Monday, May 7, 2012


Ask an Archivist

When people think of archives at all, they think of mouldering files in forgotten basements or top-secret government reports that shady agents go rogue for in order to PROVE THEIR INNOCENCE.

The truth is that real-world archives lie somewhere between those two extremes. There are definitely juicy, delightful secrets hidden in your local archives, but there are also a ton of super boring records and nasty paper cuts awaiting you. Before diving into archival research, you need to be prepared, is what we’re saying.

The purpose of this column is to answer your burning questions about archives — everything you wanted to know, from how to find photos of foxy ye olde men, to how to unearth the documentary proof supporting your pet conspiracy theory.

We’ll also answer some of your most pressing questions about how archives work. Like:

I've walked by my local archives hundreds of times. I'm not an academic, so while I'm kind of curious about the place, I'm completely intimidated. And with books and the trusty internet, should I even bother?

In short, yes! The wide world of knowledge and crumbly paper awaits you. You are not alone in your feelings of trepidation about crossing the archival threshold; unlike in a library, it's difficult simply to wander into the archives and skulk around without drawing attention to yourself. I should know: during my first visit to the archives as an undergrad at university, I got confused and walked into a glass door. Personal and pride-related injuries aside, archives hold all kinds of delicious treasures just waiting to be discovered, and they need people like you — i.e., those who look at the archives’ building and wonder what's inside, rather than those who look at the archives building and wonder if they have a public washroom and cafe (though don't get me wrong, those are perfectly valid concerns) — to discover them.

Books are great (hurrah books!), but they tend to give the bigger picture view whereas things like letters, photos, diaries, and case files on underage servants (for example) provide the nitty gritty details that bring that larger picture to life. Sure, sometimes samples of this stuff are available online or in books, but those are just the ones that someone else just like you already found! So say, for instance, you know your great-grandfather fought in World War One. Interesting enough, but nothing to write home about. But did you also know that his military service file — which may be found in an archives somewhere — will tell you that he contracted syphilis while on active duty? Now there's something to put in the family Christmas card next year.

I can sense I've piqued your interest, yes? You want to know more about the life of the ghost lady who haunts your local historic grist mill? Excellent! So now that you're through the front doors, you'll probably encounter archivists, a.k.a. the people who've made snooping around in other people's private papers their career. They're there to help, and aside from the odd cranky one recovering from an unwarranted attack by an over-zealous genealogist are generally more than happy to guide you through the research process. They know the collections really well and may even be able to point you in the direction of something no one else has ever looked at. Ducks' feet? No problem! Dirt-dishing personal diaries? Right this way! An actual Nobel Peace prize? Follow me and bring your muscles, because that thing is pure gold and heavy.

Basically any archivists worth their salt just want people to use their holdings, so take advantage of that … get a research pass and get digging!

What’s up with the white gloves?

Okay, first, white gloves are SUPER controversial in the archival world. Seriously, if you want to get a room full of archivists riled up (and who wouldn’t?) ask them their opinion on white gloves. To answer the question, you first have to know the difference between an archives and a library (if getting a room full of archivists riled up is not enough and you want to actually drive them into an old-fashioned lather, say that archives are the same as libraries). Most libraries deal with books, which come in multiple copies. If you drop your library book into the bath tub and bring it back all puffy, the librarian is going to look at you sternly over her pince-nez, but she will not accuse you of destroying the building blocks of history, or tampering with one of the foundational safeguards of democracy.

Archives, by their very nature, contain unique items. As such, one of an archivist’s key duties is to safeguard and preserve them. That means mitigating the disaster caused by the great grubby unwashed pawing through lovely, pristine records. Which brings us to the gloves. Your hands are revolting … Just ask a clean person. When your disgusting grunge rubs off on the document you’re examining, not only does it soil the item, it can actually damage it. Maybe not immediately, but multiple handlings over decades will deteriorate the record to the point that it is no longer readable.

The tricky thing with gloves, though, is that slipping your hands into those cotton bad boys makes you much clumsier. Without the tactile feedback you get through actually touching a fragile document, you can end up being a little mini-paper shredder. Fine, your finger filth isn’t soiling the pages, but that doesn’t do much good if you’re now holding two pieces of the original manuscript of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken instead of one.

So, the debate rages on — do you let unclean researchers rifle through the records, rubbing their sickening finger oil all over the precious documents, or do you force them to wear white gloves, which make them more liable to rip or tear a document and do very very bad mime impersonations? A lot of archival repositories have tried to find a middle ground … Use gloves only when touching photographs and film, which really do go kablooey with too much handling, let the glove-wearing slide for most textual documents, and keep a sharp eye over your pince-nez when anyone’s got their mitts on something really precious.

And, what’s up with all the PAPER? Didn’t we go digital in the last millennium?

It’s true that we archivists love us some paper. All silky to the touch and smelling like trees. Well, to be fair, half of us love paper. If the glove/no glove divide isn’t enough, archivists fall into two bitterly divided camps of ‘keepers’ and ‘thrower-outers.' Or, if you prefer, hoarders and neurotic crazies. But no matter your archival persuasion, chances are you’d choose a box of paper over a box of floppy disks any day. Here are a few reasons why:

1. It turns out there IS such a thing as too much of a good thing.

Here's the thing: you know where you are with paper. Someone writes a letter with their flouncy fountain pen, and presto, you have one letter. Only one decision needs to be made (keep it or throw it out), one set of things needs to be done (preserve it or destroy it) and then we can move on. Not so with electronic records (‘e-records’, in the biz). Remember when they said the digital revolution would lead to the ‘paperless office’? Never have we been so hoodwinked. Rather than reduce paper consumption, the personal computer led to an explosion in paper records. People printed crap with abandon. Eight times over.

