Meditations on Leaving the Archival Profession

I said I would write this blog post about a year ago, and then I never did. Every time I sat down to write something, I just couldn’t get myself to do it.

…but it has been an interesting few weeks – marked one year at my new job, marched through the streets of Seattle, read some powerful things, had our panel on ‘leaving the archives’ rejected by SAA. I suddenly found myself with the emotional energy to do this, and here I am.

Why did I leave the archival profession?  It reached a point where I no longer saw a practical path forward at the position I was in, and I had very little agency in that position to enact change. I cast a wide net as I started looking for new positions because I did not want to leave Seattle, and I ended up as a taxonomist. It has been a good move. I am using my degrees and there are competent, dedicated, supportive co-workers and managers who actually respect my work. I no longer feel like I am being a detriment to the archives profession by being just another experienced archivist with two graduate degrees working for a salary that was barely over the minimum wage. My days are no longer spent working on things that never get seen or used by those who might find them beneficial in their life and work. There have been mistakes in my career so far, but I can look back and say that every step has led me to a place where I have so much more power to push for what I think is right. The path was difficult, but gave me the confidence to take a leap of faith into something new.

My dad has been a member of a laborer’s union for decades, and I am grateful for what he has taught me about valuing my own labor. Even though I have never been able to be in a union myself, the principles are still those worth promoting as best I can. I once held a positon in the archives field where an administrator told me that archivists and librarians get paid so little because “it’s just simple supply and demand…those programs should stop graduating so many people.” My calls for a fair wage were reduced to whining, and I was further told there were “generational difference in expectations,” and “someone who lived through The Depression wouldn’t complain and would be happy to have a job.” That was some kind of bullshit. I have put in a lot of work – not to mention a lot of money – to be a qualified and thoughtful information professional. In the end, incidents like the one above, along with many others, eventually ended up amounting to one thing too many for me. I could not continue wasting a lot of emotional energy when I could simply move on. Since leaving, I have so much more vigor for supporting the things I care about, and for being a better, more conscientious member of my community.

I do still maintain a connection to archives through volunteer work (note: I have a strict rule about never volunteering for organizations that could/should pay someone to do the work. Do not do it). It has been freeing to step outside of a structure of power – the organization is supportive of all my work, and I can collect and share based on my own beliefs as a professional and my understanding of the community, not based on the biases and prejudices of donors and management. I will write about this a little more in another blog post soon.

I found the strength to step away, and I am so glad I did. I know so many amazing archivists, and I am thankful every day that they are out there getting paid what they deserve and fighting the good fight. Some people won’t agree with the decision I made. However, I am happy that I was able to stay in my hometown and can now better support the causes that matter. In the end, that is the most important thing.

What I’ve Been Reading

  • Citizen: an American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. Beautiful. Helped me to step into the present. I explored a lot of aspects of race when studying history and imperialism throughout college and grad school, and it can be all to easy to forget to focus on the present. Those historical experiences and connections are important and inform the experiences of people in the present, and taught me a lot about how to have empathy for others. But listening to living, breathing people is important too.
  • The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I found the chapter on how Rosa Park’s actions finally spurred a change in societal habits and gave the Civil Rights Movement so much forward momentum especially fascinating. I had never really considered exactly why her action did so much more than other similar acts had been able to do.
  • In defense of the MLS; or, confess your unpopular opinion by
  • Sense & Sensibility by Jane Austen (Harvard University Press Annotated Edition). I keep asking for another one of these annotated editions every Christmas and they are really wonderful. Sense & Sensibility is not only funny but has so many interesting things to say about gender and the powerlessness of women during Jane Austen’s lifetime.
  • Close Encounters of the Furred Kind and The Good, the Bad, and the Furry by Tom Cox. Books which are about so much more than cats. I especially identified with Tom’s various career moves, and his willingness to take risks. He’s a wonderfully evocative (and sometimes delightfully vulgar) writer who transports readers to the English countryside and makes many keen insights into the minds of both people and animals.
  • I have also been listening so much Tom Petty. Soooooooo much. So good.

3 thoughts on “Meditations on Leaving the Archival Profession

  1. Well done for saying what I’m sure a lot of people feel about working in archives. The lack of salary is irritating but it’s the complete lack of agency in many organisations that is so disheartening. Congrats for finding a new path.

  2. This is what I’ve been feeling about the heritage sector for a long time, but while there are people that are willing to work for dreadful money, my voice is lost. The sector is in danger of become (even more?) elitist, with only people from wealthy families able to work for the wages offered. I think I find myself in the process of moving sectors and actually, I feel good about it and able to identify with everything you describe. Thanks for the post.

  3. A very interesting post. I’m currently trying to get into the archive profession after having studied information management, so it’s interesting that you seem to be moving in the opposite direction! I have limited experience at the moment but I can already see elements of the problems you mention – I’m based in the UK and the salaries can very immensely depending on the institution or the project – and I think organisations over here are only just realising that their archives are valuable resources and not just cumbersome things which have to be minimally maintained. As always there’s the issue of funding and overuse of volunteers (though I am one at the moment too!) but I think it’s gradually improving. I’m sorry to hear that it’s not the case in the U.S. but I’m glad you’re more comfortable in your new role – taxonomies are one of my interests too!

    Great blog, by the way – I shall enjoy exploring it!

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