Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from Joanna Black, the Digital Archivist at the Sierra Club’s William E. Colby Memorial Library.
When graduating with my MLIS about nine years ago — deep in the trenches of the economic recession — I had a very difficult time breaking into the professional archives world. Applications went out, nothing came back. I felt disheartened, inadequate, unprepared, and increasingly isolated. Amidst these difficult feelings, I recalled the guidance of the wise whose voices rang out in my ear, “Network! Connect! Participate!” So I did what my introverted self was so hesitant to do: I reached out. I joined the SAA mentoring program and the Society of California Archivists Publications Committee. I started an archives-focused blog (very outdated now) to discuss issues in the field. I set up informational interviews at collecting institutions. I helped friends and family tackle their own archives. I did anything I could to get my foot in the door and move my career forward.
I eventually snagged a job. And a few year later, another, and another. As my professional experiences expanded, so too did my instincts for archival practice. So when I was thrown into a lone arranger position without notice, I wasn’t entirely unprepared. “You’ve got good instincts,” my colleague and friend Marjorie Bryer once told me, “you’ll make the right decisions.” But being a lone arranger can be difficult and, well, lonely. YOU make the decisions. YOU endure the consequences. YOU advocate for yourself. And although our professional organizations do provide some support, it is hard to resist falling victim to imposter syndrome from time to time.
At the Society of California Archivists (SCA) annual general meeting this last April, I attended a wonderful session called “Solution Room: Archivist at Work / as Workers.” As part of the session, participants identified one of five key topics listed on the screen and broke into groups to discuss the one that resonated with them most. Topics ranged from wages and working conditions to supporting a more diverse profession. Although all the topics were significant, I was personally drawn to Group 1: Communities of Support which asked, “How can we create communities of support, and find common cause? How can SCA support archivists working in isolation?” Our small group burst with ideas for creating more communities of support within our profession, such as establishing an SCA mentoring program, providing a “helpline” for lone arrangers to call if a question comes up, and coordinating virtual and in-person meet ups for lone arrangers to support one another. As the session ended, I felt grateful knowing I was not alone and professional organizations want to do more to support lone arranger archivists. I felt grateful knowing that there is a larger dialog taking place about the need for community building in the archival profession. The implications of networking go so much farther than just snagging a job; they also ensure that once we have a job we’re able to sustain it.
Cultivating relationships with other archivists outside our institutions can be a form of survival for lone arrangers. When we have a problem, we can ask someone who has solved it before. When we are pushed to the brink of what we can accomplish on a shoestring budget, we can lean on our colleagues for support. When we feel like frauds, our archivist colleagues dispel that falesy and remind us of our worth. Especially for lone arrangers, being part of a “community of loners” can provide camaraderie and shared experience within an otherwise isolated environment.
When I pushed my shy, naive self to network with colleagues after graduating all those years ago, I thought the point was to gain employment. I didn’t realize I was also cultivating friendships that I would one day rely on for professional growth and support. I didn’t realize that by engaging with other professionals, I was laying the groundwork for my future membership in a community of lone arrangers.
For archivists, jobs can be few and far between. We may not choose to be lone arrangers but nonetheless find ourselves in that position at some point in our career. As if advocating for our work is not hard enough, doing so alone can feel near impossible. But having a professional community to lean on helps alleviate some of these challenges and provides a sense of connectedness. Belonging to a community is such an essential element of life outside of work, why not do more to establish them within our careers? If we can be advocates for our colleagues, those outside of the profession will begin to know our value too.