2. Digital messes with your head.

Another tricky thing about e-records is finding them. It's the intellectual equivalent of herding an army of imaginary cats, or the whole world suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s. Let’s take the example of everyone’s de facto e-records archive, the internet. We thought that the internet would be our Room of Requirement, but instead it's turned out to be the Lestrange Vault at Gringott’s: while there is definitely precious treasure in there, it's hidden under piles of shiny, worthless, ever-multiplying trinkets. The internet promised us unlimited room for storage, and, therefore, scope for discovery. But our brains don't actually cope very well with infinity. How do we look for something in a pool whose limits we can't even imagine? Archivists hate it when you feel lost or like you’re navigating without a map (it means we’ve done our job badly). We get twitchy about e-records because their organization is (often) not logical or hierarchical.

Instead, nowadays everyone just uses Google to find stuff. This means that we all know exactly the same 10 (somewhat random) things about any given topic. This upsets the anal-retentive archivist. You, the researcher, have probably missed out on some gems that are of specific interest to you. More importantly, we suspect that this new way of seeking and acquiring knowledge is changing our brains, changing the way people process and understand information. That's not necessarily bad, but it certainly is a huge shift in human intellectual interaction. We're not so big on change: we like cardigans (re-boxing can be chilly business), and cardboard containers (plastic 'off-gasses' ... serious), and mint-green pumps.

3. Bits & Bytes are scary and hard.

More accurately, they're unpredictable. If you forget a box of letters in your attic, with a bit of luck, 200 years from now, someone will find it and still be able to read them. But that box of 5.25 inch floppies (remember how adorable those things were? With that giant arm you had to fold down on the computer to keep them in place?) Forget it. Even if — by some miracle — the data on the disk hasn’t been corrupted, most people don’t have the hardware to use it. Also, you need to be running WordPerfect 1.0. The DOS version.

We have no idea what's going to happen to those bits and bytes a hundred years from now; this world is brand new. In fact, most experts agree that the late twentieth century will be a bit of a black hole in terms of collective memory. None of us really knew what we were doing, a bit like that time when doctors got everyone with a cold addicted to heroin, or when people decided it would be a good idea to line pipes with lead.

Obviously, digital is the future. And archives around the world are doing super cool things with e-records. But if trying to figure out how to acquire and preserve digital records is the Holy Grail for archivists, to be honest, right now we’re more Monty Python than Indiana Jones.

An archivist” is a group of ladies who love acid-free file folders and the smell of vinegar syndrome in the morning.

Image by Antonio Abrignani, via Shutterstock

155 Comments / Post A Comment


How does one become an archivist? I was looking into library science once upon a time but everything I read said job prospects for future graduates were fairly dim in light of the recession. Are archivists facing the same problem?

I just really want to be paid to read and organize and not talk to people often.

katie s.@twitter

@geometree Answer: yes. The job market in most places is seriously overglutted and/or underfunded. Also, depending on where you work, there's still a significant customer service/research assistance aspect, so don't get too carried away thinking you'll get to work solo.


@geometree If you're not a people person, library science and/or archival science are probably not for you. Both are service professions. They exist to help users find materials. Sure, there are some jobs where you could end up cataloging alone in a back room, but for the most part, they are very outward facing professions. And as far as job prospects, archivists certainly aren't in a better position than librarians.

Aunt Ada Doom

@geometree This is librarian trolling, yes?


@Punk-assBookJockey Even those of us cataloging in a back room unfortunately have to talk to patron-type people with disturbing frequency, so.

I too just wanted a job that stuffed me in a room with old books and limited human interaction. I blame Hollywood for raising my expectations.


@geometree Depending on the path you choose in your program, you can find a pretty away-from-the-public position. If you feel comfortable being tech-centric and are hot for taxonomies, there's always working at websites-- my husband works at one and they have ten MLS-holders on staff who do the entries taxonomies and tagging and stuff. There's also corporate libraries (I know people who are librarians at Microsoft), but the thing about tech or corporate is that, in general, it will remove you from anything fun (to me) like physical books. I decided to go for a youth services path in my degree and now I'm facing $60k in debt and jobs that I may have to stab the other applicants for. BUT I WOULD DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN. I adore librarian school, and I adore my cohort-mates and most of my professors.


@geometree Scoring a sweet job as an archivist is even harder than scoring a sweet job as a librarian. I graduated from an MLIS program recently and almost every person I went to school with concentrated in archival management. Now, most of them get hired for project work (which is sort of like the managerial class equivalent of being a migrant worker). Essentially, an institution will get funding to process one archival collection and hire a person to work on that project until its completed. They are short-term positions that pay you an hourly wage and do not necessarily give you any health benefits. All the project archivists I know are in a perpetual state of anxiety about where their paycheck will come from once their project ends. Also, a lot of them complain about being locked away in a basement or other windowless space for hours on end.


I am/was a history minor, and digging through the archives was simultaneously the most infuriating / invigorating part of my degree. Using a microfiche is such a bitch on the eyes, but that moment when you finally come across a relevant, interesting tidbit is sooooo great.


@Decca Oooh yes. My school has multiple otherwise-dry state and city records covering the period of the 1912 Lawrence textile strike. So I was able to get stuff like the school nurse's letter to the city about the conditions in children's homes, and about literally visiting them at home and washing their hair. Maps of the city by predominant ethnicity. Reports of manufacturing injuries and deaths that were so detailed I could match up several between the state and city records that were talking about the same person.

And this isn't even, like, a special part of their collection.


I've been working with the same 30-year-old microfilm series for the past two years now. I celebrated out loud when I saw that they'd finally finished digitising some of those records!


@Decca I'm convinced the archival research I did for my Ph.D. is why my right eye now takes about twelve seconds to focus when I look up from whatever I'm reading.


