What they don’t teach you in grad school

What don’t they teach you in graduate school? Sara Allain’s blog post at Letters to a Young Librarian offered a thoughtful look at “10 Things I Didn’t Learn in Archives School.”

She wrote about not liking every part of a job and why it isn’t necessary to make your job your life, although some do. About professional loneliness.  How no one has all the answers.  And the challenges of justifying needs in workplaces unfamiliar with archives.  “I learned to be patient. I learned to repeat myself.”

Sara also wrote about “The Moment: the first time you realized that you were, as an archivist, responsible for something magnificent.”  And how that stays with you, even if you change careers.

After I read her post, I thought about the influences in our lives after we graduate.  Learning “soft skills” and dealing with people on both sides of the reference desk are the areas professionals most often say they didn’t study in school.  Now, unlike when I graduated, online engagement is in that mix for individuals, employers, and professional associations.

1.  Appraising and weeding experiences

Online, I often explore at length the nexus of records management, archives, and historical research, which I care about deeply.  But these days I rarely discuss there the start of my career.  Some older professionals answer inquiries from job seekers by sharing stories about how they started.  But those times are gone.  And luck, privilege, circumstances (economic, racial, social, cultural) have always been in the mix.

Such stories often date back to a time of lighter student debt and different economic opportunities and paths to full-time, paid employment.  Not all degree programs now match library and archives employers’ rapidly changing needs.

Many knowledge jobs rely on user-centered surveys, reference interviews and analytic assessments.  But I rarely hear online participants start by asking job seekers to talk about their goals.

The best career advice I’ve seen subtracts irrelevant parts from individual stories, makes available the parts with permanent value, and leaves room for listening to acquire as well as to share knowledge.  Just as we appraise records and only offer some to archives, or weed existing collections, this centers online conversations in what has value, not on memories of back in the day that we best reserve for sharing elsewhere with friends.

2.  Unlearning and changing acculturation

In 2006, Donald Hall wrote about graduate school acculturation.   He observed, “The most stressful and (in retrospect) useless courses that I took as a grad student were ones that pitted student against student in forms of antagonistic and hyper-competitive gamesmanship.” He wrote,

It is not useful or responsible to encourage students to attack, demean, or “toughen up” each other. While vigorous debate and disagreement should always be welcomed, encouraging hyper-competitiveness and combativeness among graduate students simply creates and re-creates an academic culture of egotism, suspicion, and generally anti-social behavior. We reap the harvest of that training in our own overly contentious faculty meetings and vicious departmental squabbles.

I was spared the worst of this as a student due to my particular grad school professors.  On the job, I later was fortunate, in ways not everyone is, in working at nonpartisan Federal agencies that focused on facts, fairness, and solutions.   Not everyone I worked with was role model but I learned a lot.

The tools people use may reflect individual life experiences or professional acculturation or a complex mix of the two.  At times, the adversarial behaviors Hall decries show up in the workplace or online.

Navigating people issues is essential at work. A well-functioning workplace that doesn’t reward antagonism or bullying has internal resources (both on the management and the labor side) to mitigate and deal with disruptive behaviors.  Online, the most difficult situations involve bullying or harassment in professional forums.

Sometimes, as also suggested in some physical bystander training, you move to keep the target from being isolated.  You walk over to stand next to them in online space and engage with them on other issues.

This lets them know, in ways that don’t escalate harasser threats against them, that they are not alone in a risk-filled or uncomfortable situation.  It may not be enough to keep them from giving up on the group.  But they need to see your support–in real time.

If you are job secure, consider spending online capital wisely to help less privileged professionals, especially the marginalized, when you see them harassed or isolated online.  Academic studies didn’t prepare me for this; later experiences did.

3.  The value of “what do you think?”

Personal and community archives add perspective to materials brought in through records management, which often focuses on top-level decision making.  As David Von Drehle observed in a column about Kate Masur, history is not a “scarce resource” that should be treated as a “zero sum” game.  He believes adding the voices of the marginalized to its narratives does not diminish other voices.

We understand the value of practice as well as theory. But where we top out varies (journeyman, supervisor, manager, executive).  Good supervisors act as two-way bridges to managers, who do the same with executives who work with the heads of archives or libraries.  Others build silos, intentionally or inadvertently.

Who your mentors are can make a great difference in job advancement.  Or in your ability to gain insights into how those below and above you in rank work, not just at the operational but also the human level.

For most of the last 20 years, as a historian, I was a direct report to various senior executives within the Federal government.  Some had started at lower levels, as I once did.  I often walked the floor, getting to know employees, from new hires to the top ranks, who depended on me.

As a government historian, I sometimes attended high level internal meetings as an observer, the only person present at pay right below the Senior Executive Service.  This enabled me to learn about and assist with emerging issues, better understand the dynamics of complex decision making, learn the impact of internal and external actions, and study navigation of disparate stakeholder perspectives.

I also had senior executive mentors who took the time to chat with me about their jobs and listen to my feedback.  A Federal executive (now retired) once told me that he was so over scheduled every day, he yearned for time to just sit and think about policy and operational issues.  Listening to people up and down the ranks enabled me to have my voice heard at times on workforce and operational issues.  As historian, in talking to colleagues, I could link past events to current issues and examine cause and effect.  Graduate school gives you the tools to do your job.  You learn on your own how to build trust and get to know people as human beings.

