Guest Post: Becoming an Archives Consultant

At our most recent SAA Council meeting, we discussed potential changes for participating in the Directory of Archives Consultants.  In response to feedback received from their members, the Independent Archivists Section recommended that SAA reconsider the current pricing structure of the Archival Consultants Directory. The section leaders believe that reduced pricing would stimulate greater participation by section members and result in a more robust resource for those seeking a consultant.
The Council discussed the implications of these changes and ultimately directed this business decision to the staff to determine the best solution. Staff will be in contact with the Independent Archivists Section to discuss further.

However, this started me thinking about the practice of archives consulting, and how one might move into a consulting practice–whether part-time, full-time, or as a retirement job. Margot Note and Rachel Woody agreed to share about their transition experiences.

author/consultant bios

Margot Note has 20 years of experience in information work in the national and international sectors. She’s the founder and principal of Margot Note Consulting, LLC, a New York City based archives and records management consulting company. She is an author, a Certified Archivist, and a Certified Records Manager. She received her Master of Arts in History from Sarah Lawrence College, and holds a Master’s in Library and Information Science and Post-Master’s in Archives & Records Management, both from Drexel University. She is a professor in the graduate history program at Sarah Lawrence College.

Rachael Cristine Woody has 10 years of experience in archives, with expertise in creating or relaunching archival programs. She is the owner of Rachael Cristine Consulting, a firm that provides services to archives, libraries, and museums. Previously she was at the Freer|Sackler Museum of the Smithsonian Institution and the Oregon Wine History Archive at Linfield College. She is active in Northwest Archivists and the Society of American Archivists, and is an alumna of the Archives Leadership Institute, a National Historical Publications & Records Commission (NHPRC) program. She received her Master of Science in Library and Information Science from Simmons College.

  1.       Why Consulting?

Rachael Woody: As is true in many areas of the United States, archivists jobs are hard to come by in the Pacific Northwest. I have 10 years of experience in the profession which has placed me in the awkward position of no longer being a beginning-level archivist, but also not competitive enough for the few senior-level positions. There’s an unfortunate, but not uncommon phenomenon of mid-range archivist roles no longer being available. This is a huge problem for the profession as I see many of my colleagues leaving the profession entirely, or they’re left with the depressing prospect of staying in jobs they’ve grown out of. What will happen when higher-level jobs need to be filled? We’re not only losing talented professionals, we’re losing contributors to our field and institutional (individual organization and SAA) memory.

Margot Note: Becoming a consultant was coincidental. Like Rachael, I had worked for a decade as an archivist, and longer in the library field, and was considering my next steps. Two years ago, I anticipated a layoff and was job searching, but couldn’t find an employer who was the right fit. After I was laid off, I slowly realized that being an independent consultant was what I wanted to do, even though I knew it would be challenging. Now, I have a better work/life balance and can build wealth while doing work that I love. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

  1.       What surprises have you encountered?

Margot Note: The biggest surprise is the market. I first assumed that established archives would hire me. Most of my clients, however, are organizations that want to launch their archival programs. Potential clients abound, but they might not even know our profession exists or that they can hire archival consultants.

Rachael Woody: How interesting! I’ve found that to be true for me as well! While I do consult with a couple organizations that are more traditional in form, most of my client base are emerging archives and/or archives that exist in communities outside of the traditional museum, government, or school organization. These are archives that may not be able to afford a full-time/permanent archivist, but can afford a temporary expert to help provide them assessments, training, project creation and management, and expertise.

  1.       What challenges have you come up against?

Rachael Woody: I’ve spent the last year really investing in business fundamentals. While I’m an experienced and credentialed archivist, I’m was new to business basics when I started consulting. It was often hard to reconcile the uncomfortable feeling of having confidence in myself as an archivist, but having little confidence in my identity as a business woman. I have archival skills and expertise up to here *gestures to head* but only business skills to here *gestures to kneecaps*. As a result, I would sometimes sell myself short or battle with imposter syndrome.

Margot Note: Yes. My main challenges are conquering imposter syndrome and becoming comfortable with a fluctuating income. To battle imposter syndrome, I remind myself that I have the training and experience to offer my clients tremendous value and insight. As far as income, thriving in a feast or famine environment is part of the consulting experience. I supplement my income beyond project work through writing, teaching, and editing.

  1.       How does SAA support your consulting work?

Margot Note: SAA’s listing of consultants is invaluable to me. My entry has produced more potential than any other source.

Rachael Woody: Yes, I agree with Margot. I’ve found SAA’s consultant directory to be the place my clients will go to in order to find a credentialed consultant. In addition, SAA members William Villano and Michelle Ganz recently (in the last year) started the Independent Archivists Section. The group has grown quickly with 460 archivists listed as members of the Section. While it’s still young, I believe this group has great potential to support consulting archivists who are navigating consulting fundamentals, seek solopreneur support, and provide business referrals. I look forward to seeing where this Section evolves.

  1.       What do you wish your fellow archivists knew about consulting archivists?

Rachael Woody: Consulting doesn’t appear to be common for our profession and as a result, I think archivists in traditional, brick and mortar organizations have a hard time knowing how we operate or how they may engage with us. There can be misunderstandings of what my time looks like – usually people assume I have a lot of free time to come out and meet them or take on an additional volunteer task. Sometimes I do have that flexibility, but the misunderstanding seems to be that non-consultants aren’t aware of how much work goes into a business before, after, and outside of the direct client work. In addition, I’ve noticed consultants aren’t often thought of when it comes to professional programs, events, resources, or education offerings. As consultants we’re in a variety of environments and often have a depth of experiences we can draw on to help inform partnerships, panels, papers, and the profession as a whole. I’d like to see us more represented when it comes to what we can offer our colleagues and the profession, and what our colleagues and the profession can offer us. As I mentioned above, there are 460 SAA members that have joined the Independent Archivists Section – clearly there’s a solid portion of membership that identify as an independent archivist.

Margot Note: Yes, and even more specifically, I wish the field would better address and advocate for archivists that work as lone arrangers or independently. Understandably, academic archives that are reasonably funded and staffed are well-represented in our profession–in membership, in the  professional literature, and at conferences. The exciting stuff happens at the edges with community archives, family and personal archives, and institutions with burgeoning archival collections. Work beyond traditional repositories is where our sustainability as a profession lies.

Rachael Woody: Yes, exactly! SAA and regional membership outlets have clearly shifted to community archives as a priority, and yet, the consultants who have extensive exposure to community archives through their consulting work are not nearly as well-represented! Something for us to work on, for sure.

  1.       When should an organization bring in a consultant?

Margot Note: An organization hires a consultant when there is an urgency. Most people will agree that information assets are significant, but a crisis has to be eminent enough to have someone contact a professional. This pain point can be either physical,  such as building renovations or moves, or fiscal, such as sales of collections or the potential to receive grant money. Having a burning need presses the client not only to take action by hiring a consultant, but also allows the consultant to manage change within the organization successfully. Hire an archival consultant if you want to fix that pressing problem!

Rachael Woody: Yes, Margot brings up excellent points. In addition, many of the clients I work with are interested in archives, but either 1. Don’t have an archives background; and/or 2. Don’t have the time necessary to dedicate to the project. A lot of pressure is placed on my clients to meet grant, stakeholder, and/or regulatory requirements and they need a temporary person with a high-level of experience and expertise to help them successfully execute their archival projects.

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