Viewpoints

Reconciling Professional Rifts

Can Historians and Archivists Understand One Another Better?

Beth DeBold | Jan 21, 2021

I was a brand-new master’s student entering a history program in the fall of 2019, and my cohort was warned in no uncertain terms about the lack of job prospects. Although I entered the program to improve my skills for a job I already have, I was interested to see how the academic job market would be presented. My professors gave us a balanced and honest account of this reality, tempered with cautious encouragement. 

Historians, archivists, and librarians will benefit if they are able to know one another better, and make arguments across professional roles for each other’s value.

Historians, archivists, and librarians will benefit if they are able to know one another better, and make arguments across professional roles for each other’s value. Eric Brandt/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

From my perspective, the outlook is grim. Last year’s AHA Jobs Report (Perspectives on History, February 2020) concludes that “We are now entering our second decade of anemic academic hiring, during which thousands of early-career historians have experienced disappointment, anger, and despair at the limited number of entry points into stable faculty employment.” Experts are examining the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education, and universities are making indefensible decisions to cut humanities programs. Although a few students in my program have left, I still see most of my cohort in class, but only a few are aiming for future careers in higher education.

This master’s degree will be my second. I earned my first, a master’s of science in library science, in 2013, and I have worked in libraries and archives since. Along with many of my colleagues, I decided to pursue a second graduate degree in a subject discipline because I felt it would improve my own scholarship as well as my ability to assist patrons who use the collections I help steward. I thought that my career path might be seen by my classmates and professors as a potential example for other aspiring young historians, and so I entered the program ready to offer information, advice, and mutual brainstorming to peers who might want to pursue careers like mine. Having worked in libraries for some time already, I was also aware I would likely need to explain the details of my work in depth and often—especially to anyone new to cultural heritage work. Most people who hear my job title, assistant curator at an independent special collections library, aren’t really sure what I do all day. But I was still surprised by the lack of knowledge among professional historians about the kind of training most library and archives jobs require, and the readiness with which many professors suggest these careers to their students without providing crucial context.

Although there are many different kinds of careers in cultural heritage organizations available to historians, becoming a librarian or archivist requires an understanding of archival theory and library science, plus the skills and experience to put that knowledge into practice. Archivists must be able to select, appraise, arrange, describe, and provide access to primary sources, and justify their decisions by rooting them in professional theory. They must have a strong knowledge of professionally set standards of description, and they must be able to think about records in relation to other sources, their original intent, and whether or not they should even be saved. Likewise, special collections librarians and curators are educated in preservation standards for rare books, paper, and artwork; collection development methodologies; how to conduct reference interviews; and how to catalog materials in an accessible and ethical manner. A master’s degree in library or information science entails the successful completion of coursework in all of these areas, in addition to completing lengthy internships or part-time work. It is becoming more difficult to obtain a job as a librarian or archivist with experience alone—most job descriptions now require this degree. 

I was surprised by the lack of knowledge among professional historians about the kind of training most library and archives jobs require.

Historians are rightly quick to note the transferability of a professional historian’s skill set, but as with all things, there are limits. While librarians and archivists are aware that we do not always possess the subject knowledge of a historian specializing in a particular period or person, it often feels as though many historians do not understand or value our training and skills as equal to theirs. The labor that goes into maintaining and building cultural heritage collections is intellectual, rigorous, and requires specific knowledge and training beyond what is offered in most history programs. I am far from the first to note the dissonant views historians and archivists have of one another. Francis X. Blouin and William G. Rosenberg’s book Processing the Past raised the alarm in 2011 about the fate of the cultural heritage sector if such professional divisions were allowed to continue. Michelle Caswell, associate professor of Archival Studies at UCLA, approaches the problem more bluntly, opining that “archivists have been relegated to the realm of practice, their work deskilled, their labor devalued, their expertise unacknowledged.”

The many pieces published by librarians, archivists, and museum workers on this issue, combined with frequent stories about disrespect and mistreatment in interactions with researchers, make clear that there is a real problem with how professional historians relate to archivists’ jobs, work, and institutions—and many historians seem to be unaware of this.

I believe that the answer, at least in part, is to integrate the work of galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (GLAM) professionals more deeply into academic spaces. This has already begun happening at schools where public history is required of all history majors, in dual-degree programs, and in interdisciplinary workshops or courses like those offered by the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia. Despite all of these intersections, we still seem to be looking past one another’s professional identities, instead of outward together in the same direction. It is time to imagine the next level of engagement we can have with each other’s professional lives, and how we can better present such career possibilities to students.

The AHA’s recent efforts toward building Career Diversity initiatives, along with programs like the American Council of Learned Societies’ Public Fellows Program, suggest that historians and other academics are hard at work reshaping how the discipline relates to the world outside of academia. In 2019, the AHA’s James Grossman and Emily Swafford penned “The Purpose-Driven PhD,” a piece representative of such efforts. They discussed the ways history departments are pivoting to help students learn more about where they might find employment and success outside of higher education. I’m someone who is still mostly outside the academy, however, and it is striking to me that such initiatives still appear to treat the jobs crisis historians are experiencing as a problem for historians to solve. Recent efforts to place graduate students in internships are an important start, but they often do not go far enough in reimagining the kind of training that historians receive. These are, too often, seen as additions to a students’ training rather than as an integral part of their development as historians. While departments may be adding interdisciplinary training and attempting to “make the case” for the value a professional historian can bring to a nonacademic workplace, there is little effort to reach out and build relationships with archivists, curators, and others. A truly interdisciplinary initiative, in which representatives from these workplaces can offer constructive criticism and make suggestions about how history programs might need to change in order for historians to be successful in other careers, would go a long way both toward repairing strained relationships and preparing students for success. 

From my perspective, historians have been too slow to collaborate with librarians and archivists.

From my perspective as a working special collections professional, historians have been too slow to collaborate with librarians and archivists. It’s important to note that, like jobs in higher education, library and archives jobs are also becoming increasingly difficult to find. We are all in a hiring crisis, together. My point in this piece is not to draw property lines between who gets what jobs in such a moment of crisis—ultimately, administrators across the board are the ones building this false scarcity, when professors, librarians, and archivists alike are facing dwindling numbers of positions but not a reduction in expected output. We will all benefit if we are able to know one another better, and make arguments across professional roles for each other’s value.

My advice to historians is to take advantage of colleagues working in libraries and archives—but as peers with robust, valuable experience and unique perspectives. Bring us in to speak with classes; involve us in career panels and podcasts; and consider sitting down with a local School of Library & Information Science (or other related professional disciplines) to create genuinely interdisciplinary programming. Work with your college archivist to co-teach a class using primary sources. Read and cite the work that librarians and archivists are publishing in digital humanities and primary source literacy, and through exhibitions and curatorial work. Take some time to attend the talks of professional organizations also interested in addressing the shared challenges libraries, archives, and historians all face. Take advantage of training offered at institutions like the Rare Book School, the Society of the History of Authorship, Readership, and Printing (SHARP), and the Bibliographical Society of America, all of which place librarians, archivists, and historians next to one another in professional spaces.

If we want to change how and where trained historians succeed professionally, the changes need to begin with how new historians are trained, but not only in the types of training that are offered or in locating new kinds of internships. It must also begin with how different cultural heritage and humanities professions acknowledge one another’s work and imagine our collaborative possibilities.


Beth DeBold is the assistant curator of collections at the Folger Shakespeare Library and a master’s student in history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She tweets at @eliza_audacis. All views are her own, and not representative of her employer.


Tags: Viewpoints Professional Life Public History Graduate Education


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