Archivy etc.

opinions, occasional rants, and sometimes things that have nothing to do with archives at all. Nothing here should be assumed to be reflective of my employer's opinion(s) nor should it be assumed that at anytime afterward, this is what I still think.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Baby, it's cold in there

Okay, after that last one I need to prove I don't always just rant.

Sometimes I rave.

Oh, I guess I proved that with the last one too. But it's time to inject a few notes of levity into this, and so I'm going to tell you a story. It's my story. I haven't yet got any responses to my call for "dumbest thing you ever did in the vault" so I'll share mine, in hopes that it will prompt some responses. It's a classic story--as far as being about as representative of me as I can possibly get. Hopefully you'll find it amusing, and not too pathetic.

One summer a few years back I had some work travel (Archives Leadership Institute and the SAA annual meeting) nearly back to back: one week in between. One very heavy workweek in between.

By the Friday of that workweek, I was wiped. Completely exhausted. For whatever reason I was getting out of work a little late that night, made it to the foot of the stairs on the main floor, was within eyeshot of the door, and one of the Circ staff came running up and grabbed me by the arm. "Flood on 2nd floor" was the gist of what she said to me.

I think I can be forgiven for thinking it, and I think I should probably get a few brownie points for not saying it, but in lightning speed the thought crossed my mind: "that's not my stuff, why don't the librarians take care of it?" I think I should get even more points because I promptly turned around and marched back up the stairs to where all the CircLings (circ student workers) were rapidly pulling books off shelves as this rather nasty brownish water cascaded out of the ceiling over them. I touched one book, came away with a greasy coating, and realized, great, glycol leak. So I grabbed the next clean CircLing headed my way and detoured him to help me fetch some of the garbage cans and the lab coats we keep in our preservation lab, along with a box of nitrile gloves, and as much plastic sheeting and as many garbage bags as I could lay my hands on.

Long story short (because a longer one is yet to come), 3 hours later we had all the books triaged (several hundred of them) and the ones that looked like they could be rescued were air drying in one of the meeting rooms. The students had all crept away, exhausted, filthy, to go home and take showers, and the only two people left in the building were the building manager and me. She wandered off downstairs to get something out of her office and I limped back into the Archives to see what I needed to grab to go home. It was time to close up the building for the weekend.

Which is when the rather dim lightbulb in my brain went off. Was it possible that the leak had started higher up? Say on the third floor? i.e. the floor with the Archives? So I decided I needed to do a quick inspection. Since our floors aren't laid out exactly the same way, it took me a while to figure out the general area of the leak (I'll tell you now there wasn't one on the 3rd). In that process I went into the refrigerated vault of the non-profit film archives with whom we share space.

It felt kind of nice in the film vault. Nice and cool. I made sure I couldn't see any leaks and turned around and realized that the door had shut behind me.

Did I mention that I was really, really tired?

Full on panic attack. I've just locked myself into a fully enclosed and insulated vault sitting at about 35 degrees Fahrenheit, on a Friday night of a weekend when the library was closed, when I knew the film archivists weren't going to be in the office til Tuesday, and the building manager doesn't know where I am nor would she necessarily have a need to come looking for me. My cell phone is sitting on a table in the meeting room with the books.

Really, really tired? I said that, right? Broke two nails off twisting the door thing (at the time I couldn't grace it with the term handle, because it isn't) and caused a few bruises as well.

Apparently my brain has a high speed panic function. Because as I was looking at my nearly bleeding fingertips, I thought about hypothermia. Been there, done that, don't want to go back. The delusions aren't all that fun. So I thought: wait, the thermostat is right there, and if I turn up the thermostat, as soon as the room hits 60, it sets off an alarm which tells the university police to call the facilities type to come over and fix the refrigeration unit. I've had more than a few 3:00 am calls from the university police dispatcher about this very thing. It takes a while for the facilities types to show up, but at least I won't be freezing to death in the meantime. So I cranked both thermostats. Set them up to 80 to make sure the 60 was reached asap. Pretty bright thinking, huh? We always tell everybody in preservation and disaster recovery classes that people are more important than things. Save the people first. This was my chance to live what I'd preached.

And maybe 10 seconds after that, the crush of relief that I'd come upon a solution to my rather disastrous dilemma cleared the fog of exhaustion. Just enough for reality to creep back in. I was staring at the door and I realized: there's no way to lock myself in here. I reached back over to the thermostats, turned them way back down, and pushed open the door and walked out. I collected my purse and cell phone, walked downstairs, waved at the building manager, and walked out to my car and drove home.

