October is American American Archives Month. Rebecca Grandahl, intern in the Office of Public and Media Communications, will be highlighting the work of our staff throughout the month.
As children, many people dream of what they’ll be when they grow up: an astronaut, a veterinarian, a school teacher, or a world-famous singer. But did you ever dream of becoming an archivist?
In 1969, archivist Joe D. Thomas of the National Archives Still Picture Branch holds a scratched glass negative of a photo of Abraham Lincoln taken by Mathew Brady. National Archives identifier: 102252890
People handle pieces of history every day in this country, whether they know it or not. What we write today will someday become part of the story of our past, and it’s important to preserve these records. But not every job at an archives involves archival work.
Staff at the National Archives include not only archivists but also conservationists, public affairs specialists, educators, building engineers, and more. There are positions that need archival, administrative, or technical skills. If you are unsure of how your skills match the types of jobs, think of what you’re happiest doing (hands-on work, research, communicating with reporters) and start with that.
“Realize that there are multiple types of positions at an archives,” education specialist Christopher Zarr says. “While reference and processing might be our ‘bread and butter,’ there are a wide variety of positions out there for [other] people.”
Amber Kraft, also an education specialist, recommends persistence. “The National Archives is a huge organization, so find something you’re passionate about and don’t stop until you get to work with that,” she says.
Kraft is right. The National Archives isn’t limited to the Washington, DC, area (with buildings downtown and in College Park, MD) but has branches across the country. There are 15 Presidential libraries and museums located in 10 different states and field locations in Seattle, San Francisco, Riverside, Denver, Kansas City, St. Louis, Fort Worth, Chicago, Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Atlanta.
The National Personnel and Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, MO, houses millions of military personnel, health, and medical records of discharged and deceased veterans of all services during the 20th century. Kevin Pratt, who works with veterans records at the NPRC, reflected on his time at the National Archives:
“I love working for the National Archives—it’s an agency that’s small, [so] you can make connections . . . in a unifying way where you have one [positive] mission.” Pratt also point out that the National Archives is nonpartisan, and that part of his job is helping people to understand that. “Even though different administrations appoint Archivists, it’s still apolitical, and that can help to better unite and connect people,” Pratt says.
In College Park, MD, we have our special media collections—meaning non-paper records like still pictures, motion pictures, and sound and video recordings. Audrey Amidon of the Motion Picture Preservation Lab, says she generally tells people to “pursue a broader film education because [film preservation] is a small field.”
As the supervisor of the Motion Picture Preservation Lab, Criss Kovac emphasizes the importance of being open and available to getting experience in archives. “Learn more about the archives community around you,” Kovac advises, saying experience is key.
Ivy Donnell, also in the lab, seconds the idea of getting experience, with an emphasis on volunteer work. “Try to volunteer as much as you can,” Donnell says; “go to different departments to try your hand at everything.”
At the National Archives, volunteers have a wide range of opportunities for hands-on work with trained archivists on real, archival projects. Emma Taylor, a volunteer at the National Archives, recommends getting involved to learn skills and become accustomed to the culture.
“Keep your horizons broad,” Taylor continues, “don’t limit yourself to what you think an archivist should do or study. Follow your passions. . . . [T]he more information you gather, the better-rounded you will become.”