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ARCHIVES Home

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ARCHIVES  June 2006, Week 3

ARCHIVES June 2006, Week 3

Subject:

History versus library degrees

From:

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Date:

Sun, 18 Jun 2006 11:44:11 EDT

Content-Type:

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I've read most of the recent posts about archivists, librarians, etc. and 
have found the discussion very interesting.  

To some extent, whether you focus on getting advanced degrees in history or 
library science depends on where you plan to work.  I know, I know, you can't 
really plan your life!  But here are a few thoughts.

I agree with Richard Cox that a strong educational background in archives and 
information science -- solid grounding in the fundamentals and attainment of 
good credentials -- are important.  Beyond that, you need to think about the 
type of work you are interested in.  

If you hope to work as a processing or reference archivist with the a 
government entity (such as the National Archives, which unfortunately is vulnerable 
to hiring freezes in the current budget envirnoment), an advanced degree in 
history is useful.  The advantages of a history degree for a subject matter 
expert or reference archivist, who spends his or her days working intensively with 
documents and with scholars who seek releasable knowledge about government 
operations, are obvious.  Other government archivists specialize in work as 
processing archivists, jobs which can require considerable specialization.  

Consider my late sister, a declassification archivist who spent her entire 
career reading documents to see if they should be released to the research 
public or if they should remain restricted.  A Library degree would not have helped 
her.  But knowledge of past events and how the government operates enabled 
her to put the disclosure guidelines she applied each day into context.  To see 
what I mean, take a look at 
http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB193/HAK-8-6-69.pdf .

This document from 1969 originally was security classified.  It recently 
declassified and now is posted on the website of the National Security Archive at  
  http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB193/index.htm .  

An academic background focused primarily on library skills would do little to 
enable a reviewing archivist to apply the balancing tests necessary to 
determine if the document met the threshhold for public release.  But a strong 
background in history might give an aspiring archivist a competitive advantage over 
other applicants seeking to work with such documents.  And, of course, you 
need to consider continuing education.  

When I worked at NARA's Nixon Project, reviewing tapes and documents for 
potential release, I was a voracious reader at home on my own time of memoirs and 
history books about the Presidency, the Vietnam War, etc.  That sort of study 
enabled me to know who was Jean Sainteny, who was Vernon Walters, what theit 
relationship was with Kissinger, etc. -- I'm referring to two people mentioned 
on the second page of the document linked to above. Actually, I still read 
those types of books now, although I haven't worked at NARA for 16 years 

Conversely, an archivist who had focused more on history rather than library 
science might find himself or herself at a disadvantage when competing for a 
job which required a strong combination of archival and library skills.  Or, 
once hired, have to depend more on "on the job training" than colleagues who 
came in to their jobs with a strong library background.  

There are many different archival institutions which offer employment 
opportunities.   For those who are just starting out, I would say that to some 
extent, you have to think about what type of setting you aspire to work in.  Of 
course, jobs are scarce.  It would be great if all aspiring archivists could 
prepare themselves for job openings of all types, either in governmental or 
academic settings.  But not everyone has the means to get both a Master's in History 
and a MLIS.

Maarja
(Former National Archives' Nixon tapes archivist)

A posting from the Archives & Archivists LISTSERV List sponsored by the Society of American Archivists, www.archivists.org.
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