Q: School librarian or archival studies? I can’t decide which path to choose in library school.

Q: School librarian or archival studies? I can’t decide which path to choose in library school.

Q: Hello! I’ve just been accepted into the graduate program of my choice and am incredibly excited to get into the field. But I am having a really difficult time trying to decide whether I want to complete the school library sequence or the archive studies sequence. The school I will be attending in the fall has excellent programs for both of these fields, so the quality of the program is not really an issue. I realize there are many great attributes to both of these career paths, and that ultimately I must decide for myself, but I wondered if you had any advice on how to choose or could talk about things that ought to be considered as I make my decision.

SM: First off, congratulations! That’s wonderful that you got into the program you wanted. Second, this is a tricky question, and a rather difficult decision, so I’ll turn it back to you and ask:

  • What’s your gut decision?
  • What made you choose that particular school/program in the first place (was it one of the sequences you mention)?
  • What’s your dream job?
  • Have you worked as a teacher, or in a school library?
  • Have you worked in archives?

These are both rather specialized fields, and quite different from one another.  I would suggest, if you haven’t already, to attempt to get experience working in one or both of these areas (internship, part-time job, volunteer) to get a feel for the work and for the daily activities and skills needed. I know that each place of work is different, but (seriously) there is nothing like hands-on experience to make you realize what roles you want to pursue and which ones you don’t.

Perhaps, you may say, you are equally attracted to both areas and you’ve gained experience working in both types of roles. And to that I would say, good for you! You may be perfectly suited for both of these specialized roles. If this is the case, you may want to look at the existing job market for archival positions and school librarian positions. Study the job listings, see how many jobs are available, and take note of any requirements that you may need to acquire in order to be a school librarian or archivist, depending on where you live and the specific qualifications of the job. Other things that can help:

  • Interview (see Q&As on informational interviews) librarians working in both of these fields – ask them how they like their jobs, how they got their jobs, and what they would recommend you do while you’re in school, to make you hire-able when you get out.
  • Talk to someone in your library school’s career center. As an accepted student, you should be able to use their services and ask questions about the different sequences and see if they can offer some advice since they know the courses and instructors as well as the job placements of their graduates.
  • Talk to your advisor when you start the program. Find out what it would take to transfer from one sequence to another.

And finally, don’t sweat it too much. You’re just starting out and many people change their minds, and many others try several different roles and that’s all right. You’ll find your path, and it may be completely different from what you originally planned. Just make sure that while you’re in school, use your professors and classmates and colleagues to help guide you along the way, and try to get experience to supplement your education.

Q: I’d like to learn as much as possible about the whole archival process and hopefully move into the archival profession. Is it possible for me to have a career as an archivist despite not having setting out to become one?

Q: I’d like to learn as much as possible about the whole archival process and hopefully move into the archival profession. Is it possible for me to have a career as an archivist despite not having setting out to become one?

Q: Hi, I recently got my MSLS without taking any archival classes and now I am regretting that decision. Currently I am volunteering at a public library, working with a photo collection that was donated by a newspaper photographer and I find the process fascinating. In fact so much, I’d like to learn as much as possible about the whole archival process and hopefully move into the archival profession. I recently joined the Society of American Archivists and lurk on their main listserv, although I realize that is not enough.

Can you suggest other ways for me to get experience? There does not appear to be many online opportunities for archival education (either formal or non-formal) but I may not be looking in the right places. Also, is it possible for me to have a career as an archivist despite not having setting out to become one?

TA: There are a number of approaches to graduate school. Some students use the time to explore different areas of the profession so they can focus on their true calling when it comes time to find a job. Others go into the beginning of their academic training knowing exactly what they want to do and use the time to build experience and expertise in support of that original goal. I don’t think you’re alone in discovering a particular interest after you’ve completed your degree, but it does put you in a bit of a “catch up” situation. Here are a few quick ideas on how to level the playing field and switch to the archival profession:

First, think about what you did in library school that may relate to the archival profession. For example, did you take a cataloging or technology class that included EAD or XML? Look for these transferable skills and highlight them when you’re applying for archival positions.

The experience you’re gaining now as a volunteer with the photo collection should also be recognized as valuable and transferable. See if you can find other opportunities (paid or unpaid) that allow you to learn more about working in an archive and to develop specific, related experience and expertise with different types of materials.

Third, you should explore additional educational or professional development opportunities. Some institutions offer a Certificate of Advanced Study as a post-MLS educational certificate. The Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois describes their Certificate as a program that allows holders of the MLS “to refresh and update their skills, gain greater specialization in their professional training, or redirect their careers from one area to another.” If you are not quite prepared to head back to school for another degree, you could also consider more focused short term training opportunities related to the archival profession.  The Society of American Archivists posts a Conference/Workshop Calendar on their website that lists current classroom and online training opportunities. You should check there (and in other local organizations) to see if there are classes that could help you build and enhance the basic archival skill set. Plus, all of these training opportunities look great on a resume.

And finally, I would recommend that you reach out and find a mentor, or someone you can connect with, to talk about working in an archive. Many professional organizations will facilitate a match for a mentor/mentee relationship. You can also attend professional development or professional networking events to meet a more experienced colleague who may be able to assist you with navigating the archival profession.

Good luck as you pursue your interest in archives!


SM: According to The Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008-09 Edition,

Archivists maintain records in accordance with accepted standards and practices that ensure the long-term preservation and easy retrieval of the documents.

Seeking a specialization, such as archives, is a great way to further your career and make you more marketable. Of course, acquiring the skills, knowledge and experience in that specialty is another story – but it sounds like you are on the right track. The SAA web site, as Tiffany mentioned, is a great source for information about archival work and becoming an archivist. They also post job listings, links to local organizations, an overview of the profession, and a very useful glossary of archival and records terminology. You should also check out the Academy of Certified Archivists site for information of how to become certified, and The National Archives Information for Archives Professionals page.

Archivists, as I’m sure you’re aware, work in all types of organizations and with a wide variety of materials. When pursuing archives experience, broaden your search to include museums, historical or governmental institutions, corporations, zoos, and nature centers (to name a few), as well as libraries. These places all maintain archives and may need assistance (paid or unpaid) in their archives. Archivists work with specific standards and rules, which are applicable across institutions, so even if you really want to work in an academic library down the road, focus your immediate attention on getting any experience you can, in any type of institution.

Online certificate programs:

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee offers a Certificate of Advanced Study in Archives and Records Administration which can be completed online.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offers a Certificate of Advanced Study in Library and Information Science, which is offered through their LEEP program.

If anyone knows of any other online programs, please let us know.