Libraries, Archives, Museums & Historical Societies
Recommended if… you love working in an institution where the artefacts and documents of the past are held. If you love being in archives, libraries, or museums, and wish to dedicate yourself to the administrative and research tasks associated with these institutions (including working with the public and for their interests) this is an excellent, although competitive choice as people from many disciplinary backgrounds will be applying.
Requirements… A master’s degree is generally required. Historians who are working on, or hold a PhD, can also be hired based the relationship between the field they are studying and a collection held at the institution. A PhD may be expected for higher-level positions, particularly in large institutions. For libraries and archives with rare books and manuscripts, a specialization in the history of the book or media may provide an advantage. Increasingly, positions in museums, libraries, and archives require specific educational certification in the specific field, including curatorial or archival sciences, information studies, museum studies, library sciences, and public history. Such certification gives prospective employees an advantage over those who do not have specific training. Experience in the field of choice – at least a few years of it – is favoured and can be gained through internships, volunteer activities, summer contracts, and full-time positions. Working with the public and/or volunteers is a significant part of many positions.
First, consider what these different institutions do. While libraries and archives focus on paper-based objects – books, documents, maps, and photographs, for example – museums and historical societies often focus on material culture and three-dimensional objects. With which type of historical materials would you most like to work? (For more thought about the role between objects and museums, see Rainey Tisdale’s article “Do History Museums Still Need Objects?”)
While the tasks associated with working in all of these institutions may overlap, the skills required to work with these two categories of objects require different types of training. There is master’s-level training that is specifically geared to each of these types of materials. For the purpose of introducing public history institutions as a place of work, we have combined libraries, archives, museums, and historical societies in this career resource.
Institutions great and small
The scope, pay, benefits, and terms of a job can vary dramatically depending on the size and funding of an institution. For example, in a small institution, you might have a lot of independence as the sole employee responsible for many aspects of the operation, hired on a limited-term contract on a tight budget. In the largest institutions, your job may fill a very specific niche in which you work with the latest technology and have a significant budget to manage. Planning projects and managing budgets can be a significant component of any position. Many employment scenarios exist in public history institutions. Depending on the position, you may end up working with the public or in solitary, quiet environments. In smaller institutions, such as historical societies, you may be the only staff member, and thus are expected to complete a wide array of duties. Consider what type of environment best matches your personality and interests.
In many cases, the job market has been very tight. Keep in mind that most heritage institutions are small scale with limited budgets. Still, an imaginative, entrepreneurial, confident historian can still make a place for themself in museums and historical societies, even those outside of North America.
Those with a background in archival science and historians are among the favoured job candidates in archives and historical societies. With additional or more focused accreditation, for example, education in public history, museum studies, library sciences and curatorial work experience, historians can also attain positions in libraries and public museums. A master’s degree and specific certification and experience for the desired position are generally required; PhDs also hold positions in these institutions. It is increasingly common for prospective employees in this field to attain specific degrees such as a Master’s in Archival Studies, Master’s in Information Studies, or Master’s in Library and Information Studies. An undergraduate degree in History (or more broadly an undergraduate degree in the sciences, humanities, social sciences and interdisciplinary studies) can provide foundational knowledge and the master’s degrees give the technical and theoretical preparation specific to working in a public history institution. Volunteer! Practical experience is indispensable.
Diverse skill sets
An education in history creates the foundation for working with historical collections. Knowledge of specific collections will develop as part of the job, although some collections will seek individuals with specialized skills and expertise (for example, the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City has collections staff who specialize in managing film as well as popular culture historians). As with any historical research, ideally the archivist, librarian, or curator becomes deeply familiar with a collection of fonds, artefacts, books, and other holdings, although they may not necessarily choose the topic and/or individuals they are working on. Part of the excitement of the job is discovering a realm of the past that a person might not otherwise have known about; the regular addition of new materials and fonds to the institution keeps things interesting.
Those who work within smaller institutions will gain a familiarity with most of the materials held within their collection, often working with only a few colleagues. Many smaller institutions are understaffed and receive limited funding, so the employee(s) become responsible for many aspects of daily operations.
Larger archives – for example those held at universities, public institutions, research organizations, and higher levels of government – will have specialists dedicated to maintaining specific collections. This is where the thematic, geographical, and temporal foci of graduate school may come in particularly useful. Historians of specific things, places, and times may be favoured to maintain collections that are relevant to their expertise. Other institutions may place chief value on maintaining standardized approaches to acquisition, description, and public reference, and may have staff dedicated to each of those aspects. In reality, whether for a larger or smaller institution, staff could be expected to deal with any number of different collections or tasks: thus diverse skill sets are valued.
In public history institutions, at the end of the day you are not working in academia, but as a civil servant to that institution, and with that comes a hierarchical structure that you may not be used to experiencing in the academic environment or other workplaces. Employees of these institutions may not have the same latitude of action that a university professor enjoys. These positions are structured and oriented around the needs of a particular organization and its collection, rather than the specific historical interests or research agendas of the employee. That said, the best employers try to match the employee’s research interests and talents to the tasks at hand, and give employees opportunities to propose, plan and implement projects and long-term work plans. One can always pursue personal research interests as an independent historian, publishing work online and in print form.
Beyond the public archive or library, there are also archives and libraries run by private businesses. Corporations, for example, may hold libraries and archives, and in most of these positions, records management is the primary task of information professionals. In those cases, staff work for the corporation.