Initial experiences can be significant.  AOTUS David S. Ferriero blogged in 2011 about The Progress Principle and workplace joy.  David wrote of his early experiences at the MIT Libraries,

Thinking back over my own career my inner work life has clearly been ‘joyful’ in those situations where I felt good about the work I was doing, had the resources with which to be effective, and the trust of my supervisor to do the work. I still remember going to the best supervisor I ever had with a problem to her expecting her to tell me how to solve it. When she asked me what solution I would suggest, I was startled and delighted! That expectation of autonomy was huge to my attitude about my work.

Those moments depend on who is sitting across the desk from us.  For the luckiest, they enable building bridges that help us to cross rivers and ravines where we otherwise might be stranded, unable to advance. We need to pay that forward, especially with the less privileged.

Later, as a Supervisory Librarian, Ferriero saw the effect of workplace issues on the MIT library team in his care and wrote “Burnout at the Reference Desk” (1982).   You see him at MIT and with Dara Baker (then a recent LIS graduate), Rod Ross, and me in 2012.

I talked to David (whom I know, like and respect) in 2014 about why he wrote his article.  His response was insightful and authentic.  So I shared his humane, thoughtful burnout article with subscribers to an archives and library Listserv.  The advice resonates now as as then. So, too, his later observations as director of New York Public Libraries.

The classroom gives you a start.  Later lessons come from seeing the impact of workforce issues on your team, yourself, users of library, archives, and records services.  To understand them, you need to move out of the comfort zone conferred by degrees, credentials, and certification.

4.  Mitigating professional loneliness

Sara wrote of working alone, “I don’t mean the kind of loneliness that comes from hanging out in a basement vault all day, though that’s part of it….perhaps more difficult was feeling like I was the only one who cared.”

The late Roger Trask, who served as historian at three Federal agencies after a successful academic career, observed that nothing prepared him for working in Fedland.  He shared some thoughts with me as a mentor and offered others publicly.  In 1990, he wrote,

Often in small programs in Washington there is no more than one professional historian, sometimes working completely alone.  One of the problems peculiar to one-person offices is professional and intellectual loneliness.  There is no one readily available internally to discuss program directions and initiatives, research problems, and analytical questions or to provide critical reviews of written histories.

…most heads of small historical offices say…they need to establish a “critical mass” of at least two professional historians to provide intellectual stimulation and mutual support….

Roger Trask played a key role in the formation of the Society for History in the Federal Government.  He is pictured with me at a Washington awards ceremony in 1990.

What Roger wrote applies to some archivists, librarians, and records managers, too.  My archivist career at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in civil service and now as a Volunteer there includes joy in workplace community.  I also worked for many years elsewhere in Fedland as a historian with some archives and records management duties.  I had some great colleagues.  But for a 20 year period outside NARA, none were academically trained historians.  So I sometimes turned to Listservs and online forums for company.

Almost immediately after I retired, my attention turned to caring for my ailing Mother during the last year of her life.  I’m grateful for friends IRL who kindly supported me then.  And to those online, such as Stacie Williams (@Wribrarian), below, who helped me without knowing it.  Most of the people who knew me only online while running a one-person history office or caring for my Mom knew nothing of the circumstances under which I reached out for conversation and company.

As you move out of the classroom, it’s important to keep in mind the isolation of the keyboard.  You may not know the context for others’ actions just as they may not know yours.  You try to learn when to center yourself and when to de-center and intuit what others need online.  Just as you hope they will do for you.

5.  Professional representation

Curiosity about environmental issues that affect archives and RM work is part of open learning in our professions.  I saw such smart exploration at Kate Theimer’s ArchivesNext blog.  She also showed a sophisticated understanding of strategic communications. When she served on Council for the Society of American Archivists (SAA), Kate (who is bold, brave, and fair) wisely put up the following disclaimer:

Please note that in all posts on this blog, replies to comments, tweets, FB status updates, and in any other communication, all the views represented are strictly my own and nothing I say should be interpreted in any way as representing the views of SAA or the SAA Council unless I explicitly state that it is.

To my knowledge, professional associations don’t require this.  And it doesn’t mean elected association officials can’t and won’t have diverse opinions as individuals.  But I haven’t seen similar disclaimers in personal online interactions by group elected officers or council or board members of SAA, ARMA International, the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators, etc.

Because such groups vary in the amount of contextual public facing information they release, individuals who serve on boards, councils, or as association-elected officials often are the more familiar external online faces of the professional organizations. This can affect official messaging by archives, RM, library, and history organizations in various ways, positive or negative.  I’ve seen the effect with several organizations over the last decade, especially the last few years.

Professional associations have growth opportunities in understanding and mitigating the impact of ad hoc, personal, clearly not strategic, communications by board/council members and elected association officers.  But gaining insights into the effect on messaging of individuals’ interactions online can be challenging for function-based organizations.

While there is room for improvement in all the groups, SAA deserves credit for working to improve transparency and understand member needs.  It shares agendas and minutes publicly and invites comments, including at its President’s Off the Record blog.

SAA also is assessing challenges in attracting younger professionals after shutting down a contentious former listserv for archivists, librarians, and records managers.  Subscribers from both ends of the ideological spectrum largely blamed each other as SAA shut down the List.

While willingness to recognize the impact of one’s own actions varies, individuals do have agency.  Voluntarily declaring in writing distance between personal or partisan public stances on professional issues and temporarily-held association titles shows respect for organizations.  Here, as in so much else, Kate Theimer served as a model for SAA, ARMA, AIIM, CoSA, NAGARA members to consider.  Because as in the workplace, building trust results from continual learning.

This entry was posted in Archival issues, Cultural competence, History, People issues. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to What they don’t teach you in grad school

  1. Pingback: Welcoming the stranger | Archival Explorations

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