But here's the thing my panicked brain didn't do: I hadn't made note of the exact temp at which the thermostats had been set originally. I knew I got it in the vicinity--within a variance of 5 degrees, max--but my film archivist colleague might notice that something was not as usual. So the following Tuesday, instead of pretending this whole thing hadn't happened, I found myself in his office explaining why he needed to go check the settings.

He listened, calmly. And the only comment he had at the time (though he had a few more later, about my willingness to sacrifice their holdings) was the quiet observation that it was very interesting how my brain worked: that I'd come up with a totally McGyver answer. To what was, in fact, a complete and total non-emergency.

So there you go. I still think we should put little "PUSH" signs on the vault side of that door, but really, what are the chances that this might happen again? It seems to be the general consensus that this really could only have happened to me. I suspect that's true, sadly.

Back in high school, my older brother gave me a Far Side mug--you know, the old "Midvale School for the Gifted" one with the kid pushing on a door with a pull sign. He wasn't being prescient in any fashion, this has always been my family's view of my level of personal coordination. I still have the mug these many years later. But now, finally, I have the actual story to go with it.

So now that I've come clean, let me hear yours. I'll post them. I'll even take your name off them, if you like.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Ability to make rational decisions

So those of you who have made your way here probably know the blog I did about this time last year on job-seeking advice.

A few people wanted to know why I wasn't writing to the recruiters and giving them advice. Truth is, some need it. But the jobseekers generally need it more, mainly because there's just more of them.

Slight change of topic, but I'll come back to the other in a moment. I've been pondering lately about jobs for mid-career archivists. (No, I'm NOT searching right now. Now, if I get head-hunted...) But the thing is, all you entry-level archivists who are bemoaning the lack of entry-level jobs? Let me tell you, get 15+ years of experience behind you and you might as well start thinking about retiring because there's even fewer jobs for those of us at that level. When's the last time you saw a job advert that required anything more than 3 or 5 years of "progressively responsible" archival experience? My sense is that nobody comes out and says 7-10 years, minimum. So that's what I was researching (yes, occasionally I don't assume that my perceptions of events are necessarily accurate) with a future post in mind when I read a rather odd job advert.

The title of this posting? Was one of the required qualifications for the job.

Umm... People? People who wrote that job ad? How exactly do you intend to evaluate that from a resume or cover letter? The rather snarky side of my brain, after having read all of the ad, thought that maybe the best evidence of ability to make rational decisions was not to apply for that job at all.

Here's the thing. I'm not quite at the point where I'm ready to tackle creating a workshop or writing another lengthy focused blog on recruitment skills. But in the interim, I would like to offer up a list of some of the most common and problematic mistakes I see recruiters make in job ads. For the moment in no particular order, but I'm guessing you'll be able to tell by my commentary how egregious I consider the errors.

