Susan Woodland, Senior Archivist, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society Collection at the American Jewish Historical Society 2016-01-19 18:02:05
How exactly do project jobs affect the archives profession? Do they adversely affect archives and archivists? Or are they necessary to provide experience and a temporary paycheck while archivists at all stages of their careers look for more permanent work? I have more questions than answers, and can provide only anecdotal evidence in a conversation about project jobs that needs to take place among the decision-makers in our field—archives and library directors, hiring managers, development officers, CFOs, and executive directors—about the long-term effects of running an archives with too many project jobs and not enough permanent staff. The genesis of this article was the lightning talk session “Taken for Granted: How Term Positions Affect New Professionals and the Repositories that Employ Them” at the Joint Annual Meeting of CoSA, NAGARA, and SAA in Washington, D.C., in 2014. Until a study is undertaken (if one has been done I have been unable to find it), the growing trend of project jobs in place of permanent staff positions will have negative long-term effects throughout the archives profession in the following areas. The Mental Health and Stress of Archivists. Knowing from the start that your job will end on a specific date and you will be job hunting again is stressful. The constant feeling of impermanence is different from choosing to leave a job when you are ready for a change, and when moving from one short-term project to the next, the job search never actually ends. Unacknowledged in conversations of project work is another source of stress: that of completing a large project on time, before the funding runs out, and with no guarantee of an extension. Long-Term Career Planning. Continual job hunting makes it difficult to know where you will be in six months or a year. Will you jump to another project job that is longer term? Will it involve moving or a longer commute? If your project ends in the spring and you want to attend the SAA Annual Meeting, will you have a new employer by mid-summer who will pay for a conference, or do you book early to get a good rate and hope you’ll be reimbursed? Can you consider a DAS course or other professional development without institutional support? As a temporary staff member, will you be around long enough to effectively participate on committees at work? Training for Archivists. It can be difficult for temporary staff to gain on-the-job training that is available to permanent staff. The specific responsibilities of a project job may hinder archivists from gaining necessary experience in a diverse range of job responsibilities. This can be challenging later when qualifying for managerial positions, which require a wider range of experience. New Archivists. How can a new archivist gain consistent experience and learn about the range of work in an archives at a particular organization when working there short-term? How can other staff get to know the quality of their work? Often a project job has very specific parameters— only processing or encoding or finishing the work that someone else started. If given the opportunity to learn, new archivists can develop a broader, long-lasting knowledge that builds from one job to the next. Not all short-term archivists respond to reference requests, participate in shifting boxes in the stacks, or engage in repository-wide committees. Mid-Career Archivists. Hiring managers will compare you to competitors who have longevity at one job. They may wonder if something is wrong with your work, why you jump from job to job, or why you haven’t been able to land a staff position. At mid-career, many archivists have established a presence in SAA or in regional or local archives groups but find difficulty in continuing that involvement when in a project job because of varying or inflexible vacation time or the lack of institutional support. Can you plan on sitting on a conference panel or running for chair of an SAA section? Mid-career archivists may have a larger network of colleagues than new archivists, but that won’t necessarily create an appropriate job. Late-Career Archivists. How many senior-level long-time jobs have disappeared because of the financial crisis, leaving someone who has built up an archive after years of work and real love for a collection without a job? Job hunting will consist of more than brushing up on EAD and current options for a new DAM; looking for work when you are at the top of your career is complicated. You are competing against archivists with fewer years of experience and thousands less in salary expectations, and jobs like the one you had are few in number. Archivists in Permanent Staff Positions. Who covers the reading room when one staff member is on vacation, one is out sick, one has been at the desk all week, and the remaining archivists are project archivists working on deadline? Who do you have respond to a reference request when everyone who worked on that collection was a temporary employee, now working elsewhere? And how much of your time is taken up with interviewing new term employees, year after year? Professional Associations. Members caught in a project job cycle aren’t becoming involved leaders. They attend conferences inconsistently and maintain their memberships only when their salary and benefits make it possible. The Organizations that Employ Archivists. The loss to an organization of institutional memory is hard to quantify. But as fewer collection specialists, a lack of institutional loyalty, and a smaller permanent staff become the new normal, the inability to maintain and grow collections properly takes its toll. Researchers. Although more collections have online finding aids, researchers have fewer collection specialists to turn to for specific help with collections. The Collections. More and more of the research process is turned over to the researcher as subject specialists disappear or are pulled in other directions in the archives. We don’t know what this will do to the usage of under-described collections or collections still waiting to be processed, but an increase in term archivists can only exacerbate the issue. * * * While it’s great to find funding to hire temporary archivists to deal with a backlog of processing, this short-term thinking has a higher cost for archivists and their individual careers, as well as institutions. How many staff positions can be replaced with term-funded project jobs before permanent damage is done to our collections? What damage are we doing to the profession and to our archivists by tolerating project jobs? How can new archivists get a real foothold in the profession when they are forced to follow project jobs to new repositories every year or two? And how do we continue the conversation about changes in our profession that are unsustainable if we are to provide quality care for our cultural heritage collections? To improve the long-term health of our archives, we must create more permanent sources of funding to better manage our collections. Yes, we are dependent on our development office, finance department, CFO, executive director, or library director for our budgets. How do we communicate to them that this is unsustainable, and what can we do to ensure the return of more permanent staff jobs—now?
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