Spoiler: Your pet conspiracy theory is bullshit.


@theharpoon I thought that phrase meant "a conspiracy involving your favorite pet." OH GOD MITTENS WHAT HAVE YOU DONE



katie s.@twitter

I work in a local history archives and spent months of last year, cursing under my breath, as I tried to get digitized images off of CDs that were 10-15 years old. We lost a lot of expensive scanning to corroded discs or data problems. I developed a new found and passionate appreciation for microfilm & -fiche that summer.

RK Fire

@katie s.@twitter: As someone who has spent summers scanning and uploading things to disks for an university archive, this really terrifies me!


@katie s.@twitter CDs: not nearly as stable as everyone thought. It's pretty scary how many archives are still using them as a backup method.


In my archiving class (taught by the head archivist at the Huntington Library!?!), we went with the "clean hands" rule: gloves with film and photos if you have to actual handle them out of their paper folder/holder/whatnot, otherwise just wash your hands before you dig in!

Also, I did my final paper in that course about the Missing, Believed Wiped program in the UK and it was AWESOME.


And speaking of "keepers" vs. "thrower-outers," you missed the best thing about digital archives, which is that you get to Keep It All (when you can get it) because it's too much of a pain to look through it. Yay!

ps Please don't throw out your 5.25 floppies, send them to meeeeeee


ALSO, bits are not scary, they are awesome and fun.



(oh god i even miss the smell of red rot)


@JanieS What happened?!


@Bolero Never could get a job - I spent more than a year looking, and all I had to show for it was 3 interviews and no job offers. And now it's been several years (I got my MLS in '07), so now I have a big archivist/librarian gap on my resume, and there are 90 bajillion people with better qualifications going for the same jobs.


@JanieS Red rot. RED ROT!! I love it. (Not really. Well, the scent of it, yes.) The best is brushing Cellugel all over it, so then it's all soft and silky, but still smelly.


@JanieS @TheCheesemanCometh Now I hear Jack Nicholson in my head.

I spent part of my dissertation worrking with 19th-c journals in our library's Cutter collection (for non-library folks (and if I remember correctly (look, nested parentheses!), Cutter classification was after the Dewey decimal system but before Library of Congress*). They were covered in red rot/book rust, and after spending too much time trying to get the dust off my clothing I finally gave up and bought a brown t-shirt and a brick t-shirt. The rare books librarian here found me one day, making scans of a "rusted" book bound in brown leather, wearing the brown tee and a pair of lab gloves (and pants, of course). She looked at me, looked at the book, looked at my hands, said, "Well, I see you came prepared," and then started laughing like crazy.

*If I'm wrong, someone with better library cred correct me, please?


I have a question for An Archivist: How do you read about the overcrowded job market and crippling student debts that come with a library science degree and still push on to become an archivist? This is relevant to my life plan right now.

katie s.@twitter

@Bolero One answer: the debt doesn't have to be crippling. My library degree was a full-time two years, and most people work throughout the process. The job market sucks, but you still come out of this program with a lot more marketable skills, whatever the gig ends up being, than pursuing a strictly academic degree.


@Bolero According to the US Occupational Outlook handbook, the market for librarians is supposed to grow significantly once the baby boomer generation retires (which was delayed due to the recession). I am hoping they are right because I just graduated with my MLIS on Saturday! I'm not interested in being an archivist, and I already have a job (in a small community hospital library, that doesn't require my degree), but I am hoping that a better library job is out there for me at some point in the future.


@Punk-assBookJockey I've read All Of The Job Outlooks and I hope they're right.


@katie s.@twitter Thanks for the positive perspective.


@katie s.@twitter I don't think the job market is quite as bad if you're willing to get creative about where you work. For example, a lot of really big companies keep extensive records and archives, and there may be work there. You just have to think outside the government/public library/museum mold.

Cat named Virtute

@Megano! Yes! Knowledge Management and Information Management are the big buzz phrases of the moment. Lots of big companies and organizations have libraries or similar initiatives to keep track of "organizational memory", and orgs like Yellow Pages and companies that manufacture lots of products need consultants to organize their product in a way that consumers can use.

Sadly for me, I have no head for this sort of thing at all, but it's really where the jobs and the money are in info science right now. Just crossing my fingers there'll be a nice little public library job for me somewhere this time next year.


@Punk-assBookJockey They've been saying that for FOREVER and it never comes true. Because libraries/archives are so hard up for money, when the baby boomers retire, they just don't replace them.

Personally, I found getting into archives hard because I needed a full-time job and so many of the postings are for part time, grant funded work. If you can afford to bulk up your experience by working 20 hours a week for a while, then do it, but I kind of had to move out of my parents' house after grad school. While I liked archives, I moved back into strict library work because I could get a full-time para prof position.

Whatever you do, know your tech stuff.


@Punk-assBookJockey Not to scare you, but they've been saying that for years... they were saying that at least a decade ago when I first looked at library school, too. The boomers aren't retiring en masse like they were "supposed to," and lots of places are under such severe budget cuts that they can't replace people that retire anyway. My experience is mostly with being an academic librarian, so YMMV, but our department has been cut in half from what it was just a few years ago because of that exact phenomenon - someone retires, we can't afford to replace them, the rest of us pick up the slack.

For certain types of library jobs, it really really helps to not give a flying fuck where you live. I was living in DC applying to library jobs, and I finally got one in Florida. If I had insisted on staying in DC, I would probably still be unemployed. Lots of my library school classmates are.


