Love Triangle – Libraries, Archives and Writing Fight It Out.

I’m caught in a love triangle, a love triangle between archives, libraries and writing. Yet, it all boils down to a very simple question;  how do I earn a living in the future? Or an even simpler question; what next?

[ok technically not a ‘love triangle’, but ‘love square’ sounds rubbish]

A lot has happened since the last time I did a ‘career’ update, it was back in January 2011 (here) and while I never intended this blog to be a diary it is sometimes nice to think out loud, so forgive me now if I indulge in a little self-reflection. I’m certainly not the first person to find themselves at a career crossroads, and in this economic climate I’m certainly not alone in needing to rethink my options in the face of high competition for jobs. Any advice, notes of caution, encouragement you can throw my way would be appreciated.

Since I left my job in university administration in December 2010 I have been working as a freelance writer, mostly part-time. The first half of 2011 was largely taken up with helping raise my newborn son, simply because I couldn’t resist spending time with him, and quite frankly I have no regrets there. The second half of the year was spent on some freelance jobs and my own independent writing and research. I have thoroughly enjoyed the jobs I’ve worked on and I have loved the opportunity to work on my own research, which I hope will bear fruit in future. I’m a much better writer and researcher than I was, and I have learnt a great deal about life as a freelancer. I can certainly confirm that looking for freelance writing work is a job in itself, building up a reputation and building contacts takes a long time and I still feel very much at the beginning (though at least over the starting line). It’s not the line of business to get into unless you’re brutally honest and willing to hunker down for the long run, and I guess that’s what I’m doing now.

Over this last year (or so) I’ve reconnected with archives and libraries in a way that reminded me of how interesting (and important) they are. I found that a niggling thought was increasingly playing on my mind: there are careers there that I could get a great deal of pleasure from. In truth, I’ve always sneaked a look at that section of the job pages, but I’ve always been held back by a perceived lack of experience or real knowledge of what the work entailed. But making the step out of an established, ‘regular’ job has taught me that lack of experience and knowledge can be resolved relatively quickly, if you just get on with it. Go look, go find out. So that’s what I’ve been doing over the last few months.

I’ve begun volunteering, meeting with librarians and archivists, and generally offering myself for free to whatever libraries or archives need a hand at. Thanks to some very kind people I now know infinitely more about both careers in a short space of time and am beginning to understand what it takes to break into these professions. Overwhelmingly the message is that it is very competitive but if you get in, and get qualified, it is very rewarding. I’ve also learnt that I can’t lump the two careers together as I had been, they are similar in some respects yet fundamentally different in others. The historian in me can’t help but be attracted to archives but then the lure of academic libraries is also strong. I’ve never wanted to be an academic, but I’ve made a pretty good career in supporting ‘the academy’, it’s something I believe in, so why not? That said I spent an afternoon last week in a very, very small local library, there weren’t many customers, but helping those that did come in felt good. After a fairly long period of writerly seclusion it was nice to know that I haven’t entirely turned into Gollum, I may still be human after all.

There are a lot of good, reflective blogs about library careers, which I am leaping on for guidance. There seem to be less about archives, although it might be that I have yet to discover them. I’m excited about the possibilities but tempered with realism about the hard slog ahead if I choose to go down either route. I seem to be making a habit of difficult career choices, but then, so what? It’s better than feeling directionless, and it keeps life interesting.

Where does that leave the writing? I’ll always write, but the type of things I want to write has been clarified over the last year. Having to write to make a living, writing to order, has its own challenges and anyone who is halfway serious about their writing should most definitely try it, even if its only a few times.  There is a huge chasm between writing what the hell you like and writing what an audience or client needs. It has also helped remind me of what I want to write. Perhaps some great projects will come along, and if so I’ll enjoy working on them. Writing about history will always be my passion, so this blog and other outlets for that will continue (don’t worry this is not about to become a ‘new career’ blog).

If this odd, exciting, unique year has taught me anything its that pursuing new adventures in life is a risky business, but if the opportunity arises, do it. Give yourself a bit of freedom and you’ll be surprised where it leads you.

If anyone has any advice on pursuing a career in libraries or archives then let me know.

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5 thoughts on “Love Triangle – Libraries, Archives and Writing Fight It Out.

  1. Sarah Werner

    I don’t exactly have career advice, or at least, I have some thoughts but no real advice on how to turn them into reality. But, fwiw, I think there’s an in-between ground between the world of historian and archivist, especially for someone with your talent for writing vividly about history and documents, and that’s publicizing resources. I think of it as PR for scholarship and it’s sort of one of the things that I do for the Folger, highlighting collections and resources for scholars and explaining in terms understandable to a general public why what we do here matters. I’m not sure how many places do things like this, but I’m convinced that more places need to be doing it. And I get to work for a library without having to go to library school, aka, yet more post-graduate training.

    Reply
    1. Tom Sykes Post author

      thanks for responding Sarah. I must admit what you do with the Folger archives had crossed my mind. In discussing the career path with local archivists I get the impression that some do specialise in ‘outreach’ and PR. For me, that would be a very attractive path. Any internships going? ;)

      Reply
      1. Sarah Werner

        As I said, I have little useful advice! I was already here doing the Undergraduate Program part-time when I convinced them to hire me in a second capacity to do outreach. It’s a blast. But I’m not quite sure how to get into it. In my brief phase of actively trying to figure out how one gets a non-academic job, the advice I kept getting was to talk to lots of people. Contact folks in jobs you’d like to have and ask them if you can talk to them about what it’s like. The idea was that you learn about how to get into the field, and that some of those informational interviews might turn into job leads. I never really did many of those, but it’s not a bad idea. Obviously, you’re already doing that, so maybe just keep at it? I really wish I had actually advice to offer!

        Reply
  2. Pingback: Veni, Vidi, Vici – New Job! « In Pursuit of History

  3. Pingback: Recent library blog reading « Footnotes and folios

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