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Are We A Profession or Aren’t We?

January 27, 2014

First, a disclaimer: This post represents my personal views. It should not be construed to reflect the views of my employer, professional associations, family, or Friday night karaoke group.

Last week the Archives & Archivists listserv hosted an extended and contentious conversation about the state of the job market for early career archivists. The whole thread is worth reading (part I, part II), but here is a brief summary:

On Tuesday, a recent University of Glasgow graduate shared a critique of a job posting by the New York School of Interior Design for a part time temporary archivist position. He expressed concern that “people with influence in our field are not more vocal about how positions like this exploit a buyers market, and the long term damage this will do to the profession’s ability to identify, acquire, develop, and retain a more talented and diverse workforce.”

A handful of listserv subscribers concurred. About six hours after the original post,  a well-meaning adjunct lecturer in NYC shared his perspective on the job market quandary. In addition to advising archives students to pursue a diverse skill set, he wrote:

“Just don’t tell me the only world in which you are WILLING to look is the world of archives, libraries, and museums, because then I will tell you that you have wasted your time and money on that archives program.

You did so without beforehand checking out the employment marketplace.

That isn’t the fault of the archives programs; it isn’t the fault of the employers; and it isn’t the fault of the currently-employed archivists (senior or not).”

This post triggered a small firestorm, with several authors (including former SAA president Richard Pearce-Moses) writing in with advice about alternative career paths while others questioned the ethics of a job posting that offers subpar compensation for advanced professional qualifications.

By the next morning, the debate had caught the attention of several archivists on Twitter (sample of Twitter reactions) who have been heavily engaged in the discussion of archives employment issues.  Points that resonated most strongly with the Twitter crowd included cynicism about the concept of a “living wage” and contention over the concept of privilege.

UPDATE: A related conversation took place on the Lone Arrangers listserv during this same time period. You can review the thread with an SAA website account here:

Similarly, visit tumblr and Twitter to see how this debate is playing out in the library profession at large. For a primer, I recommend Bibliocracy’s recent post “On Precarity”

Instead of posting a response to the listserv, I spent the past few days letting the cumulative debate percolate in the back of my mind. What follows are my thoughts on the meat of the labor equity issue and some suggestions for moving forward.

Question 1: Are we a profession?

For a comprehensive consideration of the term “profession”, I looked to Jon A. Schmidt’s 2008 article “What is a Profession?” for Structure magazine. Although the article focuses on engineers, it has significance for archivists as a defense of fair compensation for professionals.

Guided by a 1978 doctoral dissertation by Myron Lubell and the writings of Ernest Greenwood, Schmidt described five key components of a profession (listed below in italics).  In terms of the archives profession as codified through SAA, we can identify several parallels.

1) Systematic theory – Professionals have a knowledge set that is based on abstract principles, more so than operational procedures, and thus must pursue an extensive formal education.

SAA’s Statement on the Core Values of Archivists emphasizes that archivists “accept an evolving theoretical base of knowledge, collaborate with colleagues in related professions, develop and follow professional standards, strive for excellence in their daily practice, and recognize the importance of professional education, including lifelong learning.” Archives students in accredited graduate programs are exposed to a growing corpus of professional theory that is rigorously peer-reviewed. Archives theory serves as the basis of our certification and  informs our professional standards .

2) Authority – Professionals have significant control over the nature and extent of the services that they render, because they serve clients who are generally unable to judge the quality of those services.

SAA’s Statement on the Core Values of Archivists outlines the many ways that archivists meet this criteria, although we are often reluctant to declare ourselves a vital stakeholder the management of information. Schmidt addressed this dilemma in his article for structural engineers, writing, “If we wish to continue being acknowledged instead as true professionals, it is vital that we be more effective in communicating the unique value of our capabilities to our clients and to the public at large.”

In his statement to the International Council on Archives forum at the 2013 SAA Annual Meeting, ICA Secretary-General David Leitch cautioned that “we must stop apologizing for being archivists” lest we apologize ourselves out of a profession. This timidity is central to the debate I hope to address here.

3) Community sanction – Professionals are subject to licensure or certification that delineates varying degrees of occupational jurisdiction in accordance with criteria over which they have considerable influence.

The Academy of Certified Archivists offers formal certification which is universally recognized in the U.S. although it is not required. Certification criteria is determined by established professional archivists. Our support of ALA’s accreditation standards serves a similar purpose.

4) Ethical codes – Professionals adhere to standards of behavior that are explicit, systematic, binding, and public service oriented; prescribe colleague relations that are cooperative, equalitarian, and supportive; and are enforced by their associations.

SAA published joint statements on the Core Values of Archivists and the Code of Ethics for Archivists. Under the Code of Ethics, archivists have a professional obligation to “cooperate and collaborate with other archivists” in a way that is “honest, fair, collegial, and equitable.” The work of archivists is explicitly oriented towards public service. There is no mechanism in place to formally sanction professionals who violate this code; it is largely self-policing.

5) Culture – Professionals have a career orientation that leads them to high personal involvement in their work and satisfaction with not only monetary rewards, but also symbols such as titles and awards.

