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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Ask An Archivist: Advice Column

In honor of Ask Archivists Day coming up on Thursday June 9th, I give you this blog post. For more information on how to ask Smithsonian Archivists your burning archival questions via the Smithsonian Twitter account, see here from sister blog THE BIGGER PICTURE

Welcome to my foray into advice column writing: from one history lover to another...

Recently I received the following:

So I have a question for you. I've come to the conclusion that I'm unhappy where I am and I need a change. One thing I've been always interested in is antiquities, and I would love to be able to do well... something with them. Whether it's dealing in them or archiving them or something, to hold something so ancient in your hands has to be amazing.

What drove you into your field? How did you figure out this is what you wanted to do? What's a normal day like? What schools did you look at? What should I look for or really think about before deciding this might be the right course of action?

- Searching for Happiness in Antiquities


Although he didn't expect a rush reply, I had so much advice and information I wanted to impart that it came pouring out of me.  When I reread my finished reply I found it so thorough (and hopefully extremely helpful) that I wanted to share it.  Here is the answer in advice column style, and by no means exhaustive or authoritative. If you have any questions please post them in the comments below or write to me individually and we can continue our knowledge building conversation.


Dear Searching for Happiness in Antiquities,

I am sorry to hear you are unhappy and I applaud your effort to search for a better long-term solution.  Inner-reflection and the recognition of of unhappiness takes courage and strength of character, I hope you know that.

If your one true wish is to hold history in your hands, then I think we can go several places with this and I will outline their pros and cons as best as I can.  But first, you asked about me, so I'll start there...

I wanted to be "in" history.  Not as in a famous way, but as in surrounded by it, working with it, touching it daily.  During my junior year at Pacific University I was already getting asked by family and friends, "so a History degree, huh?  Are you going to teach with that?" It drove me nuts that teaching seemed to be the only option and I didn't like that option because it had me too far removed from working with history itself. So I interned over the summer at Oregon Historical Society.  While there, they rotated me around the collections so that I could get a feel for every facet.  I was hooked.  (Read here for my religious-like experience in the National Archives). Once I was convinced I wanted to be in the archives I found the national Society of American Archivists and started taking my ques from them as far as typical career requirements and even their top suggested schoolsSimmons College made it to #1 on my list because the degree set you up with three internships to help gain much needed resume experience. 

A normal day at work is that there is no normal.  There are weeks at a time that I'm sitting in my cube answering email, fielding reference requests and performing obligatory cataloging and scanning.  Other times I'm working with other archivists for educational programs and outreach, or I'm attending/presenting lectures and professional development.  Then there is the ever exciting acquiring of new collections, processing, making new discoveries and developing projects around them.  It really is a diverse job with diverse requirements.

Video from MyCareerRx, as posted on SAA's website.

So back to you and antiquities.  Your options as I see them are: Librarian, Archivist, Museum Specialist, Research Historian, Appraiser, Dealer, Collections Handler/Manager, Curator, Conservator, Archaeologist, and Anthropologist... 

Librarian/Archivist: Will require a Masters in Library Science/Library and Information Science and an Archives Concentration (for the archivists).  There is not an archives masters program so you can go the library route, or you can get a Masters of History with an emphasis on Public History.  In fact I would suggest that route if you want to be outside the libraries and archives; especially if you didn't major in history, as it will strength your research/history expertise for the resume.  From here you can go straight into the libraries/archives/special collections but be warned that the market is not robust with the economic crisis and many are forced to turn towards hiring contractors to fill staffing holes. (Read my previous post on "How Can I Get a Job?).  Some fear this may be a permanent shift as it is seemingly cheaper to higher administration (an arguable fallacy, but that is for another day).  Also keep in mind that typical libraries and archives are paper-based and therefore not a lot of antiquities, should there be a great distinction in your desire to work with history.

Museum Specialist: Can be like an archivist as far as daily duties, however they tend to be more specialized individuals.  For example the Smithsonian Folklife Archives is staffed by museum specialists who received a masters/PhD in Folklife (or similar).  As a museum specialist you can find yourself in libraries/archives or in collections where you manage the collections (handling/cataloging/exhibition installing) and in here I think there are more antiquities possibility.  This leads into the Collections Handler/Manager profession, which is beginning to more frequently require a specialized subject masters degrees (in a particular art history field for example) or a masters in Museum Studies.