@mackymoo Ha, yeah, I remember looking it up when I was filling out grad school applications and crossing my fingers. That's just librarians though. I think it is even worse for archivists because it does seem like all I see is part-time/temp grant jobs.
Second the digital thing! I got a certificate in knowledge management and took as many tech classes as I could! I feel lucky to have full time work right now, but eventually want to work in digital/reference services somewhere.


@Tiktaalik Yup, I know a lot of people who work in libraries who've said the same thing. Hopefully things improve and funding can be restored to public institutions soon and they can afford to fill those positions again. Eventually people will have to realize that "the internet" is not a viable replacement for having a person to organize information.


@Bolero For example, my father works for a steel manufacturing company, and I met the girl that works in their library/archives. They have a TON of archives! Blueprints, CAD stuff, articles, contracts, etc. So there's always stuff like that.

katie s.@twitter

@Megano! definitely true - and this is doubly true if you're willing to relocate. most of my friends who got jobs quickly straight out of school did so by moving to smaller communities. e.g.: one girl from my class is the director of a public library in a very small town about an hour and a half outside of kansas city.


@katie s.@twitter can you just explain this to my husband, my family, and my cohort? We're all tearing our hair out and sharpening the knives in anticipation of competing for the same three open positions.

dj pomegranate

@Bolero Hi! I'm not a librarian/archivist, but I would like to say: Look into the State Department! I have met many librarians who work for the foreign service in the knowledge management/information systems category and they get to travel all over the world being librarians. I don't know how easy or hard this avenue is, all I know is that the five foreign service librarians I've met love their jobs.


@dj pomegranate Whoa, I am not a librarian or archivist, but I do sometimes consider working for the Foreign Service! I've mostly ruled it out, but that's a cool job of which I hadn't heard.


@bolero I registered just to comment on this! I am both a librarian and an archivist by training, and have worked as both. Right now, I'm a photo archivist at a historical society. And it's a grant-funded position. And it started out pretty damn part-time (14 hours/week), and I had to relocate for it. And I had to get a second part-time job in an office. BUT my supervisor loves me and wrote me into a big grant, and got my current grant extended, and found another project for me to work on. All of those things add up to full-time employment starting next month. For a year, but I'll take it.

So yeah, the job market in this field is kind of awful, especially if you're like me and want to do something specific (photo archivist). As an academic librarian, I was making a lot more money and had decent-ish job security, but I didn't like the work. Now, despite being SUPER poor and only being able to count on one year of full-time employment, I am way more content. Ugh, long story short: sometimes part-time, temporary things turn into full-time, not-as-temporary things!


@cynicalsunshine I wanted to a be photo archivist too--well, I actually wanted to be a digital photo librarian, and I still do, but it started out as an interest in photo archives. It turns out I really don't like preservation work, and I find it boring. But description and access? I'm all over that.

I'd like to really second everything everyone else has said above about the job market. I'd add that it's not just that people aren't retiring like they were "supposed" to, but that the field is changing, and jobs are changing. We had four people, not all professional librarians, retire at my (small, academic) library last year. All four positions were filled, but they changed in the process. Two went from para-professional to professional, and that caused friction with the existing professional librarians. In some libraries, it's the other way around: professionals retire or leave and are replaced with paraprofessionals (this is a particular problem in tech services).

You could end up using a library degree in a non-library setting, but figuring out how to get there isn't always easy or straightforward. I do think it's easier to use a general LIS master's in another field than it would be to use an archives concentration, but that depends on what you want to do. I would advise anyone interested in library school to get out there and talk to a lot of librarians. Talk to people in the field you think you want to be in, but talk to people in other areas as well. Find out about their jobs--what they do and how they got there. Find out about the market and trends in that area. Network through local chapters of professional groups in your field. Many of them have active programs for new librarians or students. SLA in particular is a great resource, particularly if you want to work in a non-traditional setting, but even if you're not, their focus on getting new professionals exposure to actual work experience would be helpful.

And for the love of God, get some work experience in something--anything!--after college before applying to library school. It's a professional program, and if you're coming from a liberal arts background (as you should be, and as most people do), it's an adjustment. You won't get as much out of it as you could if you don't have some real work experience under your belt, and you won't be able to contribute in the same way as you would if you had knowledge of the workplace. That can be an internship or a string of temp jobs. I don't care! Just don't be the 22-year-olds in my classes at The Only MLS Program in Boston who talked about how to handle office politics and delicate things with management when it's clear you'd never set foot in an office. This is a professional degree program, more like law school or business school than like getting a master's in English or history, and you should have some context for that before you dive in.


@Bolero I have an MLS and have primarily worked in archives, which is my first love...but now I'm making a pretty comfy living as a records manager type. I still get to keep a toe in the historical records, and I bought a house! Flexibility seems to be the key.


@pinecone "if you're coming from a liberal arts background (as you should be, and as most people do)" I don't think it's necessarily true that archivists "should be" coming from liberal arts/humanities. The field could use a little more diversity in terms of backgrounds, in my opinion. (Saying this as someone who came from a humanities background)


@theharpoon Agree 100%. Particularly since a big growth area of librarianship is going to be managing large data sets, more than liberal arts experience is going to be helpful.


@heroicdestinysquad BIG high-five to that. I do digitization in the special-collections department of an academic library, I am a recent MLS grad, and I have a few older coworkers who don't have library degrees, just graduate degrees in history. They are terrified of all this newfangled e-recs business...it makes sense to be drawn to archives out of a love of history, but practicing in the field really requires a very different set of skills/abilities.

Prostitute Robot From The Future

Omg, that link!? History, photography AND hot men? Totally relevant to my interests!