This last point is difficult to quantify, but it seems consistent with the archives profession. Through frequent engagement in professional organizations, conferences, publishing, and practice, archivists demonstrate high personal involvement in their career. SAA awards special recognition to individuals who have made outstanding contributions.

Question 2: If we are a profession, what does that mean for individuals?

Specifically, if we are professionals, what does that mean in terms of compensation? Are we, as Schmidt wrote, “mere technologists – and compensated accordingly”, or does our professional status entitle us to higher wages than a person lacking our unique qualifications? If not, what does that communicate about our intrinsic value as a profession?

The principle of “supply and demand” was repeatedly invoked in the recent A&A listserv debate as an argument against paying early career archivists a living wage (various resources define the concept of a living wage here, here, here, and here). It is signficant to note that the term “living wage” is typically employed in terms of setting a minimum wage for unskilled laborers, rather than defining a fair compensation structure for professionals.

Supply and demand assumes the supplier and the purchaser are perfect competitors, with neither having direct influence over the price of the commodity. Assuming perfect competitors on each side, the inclining slope of supply and the declining slope of demand will meet at the point of wage equilibrium. The behavior of the demand curve with respect to the supply curve depends on whether the commodity being traded is classified as an inferior good, an ordinary good, or a superior good.

Setting aside the question of whether or not people should be treated as commodities, an archivist’s advanced education and certification should elevate her value above that of an ordinary good (a person without said education and licensure). For a more serious discussion of how education impacts the labor market, I recommend H.G. van de Werfhorst’s 2011 article “Skills, positional good or social closure? The role of education across structural-institutional labour market settings”

In the real world, employers are willing to pay more to hire people with superior qualifications. Presumably, as members of the Society of American Archivists, we believe that archivists have a unique set of skills that allow them to contribute to society in meaningful ways. If employers are not willing to pay early career archivists a wage that reflects the value of their unique qualifications, I posit that we (the profession) are responsible for failing to communicate that value.

Question 3: What can be done?

Those of us who have criticized the professions’ dependence on volunteer labor, low wages, and adjunctification see a stark disconnect between our supposed value as professionals and the compensation we are able to demand. Unfortunately, as evidenced by the abundance of well-intentioned but misdirected advice in the “Do We Eat Our Young” debate, this is frequently misunderstood as an empty plea for more jobs (or, bizarrely, for career advice).

As I recently tweeted, the central issue is not that there are too few archives jobs to go around (although that may also be true); the issue is that too many of the jobs being posted are underpaid, overspecialized, or adjunctified. The proliferation of these substandard positions threatens to permanently devalue our profession.

SAA members have argued that the organization should do more to advance the public standing of archivists, although some members question the practicality of these expectations. Some archives professionals (including the original poster in the “Do We Eat Our Young?” thread) feel that responsibility for low wages lies in part with the individuals who pursue these jobs, while others question the fairness of blaming a job candidate who is looking for any job opportunity they can get. Some participants (including myself) argue that individual institutions and employers have a responsibility to create and maintain positions that reflect the professional value of archivists.

Personally,  I think it will take a concerted effort from all stakeholders – professional organizations, new professionals, archives employers, educators, and institutions – to engage this topic. However, it is naive to pretend that all groups have equal capacity to affect change. Recent graduates in particular have little influence and even fewer resources to persuade employers to improve compensation practices.

New professionals may feel pressured to accept unpaid post-graduate internships, temporary jobs, or subpar compensation if they want to find work (especially when established archivists respond “if only life were fair.”) Others decide to leave the field entirely, taking their skills, ambition, and expertise to private industries. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but in high enough numbers it should raise serious concerns about the future of the archives profession (a point which was central to the argument of original poster Tom Tiballi).

Here are my suggestions for possible courses of action.

SAA could*:

  • Revise formal recommendations on employing volunteer labor  in archives to explicitly uphold the professional value of archivists

  • Draft formal recommendations for early career positions (See SAA Standards Committee draft on Best Practices for Internships as a Component of Graduate Archival Education for a related model)

  • Establish guidelines for jobs posted to the SAA Online Career Center, including a requirement that employers list salary ranges for the position

  • Revisit the issue of accreditation to determine whether archives programs are producing graduates with relevant skills to advance and sustain the profession

  • Support formal mechanisms for facilitating communication between recent graduates, new professionals, and change agents such as professors and the Committee on Education

  • Continue to mainstream employment issues in its Council agenda (see January 23-26, 2014, Council Meeting Agenda, “IV. Mega Issue Discussion”) and throughout the work of SAA’s committees and subcommittees

Established archivists could:

  • Take concrete steps to improve the status of the positions they manage by advocating for professional titles, permanent appointments, and professional wages.

  • Responsibly steward their institutional resources to support these efforts (where possible)

  • Communicate and demonstrate the professional value of archivists to their clients

  • Engage with new professionals in productive discussions about the state of the job market

All archivists could:

  • Engage with other professionals to gain a more diverse understanding of their experiences

  • Challenge unethical and out of date practices

  • Engage with professional associations to enact change

  • Pursue fair compensation for their work

  • Advocate on behalf of those who cannot advocate for themselves

  • Carry out SAA’s call to “actively work to achieve a diversified and representative membership in the profession”

At this point, my treatise is long enough. If you have other suggestions for concrete action, please share them in the comments!