Curator: You will need a PhD and have credentials up the wazoo as it is such a tough and exclusive field to break into and the more specialized you are the less job openings there will actually be once you finish the tremendous amount of school work.  However, if you have the stamina then more power to you as it is a coveted job for a reason!  They get to play with/assess art all day and write books and put together exhibitions.

Conservator: This profession means you take care of the objects physically and it requires equal parts art history and science.  This is a rigorous field of study with high standards, but also completely satisfying as you get to put art/antiquities back together again.

Public Historian/Research Historian: Will typically require a masters or PhD in history depending on how much of an expert, and how marketable, you want to be.  Historians can typically be employed by government entities for contract projects, by corporate entities to gather information before building projects, or by private research entities to benefit a larger research project.  You will be contracted to go to various archives and historical sites to research the desired topic and report back.  You can also research your own topic of choice and make a living in the form of publications and teaching.

Appraiser/Antiquities Dealings: this is the private sector so I am less sure about credential requirements, but I would imagine that it would require a specialized degree in an area of your choice.  After that, it is a smart move to make as the private sector is a bit more stable than the public sector, and you will have antiquities passing through there all the time. Furthermore you get to study them all day, make assessments and try and find them good homes/buyers.

And finally, Archaeologist and Anthropologist...  Archaeologist will require a PhD with equal parts science and history.  It also will require a tremendous amount of field experience to pay your dues and break into the field.  Anthropologist is a bit easier as it only requires a masters or graduate certificate equivalent that goes by many names.  But essentially these people assess what is on the ground, the objects and ancient sites and perform analysis,conduct research and write policies for people like UNESCO.  Both jobs require a lot of travel and living in remote places.

What do you want the rest of your life picture to look like?

A few general questions as you consider these options: what do you want the rest of your life picture to look like?  Do you want to live in a specific location, or are you itching to travel the world?  A lot of these jobs will require that you live in California, NY, DC, or abroad.  There are local options, but be realistic in that there will be less of them or not as seemingly glorious.  Think hard on what you want the job to be like.  Do you enjoy networking, big cities and lots of research?  (Appraiser/Dealer/Research Historian) Or do you want to travel the world, love digging in dirt, and wont miss home (Archaeologist/Anthropologist)?  Is the amount of income or job security important to you (private sector) or do you want to serve a non-profit, money isn't as much of an issue, and you can handle the security struggles with the ebbs and flows of economy?  Are you looking to do A LOT of schooling to become a premier expert (Curator/Conservator) or do you want a little bit of training and then jump in (Museum Specialist/Librarian/Archivist/Collections Handler/Manager)?

Do some real soul searching on the whole picture and I think that will help you to find a good fit.  I then recommend you find the societies' websites to explore the state of the profession.  What will make you competitive?  Where are the jobs currently coming from?  Check out the Bureau of Labor Statistics for each profession and see where it currently stands and where it is projected to go.  Get networked in by joining a society, getting the magazines/newsletters, or by joining the conversation groups in Linkedin.  All of these will hopefully help you fill out the blank spaces for your bigger picture.

To see previous posts that may be of use:
The Thing About Interns Is...
How Can I Get a Job? (Libraries, Archives and Special Collections)
What It's Like to Be a Cataloger
Need an Archives Gig?
I Need a Library Job - on Facebook

Best of luck in finding, and following, your happiness,

Rachael Cristine Woody
Freer|Sackler Archives

1. Aderente, Vincent, 1880-1941. "Liberty," (painting), ca. 1935. Inventories of American Painting and Sculpture, Smithsonian American Art Museum.
2. Peto, John Frederick. "Office Board," (painting), 1885. Inventories of American Painting and Sculpture, Smithsonian American Art Museum.


  1. For more information about becoming a conservator, I suggest the American Institute for Conservation's website To become a conservator you need organic chemistry, studio art, and art history classes.

  2. I love hearing about how different museum professionals have entered the museum, library and archives fields. And I had no idea it was ask an archivist day :) I'll have to check out the twitter page!

    Mus(eum)ings: Musings from a Museum Intern