five question Friday #1: Shelby the archivist
Shelby takes the Bond girl lead at her grad school archives job.
- Can you tell us about your current position?
I’m currently an archivist in a very small archives at Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia. We’re so small in fact, that I’m currently the only full time person working in the archives for the foreseeable future (yay budget cuts! :/ ) So needless to say, my situation is pretty unique in that I find myself fresh out of grad school and essentially running an archive.
I’m the go-to person for everything whether it’s acquisition, processing, schmoozing with donors, weeding out the archives (and oh, am I ever NOT weeding?) and providing reference for researchers coming in. It requires a lot of organization and I’m pretty busy all day but how many archivist get to be the HBIC right out of school?? It also makes me get my hands dirty in all aspects of archival work — whether I like it or not. I tend prefer the behind-the-scenes, processing work so forcing me to do reference and schmoozing is probably a good thing even though I’m not a fan. Luckily I have some great part-timers who help with the load and a GREAT boss/Dean of Libraries who actually has a background in archives and therefore really wants to focus on building our reputation as a great place to do research.
2. How did you get into librarianship?
Well, not to start too far back, but growing up, my mom was a librarian for 10+ at the local public library. First she was a children’s librarian, which she wasn’t a fan of (screaming kids at story time just weren’t her thing I guess) and later, a genealogy librarian which she LOVED doing. So because of this, I practically grew up in the library and read pretty voraciously.
In high school, my first job at age 15 was at the public library, shelving books, hiding out in the corner reading while trying not to get caught, and helping with summer reading programs for kids. It was a pretty nice gig even if I did only make minimum wage and definitely help expose me to the good (getting to knock fines off my own account for late books, getting to see books before they were available to the public) and the bad (homeless guys bringing up a gazillion pages of porn and then leaving it up for us student workers to try and get off the screen).
Finally, in college I worked at my University’s library at circulation and found that I really enjoyed the atmosphere and helping people find what they need. I guess archiving specifically appealed to me because I love history and learning about people’s lives and thoughts through their own handwriting. I remember the first time I read a diary of someone from the first Seminole War and I was BLOWN AWAY by realizing that someone wrote this diary, not thinking that one day I’d be reading his private thoughts. I look at the way they form their letters and can see the pressure points on certain letters and know that someone real wrote their thoughts down over a hundred years ago. It’s just amazing to me and archiving is a way for me to experience that every day and help facilitate others experiencing it as well.
3. What training and education did you have to prepare for your career?
As far as undergrad training goes, I have a BA in Cultural Anthropology with minors in History and Music. Honestly, I think any major is a plus, that’s the beauty of the library field. ANY education you have can only help you as a librarian/archivist. As far as being an archivist goes, the most common field is probably history for obvious reasons but I’m proof that isn’t necessarily always the path to this field.
As for graduate school, unlike most of the people reading this, I actually don’t have a MLIS degree — yet at least (never say never when it comes to going back to school). I decided to get a MA at Florida State University (Go Noles!) in Historical Administration and Public History. It’s a mouthful, I know, but basically it prepares you for a career in either archives, museums, or historic preservation. I took numerous classes that dealt with archives, a few that overlapped with FSU’s Library Science school, and quite a few history classes as well. What was great about the degree was that at the same time I was getting career training for being an archivist, I was also able to take academic history classes in a field I wanted to study, Latin American History. This helped me to not feel like I was just doing it for a future job but also satisfy my desire for a more academic experience at FSU. In fact, my thesis is on something completely unrelated to archives or public history, that’s how much freedom I had.
I’ll probably eventually go back and get my MLIS degree because they’re becoming quite common in archival job announcements but I can’t stress enough the importance of having an understanding and appreciation of the HISTORY of the materials you’re working with in addition to the skills you learn in library science school.
4. What are your favorite and least favorite aspects of the field?
My favorite aspects of the field are pretty numerous. To be honest, I get to work with some amazing materials. Everyday is like a treasure hunt in my archives because I find new little nuggets every day. My archives has letters from Robert E. Lee written at Appomattox Courthouse, our oldest book is dated to approximately 1562, and we have the R.C. Cola collection which contains original advertisements and memorabilia from its very beginning in the early 20th century. Getting to dig through this and help others discover how amazing primary resources are makes it worth every second I spend going through my least favorite aspects — which are also quite numerous.
Firstly, I always hate having to describe what it is that I do. It’s similar to people asking you in college “Anthropology? So….what is that and what can you actually do with that degree?” I try to remain nice and look at it as an opportunity to educate people on the rich history we have stored away but it still irks me. Most either think I’m a librarian (close but not quite) or equate archivists with Indiana Jones or National Treasure (I wish!).
Secondly, just because something is old, doesn’t mean it has historical or archival value. As an archivist, one of my duties is to decide what is worth keeping and what just doesn’t make the cut. Which can be difficult sometimes because I have two warring camps in my brain. One is the rationalist in me who says “THROW IT AWAY!” every time I see a unopened electric bill from 1955 and another parts of me says “But wait! This might be important one day!” It’s both interesting and challenging to essentially decide what’s going to be considered “history” to future researchers and what isn’t. I currently spend a good portion of my day weeding LPs, plastic trophies, children’s books, and much much more out of our stacks area that didn’t belong in it in the first place. I try and find a more suitable place for them, but it doesn’t always work out and sometimes we have to just dispose of things. It’s always kind of sad to see that happen but necessary at the same time.
5. What is your advice for readers interested in librarianship (/archiving)?
My main advice is to get involved in the library/archive world as soon as you start developing an interest in it. Most archives I know LOVE to have volunteers because they’re understaffed and underfunded. (If any of you are near the Columbus area and want to volunteer hit me up yo! We always need the help.)
Secondly, start developing academic interests outside of the library world, too. Having education and expertise in other fields of study can only help you as a librarian and it may even open up more job opportunities (like with me, I’d probably look more attractive to a Latin American archives than someone who has never had Latin American history classes before) that you wouldn’t have if you focus all your attention on library school.
If you’re interested in specifically archives, I would strongly suggest you take some history classes in addition to a MLIS degree, especially classes that teach you how to do research with primary sources. If you understand the process by which a researcher works, you can better assist them in finding what they need. You understand how they think.
Also, even if you have to volunteer or intern somewhere while you’re looking for work, stay current and active in your field. After I finished school, I kept my part-time job at FSU’s special collections as a way to stay relevant and to build up more experience for my resume.
Finally, join professional organizations like the Society of American Archivists or Society of Georgia Archivists (most give student discounts) and go to their yearly meetings! I can’t stress that enough. Networking opportunities there are amazing and established people in the field love to meet newbies who are just starting out. They WANT to be your career mentor or fairy job godmother (or godfather) so go ahead and let them! Never know, your next job might come out of one of these meetings.
Shelby lived with Katherine when they were both only embryonic information professionals in college. She blogs over here about her archiving adventures, her ornery cats, and her undying love for Florida State University.