One Month In: A Retrospective on an Archives Career

Today, October 11th, marks my one-month anniversary in my new job in Michigan. This anniversary made me think back on my career thus far.

Six years. That is how long I have been in this archives game. In six years, I have held 4 jobs and all but one of them (this current one) in government. If you do the math, that averages about to 1.5 years at each job. Actually, my track record is more close to two years.

My first job was a one year processing gig out in a remote part of California. It was a culture shock. I hated it…for about the first 3-5 months I was there. I didn’t hate the job. I hated being so isolated. So far away. Most of my family was on the East Coast. To visit them was a costly, time sucker of a journey. I saw beautiful natural wonders and met some great folks but I resolved that I would never live on the west coast.

27 year old me working on archives stuff at my processing job at Death Valley National Park.

27 year old me working on archives stuff at my processing job at Death Valley National Park.

My second job came about, I think, because of the first job. I used my time wisely and got my resume critiqued. I left that one year processing job with a well-written, tailored resume for federal government service. From 2012-2015, I worked for the National Archives at Philadelphia. For the bulk of that time, I loved that job. It was everything I had been working toward.

Why hello? I didn't see you standing there. Pose for a picture? Sure! This is from my time as an archivist (technically archives tech) at NARA.

Why hello? I didn't see you standing there. Pose for a picture? Sure! This is from my time as an archivist (technically archives tech) at NARA.

I declared in graduate school that I would work for the National Archives and I did. From the west coast to the Northeast, I fell in love with Philadelphia. I made great friends there. I came into my own there. My archives career was firing on all cylinders. I attribute my current professional network (on Twitter and LinkedIn) to my time there.

2014 was when things started to change. A series of bureaucratic decisions removed the rose-colored glasses from my eyes and I was no longer in love with NARA. That’s what happens when you idealize something. It is earth-shattering when it reveals itself to be less than what you imagined.

I took stock of my life professionally and decided I needed a change. Leaving Philadelphia and the life I had developed was…painful. More painful than I cared to admit.

That was when I started to hate saying goodbye.

I like to think that I’m not done with Philadelphia, that we are taking a break for a few years. Who knows what the future holds?

I did an about face and embraced archival outreach. That led me to my third job. It’s funny. When you think you want something, get it, and then realize it’s not what you wanted. It’s demanding in a different kind of way.

Oh that's just me hanging out in the Texas Senate floor showing senators a handwritten copy of the Texas Declaration of Independence as one does. 

Oh that's just me hanging out in the Texas Senate floor showing senators a handwritten copy of the Texas Declaration of Independence as one does. 

I’m a people-liking introvert but being “on” all the time was exhausting. Physically and emotionally exhausting. To be that outgoing person more than 50% of the time can grate even on the most social of introverts (or even ambiverts for that matter). I traded outreach for archives and I found I didn’t like the exchange.

I was at my best when I married the two: archives and outreach. To conduct outreach without the deep, cultivated, intuitive understanding of the archival collections felt odd. I felt like an imposter.

I changed courses.

That’s something that people don’t really talk about. We talk about career changes. Going from one career to an entirely different one. But there is something to be had about being in a career, exploring one facet of it only to realize, nope, that’s not for me. Then you have to shift gears.

After all, these are still people, institutions, etc that you will still interact with but you just changed your mind.

I’m fortunate to be in the profession that I’m in where I can do that. I can change courses and not burn bridges, especially if the course change is handled properly.

My course change led me to my fourth (and current) job. For the first time, I’m in a non-government job. I’m also back in the archives as an archivist but this time I’m a manager.

Say what now?

Six years ago, hell three years ago, I loathed the idea of being a manager. A supervisor. Getting pulled into the administrative pit that comes with being a manager. However, one thing my career has shown me is that, in order to change institutions, you have to be willing to adapt.

You have to be willing to lead instead of follow.

The jury is still out on my love of budgets and strategic planning but what is nice is having a seat at the table. To speak and have others listen. To make decisions, fight for them, and (sometimes) actually win them.

I don’t know what the future holds for me at this job, in Detroit, or wherever the wind takes me. All I do know is that I’m gearing up for greatness and I’m embracing it.

After all, I did say I wanted to be Archivist of the United States. ;)

David Ferriero, current Archivist of the United States, and I at a NAGARA conference in Austin, Texas. You feel pretty cool (and humbled) when the AOTUS knows who you are before you can introduce yourself.

David Ferriero, current Archivist of the United States, and I at a NAGARA conference in Austin, Texas. You feel pretty cool (and humbled) when the AOTUS knows who you are before you can introduce yourself.