Context Junky

Archives/GLAM, PhD life, history, art, etc.

How did I end up here?

This is the first of three related blog posts to start the year, all reflecting on where I am professionally and what lies ahead. It talks about how I became an archivist. The second post, What have I learned?, tries to sum up some of the things I’ve worked out getting to this point; and the final post, What do I want to learn in 2017?, looks to the year ahead.

On Friday, 25 November 2016 I took part in Connect More, a professional ‘speed-dating’ event for GLAMR* students and new professionals. Organised by the ALIA Students and New Graduates Group, Australian Society of Archivists’ GLAMR New Professionals and RIMPA Noobs, the evening was a great success.

I was there as an invited expert, with a steady stream of students and new professionals asking questions. The most common: how did you get into the profession? So, for the record (and for anyone who wasn’t able to attend), here’s the story.

At school I did mostly humanities subjects – english, english literature, latin, history, music – with a little maths thrown in for good measure. Though I was easily distracted (mostly reading piles of books unrelated to my study or playing music) I got the sort of marks which meant I could do pretty much anything I wanted at university.

But, with little interest in becoming a doctor, lawyer, or anything that required regularly wearing a suit – I’ve quoted Max Ernst here before: “The young man, eager for knowledge, avoided any studies which might degenerate into breadwinning” – I enrolled in an Arts Degree at the University of Melbourne. My subjects: Literature, Art History, Philosophy and Linguistics.

I thought literature would be my primary focus, but I discovered I’m one of those people who likes reading fiction more than analysing it. Thanks to a couple of great lecturers I became fascinated by art history. (Interestingly, given what I do now, my worst mark was for The History and Philosophy of Museums.) By 2000 I had finished my degree, during which I spent a four week intensive subject in New York studying the art world on and around Manhattan, and got a little work experience at RMIT Gallery.

I also wrote a thesis in my Honours year, using the work of Foucault and others to analyse the reception of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama during her time in New York (1957-1973). Unsurprisingly, this did not lead directly to a career.

After a brief foray into the working world (a telephone market research company) I combined travel with a return to study and started a Masters by Research in Art History at the University of Edinburgh. It was a wonderful experience, though by the end I was sick of student life. I arrived back in Melbourne with a second thesis in my bag – “Impurity and Disgust: The Politics of Californian ‘Figurative Assemblage’ in the 1950s and 1960s.”

Still no job offers. And I was broke.

I went to a temping agency and within days was working at the National Australia Bank (NAB). Four and a half years later I was still there.

NAB taught me a lot. They do some aspects of professional development well and I worked hard. By the end of my time there I was managing 15-20 people and had experience with project management, budgeting, report writing, continuous improvement processes, system development and more. I would later realise these were all useful transferable skills, though at the time I sought out new things to keep myself interested rather than with any particular aim.

The problem was I hated turning up to work. Every day I sat on the train going through the city loop and all I wanted to do was stay on board, go out the other side and head back home. The motives of the organisation didn’t sit well with me, and the culture ranged from indifference to negativity to the outright toxic.

I had tried to leave once before, after only a year, but had stupidly done so without saving money first which meant I was back in a different part of the organisation within weeks. Second time around I stored up some of my pay over several months, took a final bonus, and left in December 2007.

I was determined to find something to do with my life that was more aligned to my interests.

For six months I reconnected with all the things I liked to do with my time. I read lots, listened to music, wrote songs on the piano and guitar, watched movies, tried to get fit, and spent a lot of time just thinking. By the middle of the year I still wasn’t sure what lay ahead. I was running out of money and starting to look at getting a ‘pay the rent’ job while I continued the search.

Then I got an unexpected break. An old friend called and asked if I was still looking for work. She needed someone to help process archival collections at the State Library of Victoria (employed by the University of Melbourne), and from our previous conversations thought I might be interested. It was Thursday. I started the following Monday.

For the next six months I worked as a casual, three days a week, at a pay grade a long way below what I was earning at my previous job. My colleagues gave me on-the-job training in archival arrangement and description, including some basic archival theory, and later would walk me through the process of accessioning collections, provenance research, generating finding aids, and more.

I loved my job, and still do. Since 2008 I have hardly dreaded a single Monday, and though I enjoy weekends I don’t thank God (or anyone else) for Fridays. And looking back, I’m not surprised I ended up where I did. As an art historian my work involved historical research, working with diverse primary sources, theoretical frameworks, networks of meaning and socio-cultural context. My Grandma was a librarian, my parents encouraged my love of reading, I was always interested in libraries, galleries and museums, and I’ve been particular about my own collections of books and music all my life.

(Note that, though these are great passions to have, they do not qualify you to work in the GLAM sector. ‘I want to work in a library/archive/museum because I like books/old documents/specimens and historic things’ will not get you very far. The GLAMR sector is looking for people who are interested in supporting people, engaging users, communicating knowledge, working with communities and helping the public become more informed.)

Working with archival collections I felt like I was bringing all my skills and interests together. I threw myself into the work at the State Library and learnt as much as I could. Drawing on my experience from NAB I also started writing project reports and funding proposals. The Director of our Centre noticed and the following year asked me to work on some other projects.

He also asked me to help out with administration and accounts. Though it wasn’t where my interests lay it was an invaluable way to find out more about the work of the Centre, meet new people, and stay informed about new projects as they developed. I went from three days a week to four, and then to five, taking every opportunity I could to do different work, build connections with collaborators, and learn from more experienced colleagues.

The connections I made in those early years are still significant today. My boss has been supportive throughout, and has gone from noticing my project reports to being a supervisor on my PhD. I have done well-paid consultancy work for people I first met as a new professional in 2009 and have written the results up in journal articles; and I developed working relationships with people who were later instrumental in me successfully applying for my current scholarship.

My story perhaps does not represent a typical journey – particularly today, when on-the-job training is increasingly rare – but it remains true that there are numerous pathways into this sort of work. The people I have worked with come from a huge variety of backgrounds. Some enter the GLAMR sector early but for many more it is part of a career change.

Sometimes all it takes is an initial break. Mine came via a friend; but I had been actively searching for an opportunity and had created the space in my life where I could make the most of whatever came along.

In my next blog post I’ll cover some of the things I’ve learned about building a career as an archivist and researcher working outside ‘traditional’ archival institutions. Until then, feel free to ask questions in the comments below.

Go to the followup post: What have I learned?


* For those unfamiliar with the acronym, GLAMR refers to galleries, libraries, archives, museums, and records/record keeping.


  1. Thanks Mike. I certainly look forward to the next instalment.

  2. What a great idea Mike!

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