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Why, or rather, How I became an Archivist


October is Archives Month, and to help celebrate, here is the true story of why, or rather, how I became an archivist.

By the end of my first semester of college, I had run through all of the money I had saved up from my summer job. Though I was lucky to have parents who could pay my tuition and room and board (at the then-cheap state university, mind you), spending money was my responsibility. So, first thing upon my return to campus, I hit the student job center.

Two positions looked like something I could handle. One was as a lab dishwasher in the entomology department, located in the sub-basement of one of the science buildings. I went on an interview where I learned that I would have to use a Geiger counter to test for radiation before touching anything. I also met my “office mates,” Madagascar Hissing Roaches, who had a tendency to escape and run riot. The very nice man who showed me around told me that the current project was to create a pesticide that would solve the serious insect infestation in campus dormitories. (As a dorm dweller, I can tell you that they did, indeed, solve that problem, to the point I never, ever saw another live insect in any dorm.)

The second position was in the college archives, located on the top floor of the graduate library. My job would be to help the associate archivist label folders and boxes of the records of a former dean of libraries. All I would need is neat handwriting—no use of the Geiger counter required. There might be the occasional insect, but it would most certainly be dead. The office smelled of slightly musty books, not deadly chemicals. The choice was not hard to make.

And this is where I learned an important lesson. No matter how boring the collection appears on the surface (the dean of libraries?), there is always something interesting lurking below. This dean had served in the mid-seventies, when there had been protests, student sit-ins, and a semi-riot that broke thousands of windows across the campus. There were also several young men who attached mirrors to the tops of their shoes and went around looking up the skirts of young women. And anyone who has ever spent any time in an academic library knows that there are always those pesky restrooms, where smoking is the least offensive behavior!

That semester job continued until graduation, interrupted only by summer internships at the state archives. From there it was on to graduate school and my first professional position. And to think I owe it all to those Madagascar Hissing Roaches!

Wildlife Conservation Society photo of pumpkin and Madagascar hissing cockroaches by Julie Larsen Maher

Wildlife Conservation Society photo of pumpkin and Madagascar hissing cockroaches by Julie Larsen Maher

Image from Pumpkin time at New York’s Zoos by David Braun of National Geographic, October 30, 2009. 

Eileen Parris is the archivist at the Virginia Historical Society.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Emma permalink
    10/24/2013 4:54 pm

    As someone who did not think about becoming an archivist or working in a library until after graduating from college, what are my best options for obtaining an entry level position in this field? I do not have any real experience either.


    • eparris2013 permalink
      10/25/2013 11:10 am

      Emma, I would recommend you look into volunteering with a local archives to make sure that it is the kind of work you will enjoy. It isn’t all fun and exciting. There is a fair amount of boring sorting, filing, labeling, and typing involved, and it may be years before a researcher uses a collection you have processed and you get any feedback (and that is usually just to point out a typo in the finding aid!). If you decide to pursue it further, with an undergraduate degree you may be able to find a job as an archival technician, but for a professional level position most institutions are looking for a graduate degree in either history or library/information science.


  2. James Burnett permalink
    10/24/2013 7:45 pm

    Has VHS ever put the VMHG on a searchable CD and made available for purchase? Doug


  3. 10/25/2013 8:51 am

    That’s funny Eileen! Thank goodness, because I don’t know what we would do without archivists preserving and maintaining such historically important works.


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