Q: I’d like to learn as much as possible about the whole archival process and hopefully move into the archival profession. Is it possible for me to have a career as an archivist despite not having setting out to become one?

Q: Hi, I recently got my MSLS without taking any archival classes and now I am regretting that decision. Currently I am volunteering at a public library, working with a photo collection that was donated by a newspaper photographer and I find the process fascinating. In fact so much, I’d like to learn as much as possible about the whole archival process and hopefully move into the archival profession. I recently joined the Society of American Archivists and lurk on their main listserv, although I realize that is not enough.

Can you suggest other ways for me to get experience? There does not appear to be many online opportunities for archival education (either formal or non-formal) but I may not be looking in the right places. Also, is it possible for me to have a career as an archivist despite not having setting out to become one?

TA: There are a number of approaches to graduate school. Some students use the time to explore different areas of the profession so they can focus on their true calling when it comes time to find a job. Others go into the beginning of their academic training knowing exactly what they want to do and use the time to build experience and expertise in support of that original goal. I don’t think you’re alone in discovering a particular interest after you’ve completed your degree, but it does put you in a bit of a “catch up” situation. Here are a few quick ideas on how to level the playing field and switch to the archival profession:

First, think about what you did in library school that may relate to the archival profession. For example, did you take a cataloging or technology class that included EAD or XML? Look for these transferable skills and highlight them when you’re applying for archival positions.

The experience you’re gaining now as a volunteer with the photo collection should also be recognized as valuable and transferable. See if you can find other opportunities (paid or unpaid) that allow you to learn more about working in an archive and to develop specific, related experience and expertise with different types of materials.

Third, you should explore additional educational or professional development opportunities. Some institutions offer a Certificate of Advanced Study as a post-MLS educational certificate. The Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois describes their Certificate as a program that allows holders of the MLS “to refresh and update their skills, gain greater specialization in their professional training, or redirect their careers from one area to another.” If you are not quite prepared to head back to school for another degree, you could also consider more focused short term training opportunities related to the archival profession.  The Society of American Archivists posts a Conference/Workshop Calendar on their website that lists current classroom and online training opportunities. You should check there (and in other local organizations) to see if there are classes that could help you build and enhance the basic archival skill set. Plus, all of these training opportunities look great on a resume.

And finally, I would recommend that you reach out and find a mentor, or someone you can connect with, to talk about working in an archive. Many professional organizations will facilitate a match for a mentor/mentee relationship. You can also attend professional development or professional networking events to meet a more experienced colleague who may be able to assist you with navigating the archival profession.

Good luck as you pursue your interest in archives!


SM: According to The Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008-09 Edition,

Archivists maintain records in accordance with accepted standards and practices that ensure the long-term preservation and easy retrieval of the documents.

Seeking a specialization, such as archives, is a great way to further your career and make you more marketable. Of course, acquiring the skills, knowledge and experience in that specialty is another story – but it sounds like you are on the right track. The SAA web site, as Tiffany mentioned, is a great source for information about archival work and becoming an archivist. They also post job listings, links to local organizations, an overview of the profession, and a very useful glossary of archival and records terminology. You should also check out the Academy of Certified Archivists site for information of how to become certified, and The National Archives Information for Archives Professionals page.

Archivists, as I’m sure you’re aware, work in all types of organizations and with a wide variety of materials. When pursuing archives experience, broaden your search to include museums, historical or governmental institutions, corporations, zoos, and nature centers (to name a few), as well as libraries. These places all maintain archives and may need assistance (paid or unpaid) in their archives. Archivists work with specific standards and rules, which are applicable across institutions, so even if you really want to work in an academic library down the road, focus your immediate attention on getting any experience you can, in any type of institution.

Online certificate programs:

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee offers a Certificate of Advanced Study in Archives and Records Administration which can be completed online.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offers a Certificate of Advanced Study in Library and Information Science, which is offered through their LEEP program.

If anyone knows of any other online programs, please let us know.

One thought on “Q: I’d like to learn as much as possible about the whole archival process and hopefully move into the archival profession. Is it possible for me to have a career as an archivist despite not having setting out to become one?

  1. Pingback: Career Q&A with the Library Career People » Two Questions on Getting Experience Through Internships and Volunteering

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s