Context Junky

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

What have I learned?

This is the second of three related blog posts to start the year, all reflecting on where I am professionally and what lies ahead. The first post, How did I end up here?, talks about how I became an archivist; this post 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.

In this post I’m going to spend a little time thinking about some of the things I’ve learned building a career as an archivist working in a university research centre (though most of them apply more broadly). Some of it is probably self-evident. If so, I apologise in advance.

I’m also aware that a certain level of privilege has made my career easier. I’m a white, able-bodied cis male from a comfortable middle-class background with a private school education. I’m doing my PhD at the University of Melbourne (where I also completed my undergraduate degree) and did my Masters at the University of Edinburgh. Prejudice – whether open or hidden and systemic – is not something which has ever really had an impact on me.

Despite that, since leaving the corporate sector I’ve been careful not to just coast through. I realised that if I didn’t pay attention to what I was doing I would likely end up somewhere I didn’t want to be. Since then I’ve tried to step back every so often and look at the bigger picture.

A colleague told me something similar in my first year as an archivist. His philosophy: spend some time thinking about what you are doing and where you are working every six months or so. You might decide you’re happy where you are. That’s fine. Even if you decide to work in the same job for 30 years, just make sure you’re doing so consciously, not accidentally. It was good advice.

I worked full-time in a university research centre for six and a half years before starting my PhD, and still do some hours there on a casual basis. The centre is comprised of academic staff and professional staff working closely together, with little practical distinction between the two (at least internally), giving it an #alt-ac (alternative academic) flavour.

We have never been fully funded so rely on developing research grants, consultancy work, and funded archival projects. This type of environment, like my work as a freelance consultant, relies on cultivating opportunities. Eric Ravenscraft posted a useful little blog post about this at the start of the year:

Someone has probably asked you what your plan is for your life. They may have asked enough that you feel like you have to have one. However, if you adhere too strictly to a plan, it could backfire. Instead, try cultivating opportunity.

With variable funding this is doubly true. Pursue things that interest you, be open about your interests with colleagues and potential collaborators, and remain open to change. Some things you pursue will turn into work, some won’t. Often you can’t be too precious about which is which (hence the ‘pursue things that interest you’ advice). Projects can be a little like small businesses: you have to invest something to get them off the ground, but many will never make enough money to live on so it’s a good idea to have a few things on the go at the same time.

Cultivate broad interests and learn how your expertise applies in a range of subject areas. I’ve applied my archival knowledge to projects related to museums, agriculture, ballet, history, social work, education, community sector standards, the military, community services, social science data, demography, manufacturing, system development, and more.

Archivists, librarians and other information professionals have much to offer outside ‘the archive’ and ‘the library’. We don’t need to be subject-matter experts in an area for our insights to be valuable, provided we work at becoming subject-matter experts in our own field.

I’ve learned I’m more productive when I’m on the verge of being over-committed, so being involved in multiple projects simultaneously suits me. An inevitable consequence of this is that sometimes I tip over the edge and become swamped. For a long time I thought the answer to this was to say ‘no’ more often, and am better at this than I used to be. But sometimes, in the interests of cultivating opportunities, it’s better to say yes even if you’re already busy as long as you have a clear idea of what is possible and manage expectations accordingly.

Archival work (like PhD life) can sometimes be solitary, which suits some people better than others. It suits me, but I also like working with others, and a lot of work in the GLAM sector is collaborative (or should be). When working with colleagues or managing a team be aware of your limits as well as theirs. That means more that just learning to delegate. Micro-managers often delegate while still trying to control every aspect of the outcome. As something of a control-freak myself I’ve tried this. It’s exhausting.

Instead, trust other people, give them responsibility, and recognise when to just get out of their way and let them do their job. When managing I’ve learned that, rather than always trying to manage your staff, sometimes you get the best results by managing the environment around your staff so they have the space to do their work. Other times you need to intervene directly in what staff are doing or pull them up for their behaviour. Good managers can do both, depending on the situation.

All these things – cultivating opportunities, pursuing interests, setting expectations, and collaborating effectively – are about building networks of relationships.

Making professional connections means joining associations, going to conferences, workshops and talks, writing for blogs, newsletters and professional journals, and being social (even if you’re not naturally sociable). It means being generous with your knowledge, experience and time, but also expecting generosity from others. Many archivists, librarians, curators, and academics are passionate about what they do. Don’t take advantage of that (we’ve all been asked to do things for less reward than our experience deserves), but if you’re willing to give as much as you get don’t be afraid to ask.

Finally, be active not passive. It’s the ‘make your own luck’ thing. No matter how good you are at your job, or how long you’ve been there, don’t expect opportunities to be delivered to you. There’s a great Werner Herzog story that’s relevant here (which comes via Elizabeth Gilbert):

I have a friend who’s an Italian filmmaker of great artistic sensibility. After years of struggling to get his films made, he sent an anguished letter to his hero, the brilliant (and perhaps half-insane) German filmmaker Werner Herzog. My friend complained about how difficult it is these days to be an independent filmmaker, how hard it is to find government arts grants, how the audiences have all been ruined by Hollywood and how the world has lost its taste etc, etc. Herzog wrote back a personal letter to my friend that essentially ran along these lines: “Quit your complaining. It’s not the world’s fault that you wanted to be an artist. It’s not the world’s job to enjoy the films you make, and it’s certainly not the world’s obligation to pay for your dreams. Nobody wants to hear it. Steal a camera if you have to, but stop whining and get back to work.”

Working in the GLAM or university sectors can be difficult. Limited jobs, low pay, regular funding cuts, long hours. But it’s not the world’s fault that I want to be an archivist; I’m not owed anything, and the difficulties are far outweighed by the enjoyment and satisfaction I get from the work.

If that changes I hope I notice. The alternative is to fall into a rut and start complaining about funding constraints, or how society doesn’t value our work as much as it should.

Following Herzog, nobody wants to hear it. I’ve learned it’s better to do something about it and get back to work.

Go to the followup post: What do I want to learn in 2017?

2 Comments

  1. Thanks Mike….loved it!!

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