Thoughts on Professional Identity

Let us talk about professional identity. But maybe I should start by giving my background (none of us can help but to have our biases shaped by experience). I am the first person in my family to graduate from college. While working towards a BA in history, I started to investigate my options. I did not want to teach, so I turned to archives because I thought it was a good blend of working with people and working with and researching historical documents. After researching the field, I went on to receive my MA in History and MSIS in Archives and Preservation in a joint graduate program.

It is uncomfortable to talk about professional identity because it is hard to let go of your personal feelings and experience. I think we can all recognize that. But I do think it is vital that we take a hard look at what it means to be an archivist, and what we need to do to move forward.

The unconference I attended in Portland in March was an interesting addition to what is a long and ongoing conversation. These conversations interest me because I took what I thought was the accepted route into the profession, and only realized upon entering the field that things are considerably muddier than I thought. My biggest takeaway from the unconference was this: there is a struggle going on between archivists who want the “profession” to be open to everyone and archivists who want to more strongly define what an archivist is (and therefore make us into a capital-P Profession). One person at the unconference said they felt “gate-keeping is gross,” which I found striking. From my own point of view, a more strongly defined profession would make us into signposts, not gatekeepers. I do think we must find a way to more effectively advocate for ourselves and our roles in society, and to me that means we must be more rigorous in defining what an archivist is and, by extension, how to become one.

As signposts, we can lend confidence to all of the non-professional people who are involved with preserving the memory of their communities. Those people will always exist and I strongly believe that they should – not every community can afford or will want a professional administering their collections. And that is fine, but if those people want to reach out to a professional they should know how to identify that person. Employers cannot even figure out how to hire an archivist half of the time (as anyone who has looked at job descriptions lately knows), so how is the Antiquarian or Citizen Archivist or Volunteer supposed to be able to do it?

At this point, a lot of people do get the MLIS/MSIS/MIS/etc. The surveys bear that out, and the archival literature has long examined the development of these programs. I feel we should embrace this and focus our efforts on strengthening those programs and supporting their ability to accept and financially assist a more diverse group of students. To me, the importance of the graduate education is that it helps to unite a diverse group of people under the banner of archival theory and practice.

So I often lament SAA’s decision to start the certification instead of accrediting graduate programs. It is another thing that costs money and time and can be used to create barriers for people when tacked onto job requirements that already include a graduate degree anyway. It also doesn’t put you in a room (virtual or otherwise) with other people, where you hash out your ideas and opinions about the field, a vital step in developing an understanding of the differing viewpoints that exist in our profession.

I know accreditation is an expensive process but I would love to see SAA at least try to work with ALA to join their efforts on that front and have a more rigorous assessment of the archival component of the programs assessed by ALA. I think these conversations are starting and I hope they bear fruit. What is sometimes hard to keep in mind during these conversation is that this is all about what we do moving forward – no one is going to suddenly be kicked out of the field. I don’t think anyone has ever called for retroactive actions.

For now we are very scattered. I hope we can find the things that we share and work towards unifying the profession and supporting each other, instead of allowing our field to extend its already overlong adolescent phase. The ongoing discussion about salary is just one topic that reveals something of the scattering we have – people in our field range from faculty-status archivists working towards tenure to government employees to archivists struggling to make it in the non-profit sector. How can we fight to improve the lot of everyone? Certainly not by continuing to entertain the idealistic notions – we must dwell in reality. Does that reality demand that we promote ourselves as a profession with a specific education and training? I feel like it does. But maybe it doesn’t. My dream is that we can move with intention and purpose as a unified group towards answering these questions.

These are of course my opinions and there needs to be a debate about all of this. I know it can be a touchy subject and honestly – I was afraid to commit my thoughts to “paper.” I only hope we can work towards strengthening our profession and using that to advocate for ourselves more effectively, if only because I do not see how we will ever diversify our field if there is not a clear path to becoming a member of our profession and a reasonable expectation of a job with decent pay at the end of that path.

Some things I read as I thought about all this:

Kate Theimer’s post “What is the Professional Archivist’s Role in the Evolving Archival Space?”

Danna Bell’s address from last year’s SAA

Scott Cline’s Archival Ideals and the Pursuit of a Moderate Disposition 

The Allure of the Archives by Arlette Farge

My post on finding an archives job from the SNAP Blog

SAA Employment Survey Data Now Available” from the Society of American Archivists

The unconference on professional identity in Portland, OR was hosted by the Portland Emerging Archivists


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