Why Archivists Go To Library School

Stephanie Bennett is entering her second year at Simmons GSLIS, where she will get her MS in Library Science and Archives Management in May 2012. She is formerly a corporate researcher; currently a summer archives intern at the Association of American Medical Colleges; and will be returning to part-time work as a tutor and archives assistant in the fall. Steph loves talking to and learning from information professionals, paying it forward, playing with babies and poodles, and happy hours. Now discussing archives and accepting Boston bar recommendations on Twitter at @stephestellar.

Archivists, in some ways, are fighting a battle even more uphill than librarians. A bold statement, but hear me out. Everyone – well, nearly everyone – has been into a library at some point in their life. Schools of all kinds and for all ages, corporations, not-for-profits, even prisons have libraries. But who goes to the archives? Who even know what to go to the archives for? We archivists appeal to a more niche population. I spend a lot of time trying to explain what archives are and, most importantly, what they can do for “normal people,” because I don’t know how to duck those questions.

As we learn to share the bounties and benefits of archives with a wider public, archives students benefit from working with our library and information colleagues in masters programs. In archives, there is still a preference for history backgrounds, but I believe that as society becomes more digital, other skills of archivists and records managers will become broadly applicable and necessary. These skills are plentiful at LIS schools, and archives coursework is not the only way to get them.

Libraries and archives overlap in some important ways, requiring similar skills. Obviously, information discovered in the archives often fuels book content. Authors and academics need both libraries and archives to create their scholarship. Also, as the economy continues to get thrashed, all library and archives professionals are working harder than ever to demonstrate their value to local budgets and community members. It is not enough to say, don’t you love books and research? Both archivists and librarians must go out and show off our knowledge superpowers; it’s as easy as a quick lesson on Google searching or a new online tool/resource. In these demonstrations of our usefulness, lessons learned in those entry-level LIS courses or used every day in information settings are our greatest tools (well, with a bit of personality/nicety mixed in).  Just as librarians and archivists work alongside in our introductory coursework, we can work together on the challenges of digital organization, bringing our different points of view.

Sometimes in practice, librarians and archivists do go their separate ways. I’ve been reminded of this recently at my summer internship in a non-profit’s Reference Center. Records management is particularly important to archives, especially in a busy organization. I don’t know much about collection development, but I imagine that the planning, politics, and legalities inherent in records management is not much like collection development. The way librarians deal with budget issues is probably more comparable to archivists accessioning materials. So, librarians, be thankful that you don’t have to deal with records management, and archivists: get ready!

Despite any differences, we archivists can learn plenty from librarians, and trust me, I’ve been taking notes. Tools in the archives trade are sometimes stodgy and one-dimensional: elaborate finding aid documents that are simply words; no graphics; little signage. I am very excited about the work being done in larger archives to bring our information to the public – for example, the National Archives’ Wikipedian-in-Residence program – but what about the smaller archival repositories like this? Archives generally don’t have a lot of funding, and we’re missing the “instant recognition” of libraries. Archives and their archivists need some pizzazz, ASAP.

As libraries are working hard to be living, breathing educational and community-focused spaces, archives and archivists and especially baby archivists should pay attention. I have already learned a few things from my library/information colleagues through twitter posts and blogs, and I’m looking forward to many more.

So it’s just as well that we all sit together at library school. Thank you, information professionals of all walks, for sharing your knowledge in the classrooms and student organization events of library school. I believe the world’s information will be the better for our time together.

Categories: Specializations

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33 replies

  1. Stephanie, I really enjoyed reading your post! I think that libraries and archivists need to do a better job of teaching librarians and almost-librarians some basic archival reference skills, such as reading and interpreting a finding aid! That would be very helpful information to have while staffing a library reference desk. I’m sure you might get a patron who is trying to read a finding aid online, even if it’s not from your institution, but has no clue where to start.

    The other day, one of my colleagues asked me if items in archival collections were individually cataloged. While I almost gasped, I really shouldn’t have expected her to have that knowledge — where would she have gotten it from unless she took an archives class?


