Interviewing and the Power of Perspective

In December 2015 I interviewed for University Archivist position at a Canadian university. I’ve attempted to write about this experience a couple of times but have repeatedly deleted what I wrote.  I initially considered writing broadly about the university archives/faculty hiring experience. The interview process for this position was completely different than any of the other position I’ve interviewed for — which for me highlighted the difference between staff and faculty hiring processes at universities.

But these drafts while personally significant but didn’t really add a lot of value to the already extensive conversation around academic hiring.  Suffice it to say that the on-campus interview was a busy and exhausting day filled with lots of talking.  And that you need to remember that you are there to learn about them as much as they are trying to learn about you.  Fit is important.  If something doesn’t feel right ask yourself why and don’t ignore those gut feelings.

Interviews often bring with them a whole host of feelings and introspection.  This experience was no exception.  When I applied I figured it was a long shot and that I wouldn’t get an interview.  My education background is a bit of an anomaly for most archives job postings.  I have an MA in public history, not a MLS or MAS.  I fall into the category of “equivalent combination of education and experience.” This lack of traditional fit can be a blessing and a bit of a personal worry point.  To add to that introspection I also really love where I currently work and there are a lot of potential life implications that come with moving for any job.  Suffice it to say I was a swirling vortex of doubt.  Doubt about my abilities, my education, and my personal life.  Doubt in my strength to continue to work so closely with the legacy of residential schools.

Go high or Go deep.

Yesterday, I read Erin R White’s “What It Means to Stay” piece and had a “By George, I think she’s got it” moment.  What resonated with me was the idea of going high or going deep.  Staying means going deeper into your specialization, deeper into your organization, and growing in your job.  The alternative being going high and focusing on moving upwards in a organization chart, possibly outside of your institution.

When I moved to Northern Ontario in the spring 2009 I was supposed to be in this area for 6 months on a short contract.  Very near to end of my anticipated stay in the area I applied to an archives technician job that seemed like a perfect and I’ve been here ever since.  My position has changed a lot since 2010 – I went from working exclusively with the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre (SRSC) archives to being responsible for large and small scale art installations and a myriad of admin type work to working with the University Archives, the Diocese of Algoma Archives, and the SRSC archives.  I’ve learned a lot.

Familiarity Is A Good Thing

The nature of archival work means the more you work with an archives the more familiar you become with its holdings, its organization, and its nuances.  I’ve worked with almost every fonds and collection in the SRSC in some way.  I’ve either accessioned, processed, described, digitized, or pulled material from each collection.  This familiarity gives me a kind of reference request super power.  If someone is looking for a particular kind of image, information on a particular residential school, or a very specific research topic I can usually come up with where they need to look, a list of resources and research suggestions.  I’m also familiar with the ins-and-outs of my institution by that which internal department to turn to for help with outreach, which form to fill out, or other day to day tasks.  Those skills and that familiarity is important too. Institutional knowledge is important and takes time and effort to learn.

Building Relationships

Perhaps more significantly I’ve also become familiar with the local survivor community and the members of Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association.  Building personal relationships with the individuals and communities that the SRSC is dedicated to surviving has been a invaluable experience and one that I am continually humbled by. I also have a great set of supportive colleagues here.  We work well together and the internal community is friendly and welcoming.  Having a supportive workplace makes life a lot more enjoyable.  I’ve also gained colleagues in the local community and within the broader public history/archival community in Canada — people know me for my work at the SRSC and this work is something I feel grateful to be a part of.

I also routinely get opportunities to build new relationships with students.  Be that through students placed in the archive on work study, volunteers, or students working on projects.  They ask challenging questions, training them requires me to routinely refresh my own skills, and many of them go on to be engaged in interesting graduate studies or careers.

Long Term Projects and Flexibility

One of the nice things about staying at an organization – about going deeper – is the ability to tackle longer spanning projects.  Earlier this week I hit a milestone in a project I started in 2013.  The project has shifted on and off my priorities list for years.  But I can see an end and have this overwhelming feeling of satisfaction of nearing the finish line of a project that has taken so much time, effort, and dedication.  My role here also has the great ability to allow me to pursue the projects I’m interested in.  Yes, there is some items that are always on the to do list – reference requests, handling and processing new donations, and lots of day to day work to keep the archive functioning.  But I’ve also been able to develop outreach practices, education initiatives, and specific archival projects I’m interested in.  That flexibility is a blessing.  I know I’m fortunate to have it.

Growth Can Still Happen

You don’t need to move institutions for professional growth to happen.  Looking back at my work since 2010 I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished.  I’ve learned a huge range of new skills, I’ve organized and participated in conferences, I’ve joined committees of professional organizations, I’ve written papers, and pursued professional development training.  I am still challenged by my work and I have a range of opportunities internally and externally if I want to explore different possibilities for professional growth.  Staying with an organization doesn’t mean becoming complacent or ceasing to learn.  Staying doesn’t mean settling.

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