ICYMI: Grant Cycles, Deadlines, and Labor Advocacy

Our ICYMI series provide summaries of presentations, publications, webinars, and other educational opportunities that are of interest to I&A members. We keep a running list of upcoming events. If you’re interested in writing a post for ICYMI, please refer to our sign up sheet. In this post, Hilary Barlow recaps the session, “Grant Cycles, Deadlines, and Labor Advocacy” from MARAC’s Spring 2016 conference.

At the MARAC April 2016 conference in Pittsburgh current and former project archivists came together in the roundtable “Grant Cycles, Deadlines, and Labor Advocacy: The Changing Work of Project Archivists.” The presenters discussed precarious work in archives, how project archivists can advocate for themselves, and how supervisors of project archivists can advocate for their employees. Many attendees were current and former project archivists, with a few supervisors of projects archivists chiming in as well. The session notes for this roundtable can be found here  and the presentation itself can be found here.

Four archivists led the roundtable. Rosemary K. J. Davis is the Processing Archivist for the Samuel French Collection at  Amherst College. Rachel Mattson is the Manager of Special Projects at the Archives of La MaMa Experienmental Theatre Club in New York City, where she started as a project archivist. Elliot McNally was the Project Archivist for the University at Buffalo’s Poetry Collection and is now a Special Collections Librarian at Savannah College of Art and Design. Alison Reynolds is the William Henry Seward Project Archivist at the University of Rochester.

The presenters consistently reported taking on more responsibilities than the initial job description mentioned, and worked independently on their respective projects with varying levels of institutional support for professional development. They reported some advantages to the project archivist model, noting that one can learn a wide variety of skills in a relatively short period of time. Project archivists also work with a wide range of faculty, donors, and other heritage professionals. They often manage their own projects with a degree of independence, and those projects are frequently the most high-priority and sought-after collections at their repository.

Nonetheless, with these advantages come significant concerns. Because project archivists are only around for so long, the presenters observed that it was difficult to form long-term professional relationships. They also found committee work challenging when their contribution to the repository was expected to be short-term. The aforementioned independence can be isolating, and the lack of a promotion path and overall instability is very taxing.

Reynolds recommended that archivists know what kind of skills they want to develop and seek opportunities to build those particular skills during the course of their project. Mattson found her experience improved when she found a group of supportive professional peers in her area. McNally advised project archivists to get to know people in management and be frank about day-to-day needs, such as proper equipment.

When it came to creating a more supportive working environment for project archivists, McNally recommended that supervisors be receptive to their employees’ needs and pass along postings for longer term positions. Mattson called for a systemic re-evaluation of how processing projects and archives themselves are funded. She urged archivists to look past the perpetual cycle of grant applications for individual projects, compare American cultural heritage funding models to those in other countries and advocate for more funding from taxes towards cultural heritage in the United States.

Hilary Barlow is a Preservation & Digitization Technician at Penn State University and a Volunteer Archivist at the Centre County Historical Society. She recently completed her Master of Information degree in Archives & Records Management at the University of Toronto.