    • Such a great point, and worth thinking about. A few people in my Intro to Archives class last semester weren’t on the archives track, and I was surprised that they’d bother taking the class. But maybe there’s something to that after all.

      The head of the reference center at the AAMC is a librarian, but she works side by side with the archivist, and I bet she knows more about archives than she thought she would while attending library school!


    • In my program I noticed that many archives students resented the fact that most of required core classes had a stronger library focus. I disagree with them that library skills are inapplicable in a library — for instance, librarians spend much more time talk about and researching how to provide better reference services, something that is barely touched on in archival literature — but I think it’s unfortunate that future librarians aren’t being exposed to basic archival principles at all. Basic skills like reading a finding aid, like you mentioned, would serve librarians well.


  2. I think you made some great points. At my school, I don’t see a seperate ‘archive school’ and a ‘library school.’ In my program, I see myself as training to become an information professional in general, and that means I am taking courses in archives, records management and more traditional library-style courses. There is definite overlap in all of these courses. I could end up anywhere in the field of information, and I find that really exciting.


  3. This is a really great post! I feel really terrible because I wasn’t really sure what archivists did. Obviously, I am ignorant and that’s also due to the fact that my school doesn’t really offer an archives track; but I want to change my ways. Thank you for shedding some light on archivists!


    • I’m with Annie–I have virtually NO understanding of how archives are organized or anything. At UT, archives are a huge focus and take up a lot of the course offerings, but I’ve never taken advantage of them because they seem to be in a totally different world. Thanks for your perspective.


    • Thanks for weighing in – I take so many archives classes I forget that there’s a world out there without them. Maybe student groups – I guess I’m thinking of student chapters of SAA – could throw events at library school that can give future librarians a better idea of what archivists do and how archives can be useful to them…


        • Archives contain original, unique materials while special collections do not. Special collections contain books or other materials that are rare or are worth more than the average book, but they are not original or unique. It’s confusing because many libraries will place them together departmentally, but special collections librarianship is definitely different from archives. Unfortunately, I don’t think many library schools have courses on special collections librarianship — probably one of the reasons the Rare Book School exists.


        • Like Rose mentioned, “archivist” and “special collections librarian” aren’t interchangeable, but they do get lumped together organizationally. At my university, the Special Collections department hold items such as rare books, maps, and state government publications, as well as archives and manuscripts. Individual staff members have different educational backgrounds and subject expertise, but there’s also a lot of cross training. Reference is a big area where this is crucial — patrons in our reading room ask questions of varying complexity, from requesting a book by title to needing to consult the paper copy of a finding aid to find primary sources. So even though arranging a records series is not the same as cataloging a book, it actually serves us best to have an understanding of both.


  4. Really enjoyed your post! There is obvious overlap in library and archival coursework and in the actual work that librarians and archivists do–managing and providing access to information are core services in both libraries and archives. While I agree that archivists should ‘pay attention’ as librarians work to create “living, breathing educational and community-focused spaces,” archives are ultimately not libraries (especially to average users). That said, archivists are a potential untapped resource for digital information management initiatives and are uniquely well positioned to contribute to burgeoning LIS subfields like digital humanities and data visualization. I think that in digital spaces, we will see more and more cross over between these two areas.


    • Point taken that archives are not libraries. You should write a post about it, Nora! 🙂 And I too am curious to see how libraries and archives will interact or mix in the digital space – although I think they should maintain some integrity, since the functions do suit different needs and serve different purposes.


    • Great point Nora, and well articulated. It’s been a goal of mine to include an archival perspective on this here blog for a long time, and I hope we continue to explore the overlap and especially the areas where archivists can lead librarians. And now… what to do with museum people? (What do we even call them anyways?)


    • Ha, this goes to show I have a lot to learn – I didn’t know they still had just-history archives programs. Simmons does have a dual-degree MA/MLIS program, though, I should get one of my colleagues to write about it!