  • Having required or preferred KSAs that are impossible to demonstrate in the application materials. "Ability to make rational decisions" has just suddenly hit the top of my list for exemplars of this. Remember, for all this search is costing your institution and how important it is for you to get the right candidate, don't drive your poor applicants nuts as they're drawing up their documents for you. Some of the best candidates? They'll take one look at things like that, see giant red flags, and never bother to apply. They know there's no way they can explain something like this within the confines of a cover letter. Your loss. Really. (And if you can explain how to demonstrate this in less than 3 sentences in a cover letter, will you please send me a sample? I would LOVE to share that here.)
  • No idea as to wages. This one makes me absolutely incoherent with rage. I encourage every job-seeker I know not to apply for jobs that do not include a pay range. Here's the thing: it's in your own best interests to put in a range, even if you're paying very, very badly. In that case, yes, you should be ashamed of yourselves, but at least you don't spend a ton of time and effort to do the search to have all your top candidates turn you down at the end just because they can't afford to live on what you're paying. Why on earth would you go to all that effort when your applicants might have been able to do some self-selection for you? Not to mention the gossip mill in the profession when people talk about your institution as an employer: very few people are as annoyed and potentially vindictive as candidates who have done a great deal of work to win themselves a job offer only to find out that the institution won't be paying them enough to keep themselves in coffee and sardines. Bad news like that not only gets around, it gets blown out of proportion.
  • Overly narrow degree requirements. Okay, also drives me more than a little crazy. I once had a recruiter tell me that she'd never hire me (Ms. MA) because her archivists had to work the main library reference desk so she preferred to hire librarians (note, she said nothing about MLSs with archival training, just librarians). I have whole bunches of thoughts on this one, but I'll spare you those for now. In this case since my bridges had been burned long before I even arrived at the onramp, my response to her was "So you'll hire somebody who has to be trained for 90% of the job instead of 10%?" On behalf of the people graduating from library schools with the strong archival foci, my anger works on your behalf too. I see a few too many job ads that require a public history, or a history degree, or whatever hasn't got the LIS or equivalent in it. Why? These days the profession has developed some pretty strong standards for graduate archival education. Why does the initial set matter if the candidate has the required education? Not to mention those of us older types: I graduated from an archival focus program (took twice the credit hours of the standard history grad students) but I also have 16+ years of professional "progressively responsible" archival experience and continuing education behind me that should at some point counteract any perceived inadequacies in my original graduate education. Don't take those of us with elderly degrees or even lower degrees but tons of valid experience out of the pool. I don't care if you're an academic institution with evaluation criteria that require a terminal degree: been there, done that. Those criteria are NOT that hard to rewrite: maybe you're stuck with the masters, but you are not stuck with the initial set following that. My institution did it before they hired me. I further revised them once I got here. It can be done. I'll even share our criteria language with you if you like. If you're not an academic institution, chances are that you have more flexibility on degree requirements--including Masters vs Bachelors vs Doctoral--and can bring experience into play.
  •  Not ever hiring entry-level when there's a possibility of doing so. I see a lot of good jobs out there that require a couple of years of post-grad experience for no apparent reason. It's sustainability here, folks. Okay, I'm not asking you to make every basic hire an entry-level, but why not take a few of them on when you can? There are some benefits. Training to meet your specific needs instead of re-training from another ingrained pattern. Energy. Enthusiasm. Willingness to try the untried. Not that people with experience can't be like that, I know for a fact they can because I've hired both, but every so often, bring in that newbie. And related to that:
  • Advertising a job as an entry-level position but setting it up to favor those with experience. Stop making your KSAs and pre-interview screenings automatically self-select for the candidates with experience. I did this once. Really, really wanted the candidate I hired to be fresh out of grad school because every so often I go off on the "this is the right thing to do" kick and want to support professional sustainability. 40+ applicants. Top 15 all had experience and wound up at the top of the ranking list coming out of the second screening and into the phone interview phase. Only thing that carried the day for my cadre of terrific freshly minted archival candidates was that due to my lack of experience in the recruitment process for this particular institution, the early part of the process took a few months longer than it should have and by the time we got to the phone interviews, 13 of the top 15 had already accepted other jobs or pulled themselves out of the pool. Now, I firmly believe had we been insane enough to try phone interviewing 20 or so candidates, many of the rookies would have done as well as some of the experienced individuals so things might have worked out for my theoretical goal but who can afford to do that many phone interviews? Time or otherwise? Now, I would have been fine with most of those top 15. No problems at all. But given my intent to hire new--and the institutional support I had to do it with this recruitment--this was a learning experience for me on how not to write an "entry-level archivists are encouraged to apply" recruitment.
  • Overly effusive sales job on the institution. Does no one other than me ever wonder about those places that call themselves award-winning? Don't you just kind of want to ask to see what award it is? If you sell too hard, some of your candidates who are doing what I advise and reading between the lines of your ad in order to evaluate the institution as a workplace, those candidates? They may just decide that kind of a snow job is covering up something icky underneath. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn't. But why even plant the thought?
  • A job ad that doesn't actually describe the job on offer or the hiring priorities. This is far more common than it should be, but let me tell you about a story I just heard from a librarian friend of mine. Apparently she applied for what appeared to be a basic cataloging/tech services/back of the house librarianship position. Wasn't til the in-person interview (for which they flew her in) that it became clear that what they wanted was somebody who could be an archivist with some "lite" cataloging duties. She didn't get hired, as she shouldn't have, but I also wonder if they ended up with any candidates who met their actual needs. Guessing not.
Is that a comprehensive list? Of course not, especially because I was focusing solely on the ad and not even looking at the other aspects of the process. Am I innocent of all of the above? Well, not entirely. I haven't done all of them, but I've done a few. Job-seekers? I do share your pain, really. But be patient with recruiters. Trust me, someday when you're on the other side of the table you can refuse to make the mistakes that drove you nuts as a candidate. And in the meantime, unless you're absolutely positive you have never, ever submitted an application with the name of the wrong hiring institution embedded somewhere within, just remember that everybody makes mistakes. And the nature of the marketplace is that recruiters get a little more leeway on this than you, the candidate, does. Be picky, but be very careful how--or if--you express that to the recruiters. The job you save may be yours to turn down.