In my regular life, I’m an archivist. I deal with getting historical records ready and available for researchers. And . . . a whole lot of other stuff I won’t try to explain here. I work in a manuscripts repository, not a government or corporate archives, so most of what I’m going to tell you about deals with an environment of local family history and business records.
[Right: What I think I look like when doing my job.]
1) You will have to deal with people.
I hear so many people say they want to enter the history professions because they don’t like dealing with people. Big mistake. While it is true that I do spend much of my week sitting in a quiet room, a huge part of my job is serving the public. Whether it is working in the research room, assisting off-site researchers, finding photographs for publishers, or coordinating with other institutions . . . well, there is just a lot of people work. Yes, there are archival jobs out there where you may never come in contact with the public, but in general, welcome to the service industry dude.
2) You will develop relationships with people you have never met. Probably people long deceased.
When you spend entire days working through the papers of another person, you get to know them pretty well. You start to understand how their family related to each other, how they liked to spend their days, what they were interested in, etc. When working with family papers in particular, you often come across interesting and/or humorous stories. You will probably go home and tell these stories to your loved ones. They will get bored of hearing you talk about dead people you don’t really know. It is just a hazard of the job.
2a) Sometimes while developing these relationships, you will pick up on a thread in their papers and really want to know the outcome. A lot of the time, that information is lost to history and you just have to deal with it.
3) You will likely end up with an abundance of self-taught, pseudo-IT knowledge.
A huge portion of records today are born digital (created digitally, no paper) and this number grows every single day. To be competitive, archivists must understand how to work with digital documents in an ever-changing technological world. You will probably take many online classes and do lots of reading. Make friends with an IT professional . . . fast! I spend probably 40% of my time dealing with aspects of our digital collections (and it is only a small portion of my job!). I now know my way around a CSS stylesheet – that isn’t something you learn in public history graduate school!
4) Paper is heavy.
Seriously, those boxes are like great big rocks. Watch out for interns and graduate students who see you toss them around and don’t realize the weight – save their toes (and your hard work)!
5) You will get dirty.
Erase those images of the sharply dressed archivist wearing white gloves handling a document over a clean, white table. Replace it with an image of the old-jeans wearing archivist crawling around in the hay loft of a barn rescuing long-deserted family or business records. Replace it with an image of the archivist smelling documents and books to see if they detect mold, freezing boxes to kill the infesting bugs, covered in red rot from the leather of old ledger books. . . you get the point. Yes, you will get to spend some time doing the fancy part, but unless you do something extremely specialized, it will be outweighed by the rest.
6) You will have to explain what you do over and over again.
Turns out, archivist isn’t a well-known career outside of academia. Have your elevator speech ready; you will need it a lot. If I don’t want to get into a long discussion, I usually focus on the history side of my job. People tend not to have as many questions about that. And no, I am not a librarian. I like librarians, but I am not one.
7) Parents will expect you to do their kid’s homework.
This is not cool and I do not tolerate it. Extra-friendly and new archivists can get sucked in sometimes though. You will need to figure out fairly quickly where your job ends and their work begins. You may have a person you need to go the extra-mile for, but this should not mean taking on their assignments. Also – parents who do this . . . you suck. Big time. Don’t get an attitude with me and teach your kid to put some effort in.
8) You will tease people about erasing them from the historical record when they piss you off.
Ha. Yeah, I do this. Be nice to archivists, people; we control how most of you will be remembered.