moment: the first time you realized that you were, as an archivist, responsible for something magnificent. My moment was holding a field book that was owned by Frank Urquhart who, along with his wife Norah and local Mexican guides, discovered where monarch butterflies migrate in winter. It wasn't the most exciting piece of archival content I'd handled, but it had a deep resonance for me, a kid who loved bugs and nature documentaries and was fascinated by the story of monarch butterflies migrating to Mexico. Holding that field guide, I felt connected to the Urquharts, to scientific discovery, to something outside my archive. That moment is the one I think about when I'm downtrodden about lack of funding or bad policy. It's a moment that will always stick with me. And it’s a moment I’ve taken with me, even as I walked away from a traditional archivist role, as a reminder that my work has enduring meaning.

Sara Allain still calls herself an archivist and librarian, even though she decamped from the profession to work for a company that makes free and open source archival software. Spending her days frolicking through METS-XML files, format policies, and the vagaries of the software development lifecycle, she's never been happier. She's on twitter at @archivalistic.


  1. two thumbs up for diverse career paths and articulating a professional identity while retaining a healthy work/life balance.

  2. Hey thanks for your letter !
    I want to ask some questions.I study in Information and Document management(Archivist)in my country and there is no option for us after graduate.Actually I can't imagine myself as a librarian but I love my departman,though.I'm pretty good at computer.Now I'm learning how to code and I want to work in a techno comp.I think ıf I improve myself much more about pc a can a Data Analyst as well.Can you give me any advice about it ?

  3. Very much interesting! Well Said Sara.

  4. Being an archivist is part vocation and part flat out job. It is the most underpaid, underappreciated job you will ever have. Nice article.

  5. I'm quite surprised by some statements made in this post. As a professional archivist and records manager I find my job totally facinating, not because it's a vocation/just a job, but because it gives me the opportunity to create, participate in the development of my profession and is so full of challenges. It is true, however, that few schools offer full training for those professions. I've learned much more through professionnal development courses offered by organizations such as ACA, AAQ, ARMA, etc.