4 Tips for Making the Most of Your Project Archivist Position
by Amanda Axel, INALJ Contributor
Finding a job in an archive early in one’s career can be very difficult. For any given position, we may be competing against hundreds of candidates that are just as qualified as we are. We may also be up against people who are willing to, for a variety of reasons, move laterally from their current position to a new one. So, not only are we competing with our contemporaries for a few, precious positions, but we’re also trying to prove ourselves worthy of jobs that archivists with years more professional experience than us are also applying for! A good option for a fresh MLIS degree holder is a Project Archivist position. Project positions are temporary, ranging anywhere from a few months to a few years.
With hard work and hope, a project position will turn into a permanent job, but that is never a guarantee. So, what can you do to make the most of your project position? I’m currently in my second project archivist position at a large university, and I’ve tried my best to find innovative ways to get as much out of my job as possible (even though my job description only calls for collection processing).
Dip Your Toe in the Reference Pool
More often than not, project positions are dedicated to collection processing. If you do only as your job description states, you very well could end up in a room processing one collection for the entirety of your employment period. That’s great if you love processing, but it’s also limiting your future employment options. If you can, try to get some reference experience. Just as in a library, a well-rounded archivist should be able to assist patrons in their search for resources, and they should be able to provide instruction on how to use archival materials as well. In my project positions, I’ve been fortunate enough to have been able to deal with all types of reference requests—genealogical, scholarly, technological, and even directional—in person, via email, and over the phone. The more skills you gain, the more attractive you’ll look to potential employers when it’s time to start applying for jobs again.
Say Yes to Everything
You’ve been hired to accomplish a dedicated task. However we all know that little things that need to get done always seem to come out of the woodwork. In my project positions, I’ve learned to say yes to everything that’s asked of me, even if there was no mention of it on the job posting I applied for. Write a digitization policy? Sure! Work on a grant proposal? Absolutely. Help with the archives’ social media accounts? You’ve got it! Just say yes to everything, even if it’s something you have absolutely zero experience with. You can’t get the experience until you’ve done it a first time, right? Remember, your boss knows that you have a set period of time to get your project done; if he/she didn’t think you could take on outside tasks and still get everything done, he/she wouldn’t be asking you to do it. Again, the more you do, the more you learn. And the more you learn, the better set-up you’ll be to find your next (hopefully permanent) job.
Network, Network, Network!
Your project position may only last a few months, but there will always be enough time for you to get to know the people you’re working with and create connections. No matter how many tasks you take on in a project position, some type of experience will always fall through the cracks. You may fully process a collection, take shifts on the reference desk, help with exhibits, and write a digitization proposal, but what about acquisitions? Or accessioning? In my project archivist positions, I’ve made it a point to get to know my co-workers and remain in touch with them even after I’ve moved on to a new position. Now, I have a great network of archival professionals I trust and feel comfortable going to for advice about task I may not have taken on yet.
Membership in professional organizations is vital as well. The Society of American Archivists is our national organization, but there are regional and even local archival organizations as well. Take advantage of the people in your field, and network away! Go to conferences, make a business card (most of us project archivists aren’t given one by our employers), and put yourself out there! You never know who’s going to be hiring in a few months.
Prove Your Worth
It would be amazing if every project position magically turned into a full-time permanent position. However, that is rarely the case. If the institution you’re working at can’t afford to create a permanent position for you, do your best to make them wish they could. Prove your worth by going above and beyond your job description, and you’ll likely get a great reference as you move forward in your job search.
Being a project archivist is hard. It’s an unstable position to be in, and (if you’re like me) you’re constantly worried about what job you’ll have next and when it will come along. But, there are ways to squeeze as much juice out of short-term employment as you can. Use the time you have to your advantage, and gain as many experiences as you can. Hopefully, that coveted permanent position will come along soon!
About the Author
Amanda Axel is the Project Archivist for the Jonas Salk Papers at the University of California, San Diego. She has a joint BA in History and History of Science, Medicine, and Technology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Go Badgers!) and earned her MLIS from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Professionally, she hopes to one day be a public services and outreach archivist; but for now, she’s just happy to be employed. She loves potatoes, oldies, musicals, and asking people if her hair looks alright today.