In a supportive group of professionals that brainstorm together, a potential student recently asked what subject is best to major in prior to pursuing an MLIS. I’m not an expert on archival employment or education [yet — but trending in that direction]. After two years of LIS education, I can verify that people come to the LIS/LAM field from all kinds of backgrounds.
Many of my unofficial cohort are mid-career or career-change professionals; which I discussed in my previous article. Through group projects and off-hours chatter, I have met a chemist, a nurse, IT professionals, many medical coders, at least one engineer, and a diverse number of others. Overall, I want to share with aspiring archivists and librarians that, technically, your major does not matter. Follow that up with the classic archival corollary: #ItDepends. [That’s like the first tenet of our profession!]
Thus, my advice to said potential student started with “whatever your heart desires,” because it’s true. When Facebook first came out — I’m showing my age here, but, you were required to validate your membership through a school email address — I joined a group called “I picked a Major I Actually Like and will be Living in a Cardboard Box One Day.” Society, filtered through our parents, has conditioned many of us to believe that it is impossible to make a sustainable and financially sound career by doing anything that you enjoy. So many people have bought into this that they work long boring hours for corporations that don’t properly care for their employees, simply to make it “up the ladder.” Academically inclined individuals are taunted as “permanent students” rather than “professional researchers.” Or how many times have you English majors been asked, “Oh, so do you want to teach?”
Our youth have been molded into thinking that they need to hit the ground running to get ahead. But what do you do when you aren’t sure which direction to focus all of your energy and passion? Experiment. Take classes that sound fun. Stick with instructors and professors that inspire you.
Like many other academics, I took the long road. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do — or at least, what profession I wanted to pursue. On my journey towards my MLIS, I have majored in English/Theatre, worked retail, joined and left the military, studied electrical engineering, and volunteered with a number of non-profit organizations and arts groups. Looking back, I can see an element of LIS/LAM is most things I enjoyed or was successful with. After all of this, I have to say that it comes down to whatever gives you butterflies. When you can’t tell if you’re doing homework or going down a hypothetical rabbit hole, that’s what you major in. When you start being able to connect assignments to real-life problems [e.g. Engineers Without Borders], you are on your way to finding your purpose. From there, take my dad’s advice: “Find what you love, and find a way to get paid to do it; you’ll never ‘work’ a day in your life.” Or you could take it from author Charles Bukowski: “Find what you love and let it kill you.”
Really like geology? Do it! Maps are a huge part of archival collections and you will have unique insight on them. My previous work with engineering allowed me to understand many of the original blueprints included in my recent work with an engineering-related archive. Music librarians and archivists have undoubtedly devoted their undergraduate careers to music studies. Legal librarians, medical librarians, presidential archivists often major in philosophy, biology, politics, respectively. You don’t “need” an Art or History degree to enter this field! Whatever it is that you find yourself obsessing over in your off-time, there’s likely an archive or library devoted to that somewhere; and if you’re willing to chase that dream, you may end up in Alaska, or Singapore, or Dubai!
While an overseas archive or library may not be your “forever” home, remember that experience is priceless; and if it turns out you can’t stand the location, or the team, or what-have-you, your experience can help you go somewhere new. The 25-year Gold Watch mentality has not continued into our generation of professionals; it is no longer outrageous to change employers or careers every few years. As MLIS grads, our experience is so malleable and widely-applicable that lateral movement within the profession is likely. I can arrange and describe damn near anything — from pottery sherds to sample fibers to electrical components — but I’m going to do my best work when I’m involved with a project that holds my interest.
Technically, this opens up a huge debate, considering that I’m basically telling students to find a way to do what makes you feel good. That’s not always a reality or a possibility; and so perhaps I need to clarify: If you are mid-career, changing professions, supporting a family, fighting extensive medical issues, etc; you may not have this luxury. I understand [and have been there!] that we cannot always take the job we want. Sometimes, we are stuck with the job we have; but do not let it make you bitter. Consider it just a stepping stone towards making you better.
Carady DeSimone is nearing the end of her adventures in LIS education by adding an Information Management certificate. In December, she completed a MLIS degree and an Archival Administration certificate. She is active in both SFA and SAA, investigating educational and career options for SNAP (Students and New Professionals) in the field. When she’s not organizing, arranging, and describing “old junk”, she obsesses over crafts, coffee, and cartography. She is interested in independently researching how our readers decided to pursue library school. If you are interested in participating in her independent research, you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.