I work for an academic 'publishing' company (we put together academic collections of various subject areas, web-based, aimed predominantly at universities) -- getting archival material is always a laborious process, because Archives Are Messy, essentially. Does the archive have a finding aid? Is it remotely fleshed out or useful? Who can we get to film the material, who can grasp both the delicacy of the physical objects but the scope of what is useful for the indexer/researcher? Will the archive let us digitize parts of their collection? We love being able to get already-digitized materials, but for, say, letters/diaries collections.. unlikely. (Archives probably strongly dislike our editorial department.)

How does An Archivist opine re: archival material being digitized and made available to scholars online?


@singstrix Archivists are generally for this, but they are not necessarily for other people selling access to their materials, which is what is sounds like your company does?


@singstrix By which I mean to say, mostly, is it more like "aaaahhh get away from our precioussss" or like "a'ight, more visibility!"?


@theharpoon My company does set collections up behind a paywall, yes. Libraries, K-12 schools, and universities -- predominantly -- can subscribe or purchase outright access (to my understanding! I'm an indexer, which is a hybrid of like.. data entry and subject expertise). Also to my understanding, said archives are paid royalties, etc. etc., but it is not the free information sharing we-the-scholars would prefer.


@singstrix Yeah, probably depends on the institution. The Library of Congress is letting Ancestry.com digitize a bunch of their materials and keep them behind a paywall for the 1st five years, so who am I to complain?

katie s.@twitter

@singstrix most archivists i know heartily support this - but it has to be paid for somehow. and that's very expensive for public institutions. i work for an archives in a public library and we have virtually all of our photos and maps available online, but definitely charge fees for any kind of commercial use to offset the cost of digitizing that isn't covered by grants.


If you want to really rile up an archivist, use a metal paper clip or staple. To be fair though, as a historic preservationist, I have to say that my research has shown me* the havoc that metal wreaks on paper over time. If you want to keep your paper in good condition, don't use metal!

*As in, I have come across papers with metal fasteners, and they are corroded and it is terrible.


@mlle.gateau As someone who spent hours upon hours of various internships removing rusty pins, staples and clips from giant boxes of records - I concur.


@mlle.gateau Ugh, the library I work for has a (smallish) archival collection and I had to go through most of it last summer and there were so many paper clips. And disintegrated rubber bands.

Aunt Ada Doom

@mlle.gateau Oh, godddddddd. The staples! It's like a high-risk profession for tetanus.


@phlox Oh god those are groossssss. I'd rather deal with 100 rusty staples then one disintigrated-wtih-pieces-stuck-to-the-paper-in-bits rubber band.


@Aunt Ada Doom (I'm just giving the thumbs up to your name. Thumbs up!)



That makes THREE of us on the 'Pin--THREE! *squee*

Aunt Ada Doom

@Maven Thanks! I've been waiting patiently for a chance to mention something nasty in the woodshed, but have been thwarted so far.




@The Everpresent Wordsnatcher HP PEOPLE UNITE!


@mlle.gateau Yesssss. The other one is @BadWolf, who is presumably working on her thesis edits right now but will be SO HYPED when she returns! Oooh, now I want to hijack this thread and ask you about all your HP things.


@The Everpresent Wordsnatcher I am in a PhD program, so @BadWolf is clearly closer to being done than I am, but YES, HP stuff!


@mlle.gateau I just got my MHP and RESPECT to you for going PhD with it. Yowza.

Aunt Ada Doom

@mlle.gateau So, I made it through this string thinking that HP stood for Harry Potter, till I re-read your first comment. It was fun while it lasted.


@Aunt Ada Doom To further disappoint you, I am totally unfamiliar with Harry Potter and did not understand the references in the original article. Pop culture FAIL.

katie s.@twitter

@mlle.gateau Also, please do not use acidy tape.


@Aunt Ada Doom This happens All The Time. Not just "more than you'd think," but literally all the time. It is okay.



strobe kat

@mlle.gateau not only are staples bad for paper, staple removal is dangerous for archivists! I know someone who got hit in the eye by a particularly nasty rusty staple. In the eye! She was fine, thankfully. But seriously people, step away from the staplers!


@mlle.gateau Sooo... is HP awesome or super-awesome? Because it sounds up my alley, but I've never looked into it much. My undergrad minor was history, so I've got that much going for me. Pardon my starry eyes and naïveté.


@whateverlolawants Ooh, can I answer? (Viewpoint: a person who just finished her MHP and is starting her first real job, as an architectural historian for a cultural resource management firm, in two weeks...)

I mean, I love it, but it'll vary for everyone. If you don't really enjoy writing, HP is not for you. (There are aspects of the field that don't involve as much writing, but if writing's not your gig, then neither is HP.) It's a very cool and surprisingly wide-ranging field and has interesting aspects for all sorts of people.

Word of warning: jobs are HARD to find, and don't pay great (from the ones I've seen). I lucked out hearing about mine and am still in shock over getting it. So that's something to take into consideration. Generally it's a pretty marginalized field and one that a lot of people don't consider important, the awesome people in this thread excepted, of course.

I feel like I've been all bummer over this! I am not bummer over this! I learned a lot of fun things in my program and still love the field after dealing with two years of school, and I'm pretty hyped to start working.

@gateau, your take?


@whateverlolawants Okay, so bearing in mind what @The Everpresent Wordsnatcher says about jobs, which is totally true (but probably true of jobs in most fields in the present economy), I still think HP is superawesome. My program is a little different from TEW's because it's labeled "public history," but really most of the work I do is HP. I think it's super awesome! I love my program and I love the work I'm doing, which is a lot of writing, but in a different way from what TEW does- I'm less architecture-oriented and more history-oriented, if that makes sense. I do some architectural descriptions, but I am not an architectural historian. :-)

My background is also in traditional history, and what brought me to HP was that it let me do all the things I love about history- talking to people about it, reading and writing about lots of different things- without the things I didn't want to do, like writing a really long, intense monograph about one topic over the course of seven years! I get to work on a wide variety of topics: mid-20th-century model farming, the Civil Rights Movement, Victorian leisure culture, international preservation, just about anything you can think of. Even more importantly for me, I think the work I do makes a difference for people and for communities. Traditional history is important, but I feel like what I do in HP has a much more tangible benefit that I find really appealing. I don't think it's necessarily for everyone, but if you like history but want something concrete and different to work on, then HP might be a good fit for you.

