Navigating a Non-Archival MLIS Program

At 21 years old and about to graduate, I was afraid to move. Not only had I lived and attended university in the same area I grew up in, but I was worried I wouldn’t be able to support myself financially. So, I found myself again at the University of Washington (UW), this time in a library program that did not have an archives focus. Yet I wanted to become an archivist and the two or three archives-focused classes offered was off-putting. I was afraid I wouldn’t gain the skills that would make me a competitive applicant once I graduate.

Now, over halfway through my three year program, I couldn’t be happier with my decision. I’ve had a handful of internships and volunteer opportunities, most in archives, and now have a job as an accessioning assistant at UW Special Collections. It wasn’t easy but, despite the lack of archival classes, I found many ways to gain archival skills inside and outside the classroom.

Here are some tips that have helped me:

  • Ask yourself some questions first:
    • What about archives do I want to learn more about?
    • How much archival theory do I already know?
    • What skills do I want to improve or gain?
    • Do I want to work in a specific type of institution?
    • Are there specific materials I’d like to work with?
    • If I were to volunteer, do an internship, or have a job in an archive, how many hours can I devote to it?

Before applying to any random archival internship or job, identify your own values and learning goals. Asking yourself the above questions will help you find a more rewarding opportunity.

  • Talk to your advisor about non-obvious archives-related courses

On my program’s website, there are career pathways including one for archives. These pathways include recommended classes and, for the archives pathway, many of the classes were ones I didn’t realize could be valuable as an archivist. Talking with other students who are interested in archives has also given me a better idea of useful classes.

  • Take advantage of classes, even non-archival classes, that have open projects you can design yourself

During my first quarter, I took a research methods course where we were developed our own project. While this class wasn’t archives-focused, I was able to develop a research project on academic archives. Other classes like Design Thinking and Government Publications have also been opportunities to engage with archives. These projects often require more work, however, as you’ll need to do some extra reading. Always ask your professor first – they might have some resources or even another faculty member or an archivist they could point you to. Talk to students who have taken classes you’re interested in to see if there is enough flexibility to complete archive-related projects.

  • Find resources and read on your own

Recently I had a friend ask me for archival readings I’d recommend for someone who had never studied archives. The hunt for materials turned out to be harder than I thought – where do you even begin? Even if you have some hands-on experience, reading something from the Archival Fundamentals Series II often provides explanations for why you are doing something. More Product, Less Process by Dennis Meissner and Mark Greene, a classic archival reading, is one I often think about in my own work at Special Collection. Googling recommended archival readings also brings up reading lists and even archival course syllabi.

  • Join or start a student chapter of SAA. Look into professional organizations like SAA

While UW does not consider archives one of its strength, our SAA-UW student chapter has been proactive in connecting students to archives. We’ve hosted chats with archivists and had processing days with UW Special Collections to help students learn from archivists and build their own networks.

Attending annual meetings like SAA can also help you learn more about the field. I’ve found the SAA listservs to be valuable as well, as it’s where I hear about jobs or internships. There are often affordable student memberships available, especially for local archival organizations.

  • If you can, volunteer at an archive. If your program requires an internship or directed fieldwork, look into archives

If you don’t have any archival experience, volunteering is a great way to get your foot in the door. Many students have gained their archival knowledge on the job and have taken the few archives courses to learn the theory. Also, think outside traditional university or college special collections: look at museums, historical societies, community archives, state and city archives, etc. If you have a full time job, see if your employer can be flexible with your hours. Even working a couple hours a week in an archive can greatly improve your knowledge and skills.

  • Follow archivists on Twitter, join archives-related groups online, and connect with archivists in the field

Whenever I meet a MLIS student of color, I also ask if they are part of we here, a group of librarians, archivists, and information professionals of color. As a person of color and an online student, library school can be isolating. Finding a support system or just a group of people you can connect with will help when you find yourself questioning your career decisions. Seeing other women of color succeeding in archives inspires me to continue on. Archivists, like librarians, are also quite active on Twitter.

What other tips do you have?

Featured photo by Samuel Zeller


Kelli Yakabu is a MLIS student at the University of Washington focusing on archives. You can follow her on Twitter @kelliyakabu.

Categories: advice

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