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Career Strategies for Librarians
On the Other Side of the Reading Room:  Finding a Home in Archives and Special Collections
by Alexis A. Antracoli

Reawakening a Passion for Archives

 One crisp fall day several years ago, I took the eleven students enrolled in my Introduction to Historical
Methods course to the university archives.  As I stood on the fourth floor of the library explaining to them
the rules and regulations of working in an archive, I suddenly stopped and said:  "Wait, stand up.  Follow
me. Let's see what an archive really is."  I then invited them to look through the iron "fencing" that
separated us from the rare books, congressional records, and university records, to walk around it, and
to notice what lay on the shelves. Then, as I explained to them what a finding aid was, I found myself
remembering a job I had twelve years ago in my own college's special collections library.  I recalled how
much I enjoyed going to the archive every day, updating the manuscript database, retrieving books and
boxes for researchers, and sorting through unprocessed collections as I created order from boxes of
unmarked papers.  I felt as if my professional life had come full circle, while pointing me in a fresh
direction.
 Graduate school in history had seemed like a natural choice for a history major, but those memories
from the archives haunted me as I worked towards my doctorate in the history of print culture in the early
modern Atlantic world.  While I was busy examining family Bibles, leafing through printed sermons,
studying popular pamphlets, and exploring eighteenth-century newspapers, I was even more intrigued
by what was happening behind the scenes, as well as with the rapid changes in the library world
brought about by the Internet.  Just as the expansion of printed materials to wider audiences and the rise
of literacy changed the social and cultural landscape of the early modern world in ways that Gutenberg
could scarcely have imagined, the emergence of the World Wide Web was transforming the world in
which I lived in ways I could not have imagined when I first entered the academy.  
 Fast-paced developments in the information technology world, particularly the emergence of the
Internet, have improved access to collections and enhancedprocessing and dissemination of
information throughout the world.  Today, pamphlets that I once could only view on microfilm or at an
archive are available at the click of a mouse, and full-text journal articles can be delivered to me instantly
through online databases.  Archivists need increasingly sophisticated software to organize all of this
available information.  While I know that much has changed in the twelve years since I first set foot in an
archive, my passion for the work never left me, and my emerging career lies in connecting the past and
present using today’s technology to organize and make accessible both historical and current
knowledge.  

The Work of Archivists and Special Collections Librarians

  John Stewart has recently lampooned archivists, and many probably imagine us buried under stacks
of dusty papers in basements.  Our work, however, is actually more engaging, complicated, and
enriching than you might think.  At the moment, I work part-time in an archive that manages traditional
historical materials, and I also serve as a digital preservation intern.  In the first position, I am
responsible for organizing and making accessible manuscript materials of individuals, families, and
organizations that are critical to the work of historians, genealogists, lawyers, architects, journalists, and
many other researchers.  My first responsibility is to try to ensure the manuscripts are kept in as close to
their original order as possible, but the rest of my work is to design a finding aid and catalog record that
will assist researchers in discovering and using the materials I have organized.  This requires
knowledge of cataloging standards and procedures, descriptive norms, and the principles of organizing
of records series.  I also do some limited appraisal on these collections, which involves deciding
whether or not the materials we have received are within the scope of the collection and discarding
duplicates.  Traditional archives, however, do much more than simply process collections.
 Archivists provide reference services, design exhibits and outreach programs to alert users to their
collections, ensure that materials are housed in appropriate folders and boxes and in safe
environmental conditions for long-term preservation, and select the historical record.  The latter, referred
to as appraisal in the world of archives, is perhaps the most important work of the traditional archivist or
special collections librarian.  We must decide what is worthy of keeping as a part of the permanent
cultural record.  We use collection policies and other appraisal theories to help us to seek out
appropriate records, as well as to assess whether we want to add offered donations to our holdings.

The Work of Digital Curators

 In the digital age, we must perform all of these functions for digitized and born-digital materials.  As the
world of technology changes rapidly, archivists and special collections librarians must keep up with
technological innovations or we risk losing entire portions of the cultural record.  Every year, more and
more records are produced in electronic formats, and soon, personal papers may be stored only in file
folders on hard drives.  Thus, the emerging field of digital curation focuses on training archivists or
special collections librarians to manage this material.  Digital curators in archival and special collections
settings do all the traditional work of appraisal, processing, reference, and outreach, but must also have
the background in emerging technologies to understand how to store digital objects, combat the
obsolescence of formats, and create and manage metadata for preservation purposes.  
 While I was initially drawn to the field by the traditional work of archivists and special collections
librarians, I am increasingly intrigued by the challenges that digital media present to our profession.  We
must increasingly speak on our own behalf and define why our traditional skill set is so critical to the
management of digital objects of historical and cultural significance.  The rapid changes in the world of
technology also mean that archives and special collections, like much of the library world, must not fear
technology, but must actively embrace the creation, acquisition, management, and preservation of digital
objects if we hope to remain relevant for future generations.  In my mind, this makes our work much
more challenging and exciting for decades to come.  

Pursue Your Passion
 
 Archivists and special collections librarians are not trapped in dusty old rooms; we are busy creating a
future for the long-term preservation and management of significant cultural heritage materials.  I
encourage those who might be interested in this field to take the time to learn more about it. I would
advise all career changers to carefully consider their passions, be willing to take risks, and be open to
surprises.  Taking the time to notice what excited me, being willing to take a risk, and being open to new
opportunities are what has led me to this point.  I would never have imagined that I would be as
interested as I am in digital archives, but trying new things led me to a new world of possibilities within a
profession that I was already passionate about.   The process of identifying and pursing a professional
passion cannot be overestimated.  The library and information science professions have much of worth
to offer society, and finding your niche within that profession can make a world of difference for your
sense of career satisfaction.

About the Author

Alexis A. Antracoli is a Master of Science in Information student at the University of Michigan School of
Information and works part-time at the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library.  She received a
BA from Boston College, a PhD from Brandeis University, and taught for several years at the college level
before deciding to follow her passion for the archives and pursue a career “on the other side of reading
room.”

Article published April 2010

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