*When this post was originally published on January 27, the SAA Council had just concluded its January 2014 meeting in Chicago. The question of archives employment was discussed at length as a “Mega Issue” on the Council Agenda. More information from the council is forthcoming; when it is available, I will provide a link here. Thank you to all who have productively engaged on this issue so far. 


From → SAA

  1. In the interest of disclosure, I removed the following comments from my post. I thought they might detract from the issue itself, but I am reposting them here to explain why I chose not to engage via the list itself:

    I unsubscribed from the list on Friday (just in time, apparently, to miss a fresh round of posts).

    Other bloggers (sample linked below) have written about the shortcomings of the listserv, but I simply don’t feel like A&A facilitates inclusive discussion. Long term preservation and access issues aside, I have found Twitter and the blogosphere to be superior platforms for engaging with my peers and leaders in the archives community. Some of these discussions have actually lead to action, which is what I would like to see on this issue.

  2. Excellent, excellent article.

    There are many reasons why I lost election as SAA president (not the least of which was that my opponent was far more qualified), but one of the more important was the fact that I wrote an overly-impassioned plea on the Archives list to consider archival work a professional endeavor and to therefore work first with professional archivists, especially when contemplating archival donations. A past, highly-respected SAA president replied on the listserv with a strong condemnation of my post, arguing that many archival amateurs are doing good work and they should be accorded great respect and support.

    While true, I was shocked, and am still shocked, that the good work done by some amateurs should be considered a legitimate justification for downplaying the importance of professional training, experience, and standards for archivists, and that therefore the entire notion of professional status for archivists was suspect. It struck a chord, however, and there was huge groundswell of support for the past president’s remarks.

    The entire ordeal taught me that even after all of our work with educational and employment standards, the idea of professional status for archivists is still frightening and threatening for many, and probably most, working archivists, including highly-respected past SAA presidents. It is therefore false to believe that achieving professional status is a function of outreach to persons outside of our profession, such as employers and funding agencies; instead, before archivistics can be considered a profession in the US, we must first reach out to ourselves and convince our own SAA members of its value.

    • Thank you for this unique perspective from within the organization; it is so interesting to hear how this debate has evolved (or not) over the years. Your final paragraph really resonated with me! I hope you won’t mind if I share it with some of my classmates. Thank you again for your comment.

  3. As someone who’s been in the field for decades, I’ll add that it’s always been tricky finding well-paid work as an archivist. National Archives jobs are a notable exception, but they aren’t to everyone’s taste.

    I guess the question for those considering this field is, how badly do you want to be an archivist? How willing are you to work at any price, any place, doing just about anything, and not just to get your foot in the door, but even possibly in mid-career, because that may be all that’s available when your job, or an entire archival department, gets eliminated? People who can relocate anywhere have a huge advantage; I know that my opportunities were limited by my being tied to one place.

    Yes, there will always be exceptional, and lucky, folks who manage to get archival jobs right off the bat, and those who climb the ladder, but I fear that many more who graduate with master’s degrees in archives are going to have to pursue other lines of work.

    It’s disheartening that it’s that way, but I don’t see the job or pay situation changing any time soon.
    I’ve seen the archival job market get much worse since I started out in the field, partly because there are SO many more graduates entering the field. I mean, there weren’t that many job opportunities when I was starting out, and there were far fewer of us.

    Wish I could be more encouraging about this.

    • I’ve long argued that it was irresponsible and even callous of SAA to encourage such a rapid growth in archival graduate programs when there was no sign that jobs would be available for the graduates. The response was “well, this survey shows that the current generation will be retiring soon, opening up thousands of positions, and we need to be ready for that.” That’s an absurd argument. Retirements are based both on personal circumstances and the status of the national economy. People who previously planned to retire at 65 are today desperately hoping that they will be allowed to continuing working until they are 75, rendering any surveys pointless. The jobs are not there, and still archival programs are churning our graduates at an alarming rate. I think SAA should begin tracking which archival programs do the best job of placing their graduates in professional positions and should publish that information.

      • Lee, I also don’t understand why universities are increasingly offering these programs when there isn’t the need for them, since the market is already glutted. Their graduates aren’t necessarily going to thank them for it. ALA has for years been promoting the same rosy picture about librarian jobs. I follow those lists and LinkedIn groups, too, and new graduates are similarly bitter about being told about all the jobs that would supposedly be opening up due to Baby Boomer retirements.

        Every archivist I know of my age and older has been hanging on to their job for dear life because they can’t afford to retire. I think many would gladly retire and pass the torch to younger generations if they could. Problem is, you don’t make much as an archivist (or librarian), so you don’t have the savings that people in better-paid occupations do.

        The only advantage I see for younger, aspiring archivists is that they are getting experience in a variety of content management systems through school and internships. That makes them more marketable than older archivists who have no easy way to get hands-on experience with these.

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