Archives and Libraries: What I’ve learned so far

by Katie Dennis-Gunnerson, 2nd year

As I come closer to my last semester at SLIS and look forward to the job search, I’ve been thinking a lot about what kind of job I will find once I graduate. It is not likely that I’ll find, or even want, a traditional archives job. Knowing this before I started this program, I made the choice early on to diversify my curriculum vitae by foregoing some of the traditional archive classes and taking a broader range of classes from different sub-fields within the information profession. Myself, along with like-minded classmates, often call ourselves “archive and library hybrids.”

The traditional librarian we all obviously aspire to be: the ghost of Eleanor Twitty from Ghostbusters

As I consider the type of job I might find and if my time at SLIS will have prepared me for it, I find myself reflecting on where the archives and libraries intersect and how I can bring together what I’ve learned from both in my future career. Recently, I’ve realized the principles that inform the library profession are much more useful for work in the archives than I previously understood. Librarians focus heavily on usability, access, innovation, freedom of information, outreach and literacy. But what I appreciate the most about the library profession is the awareness that they don’t know everything. Librarians teach us how to “sift and winnow” through the massive amounts of information available and find what we need. They don’t pretend to know everything–but they can find somewhere or someone that does. Who else is drowning in massive amounts of information? Archivists. Boxes and boxes of different formats, sitting on shelf upon shelf on floor upon floor of information. Can one archivist ever be an expert on the content of their entire institution or in handling every possible format? No, that’s ridiculous…

But I know I’m not the only archivist at SLIS who has felt the pressure to be an expert, to learn it all before graduating, to know how to deal with every format, every situation, to cram as much learning and experience into my time in school as possible through jobs, courses, workshops, conferences and extracurricular activities. Most archivists I know have a background in history or a specialized branch of the humanities; archivists pride ourselves on being the authority on what we collect and the preservation of every format in which it could come. I don’t know if that level of expertise is possible to reach in a lifetime, but it’s definitely not realistic after only two years in school. I’m becoming more comfortable with the idea that I don’t know most of what I might need to know in my future job, but guess what?! I can figure it out (thank you librarians!)

The traditional archivist we all aspire to be: Abigal Chase from the National Archives in National Treasure

Recently, SAA-SC had the great pleasure of spending the afternoon with Peter Shrake, the well-known “lone arranger” at Circus World’s Robert L. Parkinson Library and Research Center in Baraboo, WI. Pete, who graduated from SLIS, has taught me something new every time I’ve toured Circus World or heard him speak about his job.

This visit, as he took us through the archive/library at Circus World, where he is the only paid staff member, he mentioned at nearly every stop a different responsibility that fell into his job description. He is an archivist trained in manuscripts, but he also has to be a historian, a curator, a reference archivist, a librarian, a collection manager, a preservationist, a film/audio/artifact/ephemera/textile archivist, librarian and curator. He’s a facilities manager, volunteer manager, cataloger, teacher, speaker, researcher, records manager and a great resource for SLIS students from which to learn a quintessential lesson: You will not know how to do everything and that is okay.

Peter Shrake at Circus World: The archivist, librarian, curator, teacher, historian, researcher, cataloger, reference archivist/librarian, records manager and so much more that we will inevitably have to be if we want jobs.

As I listened to Pete talk about all the things he has to know or learn how to do, I kept thinking “wow, he’s not just a librarian/archivist hybrid, he has to be so much more!” After learning about all the aspects of Pete’s job, as a 21-century archivist, I figured there’s no way he could do what he does at Circus World without having learned a few of the most important lessons I’ve come to learn at SLIS, from both disciplines–libraries and archives:

  • There will always be something you don’t know
  • Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know” and don’t pretend to know things you don’t.
  • You will (within reason) be able to figure it out or learn how. Rely on the expertise of others when you can’t.
  • Learn about or try new technologies, keep up-to-date on what’s happening in the profession.
  • You will forget how to do certain things if you don’t do them often. That is okay. Keep good notes and know where to find them when that knowledge is required.
  • “That’s the way it’s always been” is not a good enough excuse for certain things. But you won’t have the power to change everything that needs changing. Pick your battles.
  • Do not let authority and power make you think your position, time or expertise is more valuable than the work those you manage do.
  • Customer service and communication skills, “soft skills,” are so important. You must invest time in developing them.
  • There will always be more that you can do. Learn to say no. Find balance. Your health, family/friends are more important than your job.

I still have SO much to learn. I look forward to the future, whether in an archive, library or somewhere completely different, and what it will teach me. Admitting that you don’t and can’t know it all is the first step towards the pursuit of lifelong learning. Thanks Pete, SLIS instructors and mentors in libraries and archives for leading by example and teaching us so much.

Copyright Information: Blog content, current and past, belongs to the SAA-SC member credited. Please credit the University of Wisconsin-Madison Society of American Archivists-Student Chapter Archives Month Blog AND the creator if citing. Please contact the individual or for copyright details.


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