Do it! Look into it! Let me know if you want to know more. :-)


@whateverlolawants Ooh, yes, seconding what @mlle.gateau said, and realizing I forgot to add my background: BA in studio art and art history, so I'm coming at it from a slightly different angle. And I got to do my thesis work on gas stations, which was awesome. Public History does go at things at a slightly different angle than HP does, but there's plenty of overlap! I tend to do more with buildings and landscapes than people. So there's lots of options for you!

And if you see @BadWolf around, she's finishing up her MHP and is doing her thesis on boats/ships/some sort of seafaring vessels, I believe. So cool!


@mlle.gateau @The Everpresent Wordsnatcher

Thanks to both of you! It's awesome to hear your perspectives. I suppose I'd be more of a public history type. I love art but don't have much of a background in it. I definitely like writing. I used to get A's on almost all of my undergrad history papers, along with compliments from my profs, so I suppose that's a good start. Any really good programs to check out?

Gas stations! How cool.

Also, @mlle.gateau, for what kind of organization do you work? Or are you doing schoolwork only at this time?


@whateverlolawants I do some coursework, but a lot of the work I do is actual HP work through the organization where I have my assistantship with my program. So, in a sense, it's coursework, but it's projects that have been contracted out to the organization I work for, so it's real world work as well. You should email me and I can talk programs and stuff with you, and also be more specific about where I am! :-) It's this username (same punctuation) at gmail, and I would be happy to talk to you about the program I'm in and what I know about other programs.

Springtime for Voldemort

@mlle.gateau @The Everpresent Wordsnatcher Are you limited to more local history with HP/public history? What kind of writing - the type of stuff that ends up on JSTOR, or the more paper-pushing, filling out forms kind of stuff? Also, is there just some giant book out there, perhaps called Everything You Need To Know To Decide What Kind of Historian(ish) You Should Be, with all the various archivist vs public history vs historic preservation etc stuff? I am also just totally confused about what the various possibilities are for after getting a history undergrad.


@papayalily I can't answer for public history, but the HP stuff I've done has been more local--by my own choice, and also because of my job. (However, my thesis was more on a national scale, focusing on a specific building type, so it varies!) The writing also varies--in my job it's more forms, architectural descriptions, and documentation-type things. HP in general also involves fun things like National Register nominations, which include arguments for significance, historic contexts (where this particular building/landscape fits in with wider realms of buildings/landscapes/etc), integrity discussions, and other fun things. (I like those, because I like arguing things.) You can do more JSTOR type writing, but HP in general tends to be fairly practical (as opposed to abstract). So lots of options!

Springtime for Voldemort

@The Everpresent Wordsnatcher LOL "I like those, because I like arguing things." Ok, that just needs to be all over the internet.


@papayalily I do Public History (mostly HP) and it does not have to be local history- like you don't have to go live in Small Town, USA and write the history of Small Town, USA. I work with a lot of local historians as I write things like National Register nominations, because they have good info, but I'm not really a local historian in that sense. Sometimes I write microhistories, but again, that's not really local history (necessarily). National Register nominations can also argue for statewide or national significance- like right now I'm working on an NR for a farm that's locally significant, but also on one for a property that's significant nationally because of its connections to the Civil Rights Movement.

Yes, some public hist and HP stuff ends up on JSTOR, but if you want to see what that stuff looks like, you should look up the National Council on Public History's journal, which is very creatively named The Public Historian! Also, PH and HP overlap a lot (though that sometimes varies depending on who you talk to), and of course we're all doing history, really, it just kind of depends on where we do it, if that makes sense.

Anyway, if you want to look at programs to see how they differ from traditional history, some of the programs I know offhand are UC Santa Barbara, Columbia, Middle Tennessee State University, Southeast Missouri, Vermont, UMass Amherst, SCAD, West Virginia University, and UVA. The biggest difference in HP approaches will be between programs with more of a history emphasis and programs with more of an architecture/urban planning emphasis, so just kind of watch out for that to see which you feel more comfortable with.

One of us! One of us!


one of us
one of us

As far as programs go, I went to Kentucky for HP and while I got a lot out of it, the program is kiiiiind of a mess? It has more of an architecture/planning emphasis to it. Most HP programs are graduate level (there's a handful of undergrad programs around, but most graduate programs are geared towards people with non-HP undergrad degrees and give you a good basis on HP practice and theory.)

one of us, one of us...

Springtime for Voldemort

@mlle.gateau @The Everpresent Wordsnatcher Thanks sooooooo much you guys!!! (And very possibly, will become one of you!)


Is there still interest in doing an Ask A Librarian? I know there's several of us, shall we form a collective too?


@phlox I'm newish on the 'pin (and as a librarian) but I think that would be really cool!

Aunt Ada Doom

@phlox Well, if anyone wants to know about the thrilling world of systems librarianship, I'm here for you.

Cat named Virtute

@Punk-assBookJockey The second I saw your 'Pin name, I cursed myself for not choosing it myself.

Librarian-in-training reporting for duty. Focus on reference and user services, only moderately cynical (so far).


@phlox Me too!! I even run the service at my work that we already call Ask A Librarian :)


@Cat named Virtute Thanks! I love how much they hate the librarians on Parks and Rec.