Scholarly and public interactions
A profession in archives, museums, libraries, and historical societies may allow you to associate with historians who are conducting their research with your materials. You may have an opportunity to share your knowledge of the materials, as well as gain deeper insights into these materials from those who study them. You may deal with historians from a variety of backgrounds, from academic to popular, as well as historical researchers, journalists, and non-fiction writers. Many institutions have direct dealings with amateur historians or people sleuthing through collections to find out details about their own family’s past or their communities. In many larger institutions, however, there are staff members who specifically receive the public, and others may be partly responsible for updating social media resources and for online interactions with the public. In addition, with historians and media increasingly conducting their research online, direct contact may diminish. While some institutions may be very quiet places, others are vibrant and bustling. Each archive, library, museum, and historical society has its own personality.
In many institutions, volunteers are a vital asset. For example, municipal history museums often have individuals who have lived in the community their whole lives, volunteered weekly at the museum for a long time, and know exactly where everything is located. Staff members at institutions that utilize volunteers often find them to be invaluable colleagues.
At any of these institutions, one has to be aware of a wide variety of policies and legislative requirements, including the confidentiality and copyrights of specific documents held in their collections. Donors of collections may attach specific provisions as to how they are used. There are often strict guidelines that are enforced in relation to the handling of one-of-a-kind materials.
Job market and technology
These institutions are at the mercy of public funding and thus may face cutbacks given the political climate and the state of the economy. Much work is contractually based, often varying from three months to a year. Museums and archives that are run by a municipality, government, or educational institution are likely to pay better and include more benefits than those run by historical societies where positions are often paid via external grants or limited funding.
All of these career possibilities are witnessing significant, technology-related transitions. Researchers now often expect to find materials online and in digital format; institutions are still figuring out how to manage paper records in relation to digitization. While knowledge of standard technologies remains useful, being savvy with technological platforms and advancements will give a historian a significant edge in the job market. Part of being savvy sometimes includes being able to get the most out of equipment that may not be the latest or greatest; many institutions have older computer systems in place for example, and it is difficult for them to gain funding to upgrade. When on the job market, pay attention to the technology expertise sought in job descriptions or the technology used at an institution; those with experience on those platforms as well as flexibility in using a variety of relevant technology will have a leg up in being considered for these positions. General skills include proficiency using word processing and spreadsheet programs, as well as creating slide shows (PowerPoint).
General: For insights into the current state of public history in Canada, check the website Canada’s History by Canada’s National History Society. The Canadian Historical Society also has a working group discussing public history in the country. Also check out the research institution, the Carleton Centre for Public History. The services of the Canadian Historical Association and the American Historical Association are relevant to those working in public history institutions as historians. In the United States, the National Council on Public History promotes professional conduct, advancement in the field, engagement with the public, as well as national and international job listings. Cornell University’s PreserveNet is an excellent resource (with job postings) for everyone who works in the field of preservation. The American Historical Association also has a page dedicated to finding a job in public history.
For any public historian, it is worth reading Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s The Presence of the Past (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000). You may also consider subscribing to the American Association for State and Local History’s magazine, History News, which includes advice to public historians including Tim Grove’s “History Bytes” column on technology and public history. Further conversation on technology and public history can be found at the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Archives: In Canada, professional archivists may benefit from the services of the Association of Canadian Archivists which includes professional development, advocacy, and job postings. It also has a variety of student chapters across the country. The equivalent in the United States is the Society of American Archivists, which also includes a directory of places in the U.S. where one can get specific education for working in archives. Other countries – as well as individual provinces and states – have their own associations for archivists. The National Archives answers some questions about the profession. Jennifer Wright of the Smithsonian Institution Archives has written an insightful article offering “Some Archival Career Advice” which includes further links, including the blog That Elusive Archives Job. If you search online, there are also many opinions on why one should not become an archivist that may be worth considering. Remember to also have a look at the various Master’s of Archival Studies degrees that are offered out there since this is increasingly a necessary credential in the competitive job market.
Libraries: Master’s in Information Studies or Master’s in Library and Information Studies degrees train one on the technical and theoretical aspects of library work, so be sure to review the different programs available. The Canadian Library Association advocates on behalf of academic and public libraries and has a careers section. The U.S. has the American Library Association as well as its subsidiary Association of College and Research Libraries along with regional and state-based chapters. Its JobList includes employment listings across the country. LIScareer.com is a regularly updated website that focuses on career strategies for librarians, including articles and a listing of books that inform job seekers. A 2010 article in the Library Journal by Sarah Baker bemoans the “Academic Library Job Search Blues.”, which includes a bibliography filled with further links. In the School Library Journal, Lisa Von Drasek has also pointed out a challenging job market, but encourages librarians to “Hang in There.” Mr. Library Dude’s blog is also worth a look.
Museums and Historical Societies: The Canadian Museum Association includes heritage job listings and information on sustaining museums; in the U.S., there is the American Alliance of Museums and its Curators Committee. Further jobs are posted on the Museum Employment Resources Center and on the Museums Association Careers website; you may wish to sign up for the Museum-L e-mail list for job postings. Robin Wagner’s 2000 Chronicle of Higher Education article “Careers for Ph.D.’s in Museums” is still worth a read. Have a look at the blogs, Museum 2.0 by Nina Simon and the Center for the Future of Museums. D’Addezio.com maintains a list of historical societies across Canada, the United States and Australia, however you may need to do an online search for websites as some links are out of date. Remember to look at educational programs that offer master’s-level degrees in Public History and Museum Studies; these will often give job applicants the skills needed for specific tasks in museums and historical societies.
Do you have further insights on careers at libraries, archives, museums and historical societies, or additional information that we can add here? If so, please contact us so we can refine this resource.