Responses and Retrospectives: But I thought I was an Archivist?

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Photo provided by Rachel Thomas.

This is the latest post in our series Responses and Retrospectives, which features archivists’ personal responses and perspectives concerning current or historical events/subjects with significant implications for the archives profession. Interested in contributing to Responses and Retrospectives?  Please email the editor at archivesaware@archivists.org with your ideas!

Rachel Thomas, MA, is the University Archivist at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. She is passionate about the archival profession and opening the field to new professionals from all walks. Thomas is a member of Society of American Archivists and Northwest Archivists and recently served on the inaugural Northwest Archivists Archivist-in-Residence committee which is dedicated to working on the problem of unpaid internships in the archival profession. Linkedin profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/rachel-thomas-5b21b38a

Six year ago I walked into my first professional gathering of archivists. As a lone arranger, I was excited to meet some of my colleagues. It was an unconference, inviting members of our profession to gather and discuss some of the issues surrounding our work. As the evening began, talk quickly turned to archives certification and qualifications. What makes an archivist and archivist? We gathered into groups to discuss this. I was excited to share my background and how I came to the field and hear how others entered this field I love.

However, as soon as we sat down, one of the members of my group said, “If you don’t have an MLIS, you are not an archivist. We have to have some standards!”

I was floored. I didn’t have an MLIS. I had just been hired by a university I respected, I had completed a MA in Early American and United States History, I had apprenticed in a large, well known, respected archive under a leader in the profession, I had worked for four years as an archive assistant at another university. I knew DACS, processing, other archival ethics and standards. I was a member of SAA and my regional association. I didn’t have my MLIS, but I was an archivist, wasn’t I?

As the discussion continued I found my voice. I expressed that I believed that being an archivist is about following the ethics and practices of the profession, not based on a certain set of letters behind a name. I shared examples of devoted archivists who had come to the field with no professional training. Some agreed with me, others held the position that the MLIS should always be required. The original speaker did not back down, she told me that she was sorry, but I didn’t belong in the field. According to her there were too many “non-professionals” calling themselves archivists and taking jobs from real archivists.

Eventually the night moved onto other topics. I learned a lot from colleagues in the room. I was able to network and build some contacts, learn about opportunities to serve in my regional professional organization. It was a successful evening by all accounts, however, I left doubting myself, hit hard with imposter syndrome.

A few years later and a few years wiser, I know that I am an archivist. I know I belong to the profession, and I know I bring value to my work. I have learned to appreciate my ability to think outside of the box, and largely credit it to the alternate route I took into the field. However, I still generally advise interns and students desiring to enter the field to pursue an MLIS. I know that it will prepare them well for the workplace, and I know that it has become a requirement for most positions in the field. I want them to be able to find work.

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Photograph provided by Rachel Thomas.

At the same time, I want to challenge our profession to broaden their understanding of how one can become an archivist. I think we need to lean into the value of divergent perspectives brought by alternate education and career paths. We need to come to an understanding that the MLIS is not the only way to enter into our field. Other education and career paths can help us approach problems differently, they can help us develop new solutions, creative ideas, and the ability to diversify our collections and practices to fit a broader cross section of society. Employers must reconsider whether or not requiring the MLIS is unnecessarily limiting their applicant panel, disqualifying candidates who could bring new strengths and experience to the position. Archivists must check their assumptions about their colleagues. We must seek to be inclusive, not only in our collections, but among our colleagues.

This story does have a happy ending. At a recent conference I had a chance to have a heart to heart with one of the archival leaders in our region. He had been working as an archivist for decades and had received recognition at regional and national levels for his contributions. Everyone knew his name. I mentioned that sometimes I thought we were too focused on degrees in our field. That much of the work could be learned in other ways. That I had struggles with imposter syndrome because of my MA. He laughed, and said, “Guess I don’t belong in the field then! I only have a bachelor’s degree!”

This post was written by Rachel Thomas, MA. The opinions and assertions stated within this piece are the author’s alone, and do not represent the official stance of the Society of American Archivists. COPA publishes response posts with the sole aim of providing additional perspectives, context, and information on current events and subjects that directly impact archives and archivists.

10 thoughts on “Responses and Retrospectives: But I thought I was an Archivist?