@phlox Ooh, can I help? I've been a reference librarian at a large public university for a couple of years now. I would love to help de-mystify what we do!
@reburkel We use the Ask a Librarian service too!


@phlox Yes!! I'd be happy to bore anyone on the 'Pin to sleep with discussions about FRBR, RDA (which sucks!!), AACR2 (which I'm gonna miss, srsly), LCRI, metadata, etc. OI questions? Insomnia? I'm your gal!


@phlox I am in library school right now and love this! Also I would like to join the collective.


@Cat named Virtute As a fellow librarian-in-training and devoted Weakerthans fan, I would just like to say I love your username


@Punk-assBookJockey I'm also a newish 'pinner and am almost done with my MLIS, but I am always excited to discuss the field with anyone who'll sit still.


An Ask A Librarian would be great! It's something I'm hoping to go into (although the scarcity of jobs is scary).

Cat named Virtute

@drunkennoodle Why thank you! It's a recent name change for increased-anonymity purposes. What program are you at?

Cat named Virtute

@TheCheesemanCometh Oh man, my friend and fellow librarian is helping to FRBRize the catalogue at the library where we work. She showed me some of what she's working on last night and it looks AWESOME (I'd never seen FRBR in the wild, or even learned about it very well, THANKS cataloguing class), although I'll be interested to see how intuitive patrons find it.


@phlox As a Librarian-by-Proxy (I've spent more time working in libraries than I have working in my own grad school field), I'd totally read that.


@Cat named Virtute I think FRBR has excellent potential, although I too am wondering how well patrons will interact with it, but RDA just ticks me off. The aspects that are tied directly into the priciples of FRBR are cool, but so much of it seems like dumbing-down that it automatically annoys me. I'm getting pretty tired of having to make everything super simplistic so that our patrons (hello, aren't they Research I institution grad students??) don't have to strain themselves looking for anything. Like the bathroom. Sigh.


@phlox So in! As long as we're accepting corporate librarians in the mix...


@phlox if you need a burned-out law firm librarian to chime in on Ask A Librarian ...HELLO.

Aunt Ada Doom

In grad school, our flat was 2 archivists, a librarian, a writer, and an equine studies major. (It's like a bad joke setup, yes.)

Equine studies major finally stated that the difference between librarians and archivists was that if she was visiting us and cut herself, the librarian would help staunch the bleeding, while the archivist would snatch away the materials.

As the librarian, I liked the explanation.


@Aunt Ada Doom A rare books librarian, however, would put the equine studies major in the freezer immediately, then remove the remains of the blood once the equine studies major had frozen.

(Do rare books librarians actually do that anymore?)


During my junior year of high school, we were learning about American history, and my teacher said something along the lines of "And if you visit the rare books library at Dartmouth, you can see Daniel Webster's socks." Now, because 17-year-old me wanted to study in the remote wilderness, I actually found myself a few weeks later visiting Dartmouth and taking a tour, which I insisted my parents and I ditch once we found out where the rare books library was.

Because I was a dope, I had assumed that something as awesome as Daniel Webster's socks would be out on display somewhere, but they weren't. So I went to the front desk and said "I was told I could look at Daniel Webster's socks. How can I do that?" At which point a very friendly archivist directed me to a table I could sit down at. The Dartmouth rare books library is neat, because all of the stacks are behind glass behind the front desk, so I could see my archivist take the elevator up, disappear behind some shelves, and come back with a large-ish box that she set down in front of me. She opened the box, and inside were a pair of dingy looking socks, and a white beaver skin top hat. There wasn't much else to see, I didn't have much to say, and I felt bad for making her go through all the trouble. So I lingered over the box for about a minute longer than I intended, at which point I sheepishly thanked her and got the hell out as soon as I could. But she couldn't have been more friendly and helpful!

So, yeah. Archivists are pretty alright in my book.


@boyofdestiny "your" archivist... you're cute.

Nicole Greenhouse@facebook

This article made me squeal with glee (I am in a masters program in archives right now). I am working at an archive mostly doing a web archiving project, so hopefully the twenty first century won't be a black hole. There are a lot of interesting web archiving stuff going on (like the Internet Archive).


@Nicole Greenhouse@facebook Ooh! I am starting a master's program at NYU for archives this Fall and I am so excited. Any advice?

Nicole Greenhouse@facebook

@myrna.minkoff I AM IN THE SAME PROGRAM, WOOO. I am sure we will be in same class next semester (Creating Digital History). Peter Wosh is the best, the program is chill, try to get a job at one of the NYU archives: Fales, Tamiment (I work here), the University , and take it slow, because there are lots of good resources. I am really enjoying it.


@myrna.minkoff As someone said above, know your tech stuff.


@Nicole Greenhouse@facebook WOOO classmates! Isn't Cathy Hajo the instructor for Digital History? She was my supervisor when I interned at the Margaret Sanger Papers Project a few years back.

I actually already got a job in the archives! I am doing the assistantship at the archive in Bobst with Nancy Cricco.

Nicole Greenhouse@facebook

Yes, as far as I know. I've heard the class is so-so, but its a requirement. Yay university archives!


if only everything was explained in Harry Potter terms.


@Ka$hleen I once had a philosophy professor who taught symbolic logic in terms of Battlestar Galactica. (The old-school version.)


Archivists! THE BEST.


Yay! *I'm* an archivist!

Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler

Thanks so much for posting this! I'm an undergrad and making my first forays into archival research this summer for my thesis (!!) I'm writing about Algeria which means going to Aix-en-Provence, which is awesome but I'm a little nervous about doing all this research in French!

But it will be super fun. and i can always go to the beach when i'm feeling archived-out.