      • My undergraduate institution had one. Every one I know who went into it swore it was the only way to get a job in archives in the northwest. I’m just curious about the validity of that perspective. Every archivist I’ve met has generally been MLIS, but than I’m in an MLIS program. That’s why I’m curious.


        • I certainly hope that’s not the case, or I’m in trouble.

          I spoke with an archivist with a history background before, and for him there is some resentment that archivists coming into the field from library science schools are not well educated on the methods of the historian and historical research, and that library programs, particularly in universities, are trying to appropriate archives without educating themselves on the fundamental differences between operating a library and operating an archive.

          This is all hearsay from a single person, so I don’t know if this opinion is popular among old guard archivists.

          What I do know is that I have invested in a lot of history meta theory as a result. I think as long as archivists remember the LIS maxim of “know your user,” many of the gaps between the educational tracks can be bridged.


    • As far as I know, and have heard, archives generally look for someone with an MLIS AND/OR a background in history with coursework in archives. Here at FSU, there are two Museum Studies courses (Archives and Records Management) that are taught in the History Department. Perhaps one of us should ask Kate Theimer (@archivesnow) what the profession really wants. Here’s a kicker to complicate things – what about digital archivists? Who are those people and what sort of background do they have? One I know of, Trevor Owens (@tjowens) is a PhD in Educational Psychology and Instructional Tech with an MA in History and New Media. Sounds like we may need to start to reclassify things, OR maybe the degree doesn’t matter as much as we all think.


      • It’s so hard, because today’s digital archivists or even “regular” archivists didn’t have the schooling or course options that we did. So I know how Mr. A. became an archivist, but he didn’t have many MLIS options 30 years ago. Similarly, I know a ton of conservators who do not have much science background, but that would never fly these days. Those lucky dogs!


  5. i guess it all depends on what your background and what you’re wanting to do…

    In academic settings, i think there is an overall trend to in hiring fewer librarians/archivist and more subject specialist, IT/technical people, and manager-types. If you’re pursing a MLIS, I’d strongly recommend to try and at least have some exposure to one of the other topics…either be a subject specialist, have technical expertise, or have manager skills. I’d say the more experience you can get in one of these, the bigger the increase in your chances of finding a permanent decent paying job.

    So, if you’re really wanting to follow an archivists track, I’d highly recommend either getting as much programming skills as you can or getting certified in records/document management. That will really increase your job prospects, especially for long-term/permanent positions. Some “pure” historical archivists are in the same boat as a lot of musicians and artists I know…they love it, but they also have to string together a lot of part-time/temporary positions to make it all work.

    And of course it all depends on where you live and what your lifestyle is like….


  6. I’m just starting an MSIS program in the archives track. My school- SUNY Albany- offers a joint MSIS degree with an M.A. in either English or History. I’m strongly considering the MSIS/MA English, because my B.A. is in English and I’m hoping it will help propel me into academic archives, or special collections…is this realistic? I’ve seen many archivist job listings that require a second Master’s degree.

    Does anyone have any input regarding what the advantage of the MSIS/MA English would be?


  7. @Rose-“special collections do not contain original unique materials???”
    hmmm better think that statement over again. How about literary manuscripts, illuminated manuscripts, autograph collections, bindings i.e. which are not books, …there is rather a great deal of misinformation reaching people in our graduate schools today.

    creating silos in our schools doesn’t help anyone get a good position later either it widens the “misinformation” gap
    Karen Weaver


  8. Also, are twitter & facebook, & blogs the BEST source for new professionals seeking information on the field ?

    important to think on too

    have a great semester all ! cheers karen weaver/Pittsburgh


  9. Great article! I just finished my MLIS at Simmons GSLIS and work as a Content Manager for Kaplan Publishing in NYC. The skills I learned in both the library and archives tracks have proven invaluable in my job. And even though classes like Records Management may not be the sexiest classes it’s amazing how useful they’ve proven.

    So just keep that in mind. The more boring the class the more likely (it seems) that you might just use the material provided in the future.


  10. Hello! Happy to join this convo. Then, tell me about the difference between what librarians are responsible for specifically. Are they expected to be doing the same things as Archivists?


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