  1. Meredith Michem says:

    Rachel, Thank you for your insightfulness in “Responses and Retrospectives: But I thought I was an Archivist.” Years ago I met with a similar situation in which I had an MLS and had been doing archival work for years as an archival assistant and interned at a state archives, but I had a boss who had a history degree and who insisted to me that I was a paraprofessional and not an archivist because I lacked the history degree, even though the focus of my MLS had been archives and rare books. She bullied me endlessly on this topic. I later addressed my feelings of inadequacy concerning this issue by becoming a certified archivist with the Academy of Certified Archivists less than a year later after leaving this toxic employer. What happened to you and to me is professional bullying and it should never be condoned in our profession. You are correct, there are many avenues for entering the archival profession because it is a diverse profession requiring skills that complement many backgrounds. We all bring something to the table and if you are doing the work of an archivist and you are doing it well you are an archivist. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

    Like

    • Rachel Thomas says:

      Thank you for your kind words!
      I agree, it is professional bullying, and I think it is something we can be working on as a profession. I’m sorry you have been through this as well.

      Like

  2. Michael Marlatt says:

    It’s a shame that you had to experience that. Divisions and elitist attitudes like this will not end up helping anyone. I’m a film preservation MA graduate (not US) and I definitely consider myself an archivist.

    While luckily no elitism, I, however, have been getting it slightly the other way. I’ve continued on to my PhD (not in a school of information) and need to remind people that studying archives extends far beyond Foucault and Derrida.

    More interdisciplinary introductions to archives, whether that be studying them or working in them, is better for everyone.

    Liked by 1 person

      • olcarchives says:

        Bro. Dennis Moses
        No matter what the field. In recreation we had them (carrying capacity, hardening the site). Theology (zits em laben, percipe), and of course archives (provencem original order), people throw these terms around because it makes them part of the club. They are purely head people who say that right thinking leads to right acting. But some of us are heart people who have no use for mission statements. Show me the practical things to keeping an archives in order and I will figure out your philosophy by what you do.

        Like

  3. PeterK says:

    ““If you don’t have an MLIS, you are not an archivist. We have to have some standards!”
    Decades ago the normal avenue towards an archives career was via History graduate work. Sadly in the last 20 yrs or so the push for the MLIS/MLS has taken hold to the detriment of the profession.
    In the beginning the Certified Archivist designation was designed to show that one had the basic knowledge and understanding of archives. Sadly the ACA increased the minimum requirements to apply to sit for the exam.
    Now in the Records and Information Management profession the minimum requirement is a BA/BS, sometimes an AA degree. now some jobs will ask for a CRM/CRA but not require it. I know people who have degrees in Business Administration, History, PoliSci, Computer Science and many more that are in the profession. What we do see is that people in the RIM profession seek out certifications. most go for the CRM/CRA, IGP, CIP and then get more specific such as privacy, information security, imaging, and project management just to name a few.

    Like

  4. betsyjohnson83 says:

    Hi Rachel, Thanks for sharing this! As another archivist without an MLIS (MA in Public History and an ACA certification), I have experienced this attitude as well over the years. It’s unfortunate that folks like this aren’t able to see how diverse educational backgrounds and experiences benefit the work. My background in public history has come in handy in the archives more times than I can count. Because it is currently the trend, I tell my interns it will be easier to find work in the field if they get an MLIS, but there is no substitute for practical experience and truly knowing their stuff.

    Like

  5. Patrick Cunningham, CISM, CIPT, FAI says:

    MA in Public History here. I learned long ago that many historical archives are closed shops to those outside the library school track. Records management paid better, so I went in that direction because, in the words of one of my mentors, “Records Management and Archives are two sides of the same coin.” This career path then landed me in Information Security, well grounded in a sense that, “If you don’t know where the information is, you can’t protect it.” (Another mentor.)

    The problem with Archives is, in my opinion, supply and demand. The oversupply of candidates for archives jobs has resulted in two outcomes: 1) A “closed shop” mentality to protect the Library Science programs generating the supply — if the only path to a job is through an MLS program, you’re going to preserve those programs; 2) An oversupply of poverty-level wages. “Yes, we want an MLS or Ph.D with ten years of experience and we’ll pay you $30,000 a year.” The ability for employers to continually fill those jobs (and a plethora of unpaid “internships”) are a direct result of oversupply, as well as job candidates unwilling to tell a potential employer to pound sand when offered a wage where you could do better working at McDonald’s.

    The net of this is that if you have an advanced degree and a passion for learning (as well as some ability), you can do many other things in life. Maybe it is not working in an historical archive. But if you find a job which compensates you fairly, keeps you engaged, and allows you time and resources to pursue your passions, you can then find time to indulge your History / Museum / Archives interests — and probably not have to worry about what degree you bring to the table.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. PeterK says:

    “According to her there were too many “non-professionals” calling themselves archivists and taking jobs from real archivists.”

    When I read that I immediately thought of all the various historical societies, local governments, and public libraries that have on staff “non-professionals” and wondered what is SAA doing to educate these individuals and that this is the type of individual that the ACA should be targeting for certification.

    Like

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