We've all heard it before, at dinner parties, from relatives, from our therapists: "Oh, you write. Does that mean you'll be a teacher?" Fine, fine. We can't make enough money to "eat" or "live" from our poetry. Every MFA graduate knows the horrible feeling that settles into her stomach as graduation approaches. You finished a whole book!, you keep telling people. And still, no prospective employers come a-calling. Here at HFR, we know how you feel. We thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at some jobs we writers and lovers of books might enjoy. Or do enjoy. Or have tried, and regret. This regular post, A Cup of Ambition, will talk to those in-the-know about what the working world is really like.
Meet our sixth guest...
Carrie Hintz; Processing Archivist, Rare Book and Manuscript Library; Columbia University; New York City, NY.
How did you come to be an archivist?
After a few year hiatus from academia after my undergraduate degree (in English) I began to realize that I needed to do something a little bit more fulfilling and career-oriented with my life than continue on as a low-level manager at Barnes & Noble. The decision to look at graduate programs in archives and library science came pretty easily-- it combined my love of research and scholarship with some of the collection management and reference aspects of my bookstore job that I really liked. There was also the added benefit of moving away from the bottom-line-focused, big box corporate culture world.
The Good Stuff
That I learn something new every day.
The Bad Stuff
It can be tedious. Working on an archival collection is sort of like getting into a long-term relationship- there is the exciting, getting to know you phase, which can be followed by a period of slight boredom and discontent before you realize that there are always surprises and complexities in every collection that keep you interested.
Archivists love throwing things away! The stereotype is that if someone is going to do this job they must have an almost fetishistic love of old paper or a weird hoarding disorder. The reality, though, is that we get a lot of duplicate material and a lot of stuff that really doesn't have much research value or doesn't fit in with the collecting scope of our repository, and the more of that that we can recycle, return to the donor, or donate to a more appropriate institution, the stronger that collection becomes as a research tool.
Spin a Yarn
Yesterday I sat through a meeting on emerging technologies, helped a patron find a photograph of a now-defunct chemical museum, and found teeth in a collection of personal papers. This is not really an anecdote, but it is an example of how varied and sometimes downright odd my daily routine can be.
Who makes a good archivist?
You need to be able to work independently be intellectually curious. My position also includes a public service/reference component and some committee work, so being able to work with people is a bigger asset than some people think. You also need to be really aware of your own biases and interests and not impart them into your work too much. A previous boss once gave me a collection to process noting that it was mostly some guy's genealogical research. Really, over half of the collection was an amazing cache of letters between a mother in the midwest and her daughter who was attending Oberlin in 1898. My boss saw the collection as a patrilineal genealogical collection, and I saw it as an amazing glimpse into the daily life of a young woman on the vanguard of women's higher education. We were both right, and it is important to express both of these sides of the collection in a finding aid or catalog record.
How do I become you?
At this point, if someone is interested in entering the field a Master's degree in archives (or in library science with some significant coursework in archival management) is pretty much essential. Another Master's degree in a humanities field is also, actually, a big plus. This and academic librarianship are perhaps the only professions in the world where that terminal Master's in Victorian Literature or Ukranian History is actually a benefit.
Thoughts on this job for writers...
This is a good job for writers and for literature majors. Processing a collection is, in many ways, like writing an essay about a novel. You have to assess the collection, determine what's important, find the major themes, and then arrange the collection around those themes in a way that makes sense to a researcher, yet stays true to the intent of the originator of the collection. Plus, when the arrangement is done we write a biography or history of our subject and a description of how we arranged the papers and why, so there is a definite concrete writing aspect involved as well.