Aaaaah! Excitement! I have a BA and an MA in history, so I spent a whole assload of my time in archives until very recently, digging around for all the things. Because of this I am also very tight with more than a few librarians and archivists. I love seeing my kind of people talking my kind of talk on the Hairpin, oh yes I dooooo! \o/

Also, favorite archive anecdote (that also backs up the 'you can't always go paperless' idea): the professor I had for Latin American history my first semester of grad school told us that, depending on the part of South America you end up in, the archives are still completely unorganized and housed in dank basements full of rats and mold, and that there aren't enough people studying in any one particular region of South America (outside of major cities) to consider fixing that issue a "demand" in the area. He said he would have to allot at least double the amount of time to find things in a rural archive as he would to find similar things in an urban one. Things are changing, true, but at the time ('09) he was saying that Latin America is still an area where, once you've written a definitive and solid work on an area, you pretty much become the Leading Historian on that topic, because you're likely the only one (or one of a handful) to have done it.

I'm sure this is paralleled in other parts of the world that aren't caught up to major urban areas, technologically speaking. I know that here in America, we as a society tend to think of paperlessness and e-archives as the Wave of the Future (or even the Current Way of Things), but while we do that we tend to forget that widespread access to this stuff is still a very privileged thing worldwide.


@Scandyhoovian Herrflerderbler, look at me being all srs bzns (and with parenthetical asides (all over the damn thing)) up in here. It's like a view into my first drafts of anything, ever, in the history of Scandyhoovian writing things.


@Scandyhoovian Fascinating! I used to live in Quito, Ecuador, so I wonder what the archives all around Ecuador are like. At a talk by history profs at my college, one mentioned an archive in Mexico City that was in a former jail. Where political dissidents had been jailed, I believe. Possibly scholars.

El Grande Fluffio

I'm so excited to see this post! I love archival research -- spent my dissertation research years in a cloistered convent reading old letters, account books, papal bulls with giant wax seals. Happiest days!

The Lady of Shalott

Archivists, you are great! Thanks for helping me with the research for my thesis last summer! I spent three months going through microfilm records for over a hundred newspapers over the five-year span of the Great War, and it was...less than awesome.

The most aggravating question I got was "Ugh, why haven't they digitized those yet?" and I was like well...you do realize that everything costs money, of which there is a limited amount, and for SOME REASON, the newspaper of a rural Eastern Canadian township with a circulation of 3,000 that was only printed twice a week between 1910 and 1928 is not high on the list for digitization.


Eira Tansey@twitter

Yay! So glad to see a shout out to archivists. I am finishing my MLIS and have worked in archives since undergrad. Some days it's a tad repetitive, some days it's AWESOME (like the time I found a letter from Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a collection, or a photo of Woody Allen hanging out at a party with the ambassador to the Vatican) And y'all should check out the comic for archivists, Derangement and Description: http://derangementanddescription.wordpress.com/


Between this and the book-conservation story, I just want to bury myself away in stacks of old paper.

Meg Tuomala@twitter

a true archivist is not scared by the format of records! e-records are fun!

strobe kat

A-ha! I was looking for an opportunity to de-lurk and then this! I'm an archivist (specifically, a digital archivist (in training))! This is gonna be a heck of a nerdy first comment, sorry.

I kind of feel like I want to stick up for digital records, which aren't scary at all! The difficult part is getting them off whatever the hell they were on and onto something stable, and then working out what they are; there are computery things and processes that can do bits of that. Beyond that, its just a new kind of paper, where you don't have to decipher handwriting, risk injury from paper cuts or rusty staples, and it's searchable! Digital records are great, they just need a bit of attention.

(Side note: I had never seen a 5.25" floppy disc until I started this job - they are actually floppy, who knew?! Just don't bend them!)


@strobe kat But.... provenance? Provenience? I can't ever remember which word it's supposed to be (I'm not an archivist, I am just in a program with several!), but isn't that problematic when you make digital records accessible? Unless you're a librarian-archivist...


@mlle.gateau That's why you run a hash on the original bitstream and save it as part of the object metadata, so you know if anything has been changed. There are a ton of people working on authenticity in the digital archives world.


Here's my best archives story: when I was doing my Ph.D. research, I went to Poland to look for the papers of one of the guys I was working on. The archivist there didn't speak English and I don't speak Polish, so for a while we were talking to each other through the student assistant, who did speak English. But one day the assistant wasn't there, so the archivist and I did the best we could with my rather mangled German. She brought me the materials I needed, and I opened the box to find a three-ring binder full of documents that had been pasted to plain white paper - completely obliterating the text near the margins, in some cases. I looked up to ask about it, and the archivist told me (as best I could tell) that the documents had been preserved as well as possible, but that the archives had been burned twice during World War II - once by the Nazis when they invaded Poland, and again by the Red Army when they drove the Nazis out. She then shrugged as if to say, "What can you do?" and wished me luck.

I now have a notebook full of lovely transcriptions of the middle of each sheet. They're almost completely useless for my purposes (all the interesting things happened near the edges), but I really love the story.


There's a fun movie about the whole print vs ebook issue touched upon in this article, made long before the issue was quite so prominent in media discourse.

Those with an interest in librarianship and archiving and/or classic movies should consider checking out Desk Set (starring Katherine Hepburn). It used to be instant watch, but looks like it's not now.


So... overall gist I have from the threads is that Library Sciences/archival work is just as overpopulated a job market as the rest of it. Is there *any* job market that isn't like this? I want to major in History and go on to work in museums (masters in Library Science?)... is this a "turn back now" sign? XD


@Shayna If you want to work in museums, you should look at Museum Studies programs...I think some museum jobs will take Public History or Archival Management degrees but having a more specialized degree will make you way more marketable.


Provenience? I can't ever remember which word it's supposed to be (I'm not an archivist, I am just in a program with several!) job search


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