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ShipLibrary Blog

American Archives Month: What Does an Archivist Do?

by Christy Fic on 2020-10-15T09:00:00-04:00 | Comments

If you've been following our past posts this American Archives Month, you might be thinking...Archives sound pretty cool! If so, you'd be right. If you're wondering...What do archivists do all day? What's it like to work with all that old stuff?...read on, my friend.

I don't often take pictures of myself working in the Archives because I'm, you know, busy working. Above you will find a younger Christy Fic (on the right), during my days as a contract processing archivist at the Smithsonian Institution's National Anthropological Archives. My colleague and I spent 9 months organizing the records of a curator who spent 50 years in the Anthropology Department at the National Museum of Natural History. Here we hold up our most prized discovery, a large cardboard cut out of his head, which once hung somewhere in the museum or in the Anthro offices. If you want to learn more about my favorite anthropologist, or be amazed by how I organized over 220 linear feet of stuff and wrote a 400+ page finding aid in 9 months, check out the William C. Sturtevant Papers. [side note: archivists are not humble, and I understand this accomplishment will likely be more impressive to other archivists than to non-archivists]

Ok, so archivists organize dead peoples' papers....what else? Now that I've moved out of museums (and away from the horrifying taxidermy that peered at me around every corner), I spend a lot of time with students, faculty and staff, and alumni. On any given day, you might find your University Archivist:

  • Teaching
  • Assisting students and others with research questions
  • Meeting with donors to accept new collection materials
  • Planning projects
  • Curating exhibits and displays
  • Digitizing materials or creating workflows for collecting and describing digital materials
  • Supervising employees, graduate assistants, interns, and volunteers
  • Advocating for the needs of our users with administration
  • Talking with vendors and consultants

Cumberland Valley Rails to Trails Council records

Reviewing the Cumberland Valley Rails-to-Trails Council Collection with CVRTC President Garrett Stahlman, Fall 2017

The more you read, the more I know you want to work in archives. I haven't even told you that most archivists wear jeans and fleece on a regular basis. Collections can be dirty, and archives can be cold (the better to protect our collections for the long term). Living the dream. If this sounds like the life for you, dear reader, I highly recommend the following resources to learn more about a career in archives:

  • Learn about the educational requirements to work in archives. Some positions will accept a BA in history or another discipline, but often you will need a masters in library science or a related field. The Society of American Archivists (SAA) has a directory of archival education programs. Or, you could enroll in Ship's Applied History graduate program. I might be a little biased, but the faculty are top notch!
  • Check out the Students and New Archives Professionals (SNAP) section of SAA. This is a great way to connect with other students that are interested in archives, and to learn about SAA's resources for new professionals such as the mentoring program or scholarships. Take their money. When you're an archivist you will learn that if someone is offering you funding, you submit that grant application as fast as you can.
  • Attend a regional conference. The Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC) offers very affordable student rates for their spring and fall conferences. They also offer scholarships. Having served on the scholarship committee, I can tell you that sometimes not many people apply. Throw your hat in the ring, and get that money. MARAC is a nice small conference where you can get to know people and sit in on sessions to learn more about what's going on in the field. Everyone is very approachable and generally folks are happy to talk with students or new professionals if you express an interest in their presentation or a project they've completed.
  • As always, contact your University Archivist, Christy Fic (cmfic@ship.edu) with questions. Yes, it's weird, I'm talking about myself in the first person and the third person. Don't judge me, English professors. I know you are, and I love you for it. But this is the third blog post I've written and I'm tired.

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