On Freelancing and Contracting: some conference cogitations

I spent the end of June in beautiful, temperate, layers-friendly Victoria, BC, attending the Association of Canadian Archivists’ annual conference. It was amazing, scary, inspiring, and weirdly comfortable — no business cards were exchanged, but plenty of people wanted to gush about ideas.

I presented on the student panel between two very intelligent and articulate colleagues — my presentation was, let’s say, a bit more informal than theirs, but I think it went well. It was gratifying to hear some of my sentiments echoed in the closing plenary by Laura Millar. The main point I ended my student presentation on, which was picked up again by Millar, was the idea that the archiving profession needs to delve into freelancing models of employment.

This theme has been covered by the usual GLAM publishers (HLS on freelancing librarians; Hiring Librarians on contract work; INALJ on freelancing) — as has, of course, the dearth of cushy, steady, benefits-laden jobs you can hold for thirty years (or at least until all our icons and role models retire). I haven’t seen much discussion on how to freelance in art libraries or art archives, but I’d like to think there’s plenty of project work to be done in preserving and cataloguing artists’ files, implementing digital asset management, developing metadata schemes or collections mandates, digitization, publishing and reproductions management, exhibits and auctions, conservation for artists’ books….

My presentation focused on diverse and underrepresented communities that have media-collecting and -preserving needs not being met by institutionalized archiving systems. I focused on virtual communities (because social-network websites are where the best media are being collected, obviously), which meant that everything archival got put into a very technological framework.

I tried not to scare anyone off with the fear of archiving in the digital age (“Imagine you work for a historical society that has collected materials from each and every single resident of the town,” I suggested, to get a scope of the problem/potential of virtual communities), but I’m afraid it’s a very real part of the future of the profession, especially as we start moving from digitization projects to interface design for presenting our materials.

Bringing information-professional skills and techniques to your average website-builder or community-organizer is likely a consultancy task: you start with assessment, then they find enough money for implementation, you make some recommendations for maintenance, and eventually every community or arts group has an archivist-on-call, or a librarian for a half-day a week.

That means we all juggle multiple clients and bounce from one deadline to the next. Many people do not find this a very rosy picture of the industry’s future. Then again, there are those of us that can’t imagine working the same full-time processing or reference job day in and day out.

There are definitely ways to do it right. I’ll be interviewing some freelancing and entrepreneur archivists and librarians in the near future, on this blog, so you can see for yourselves. There’s even an association for independent information professionals, and plenty of opportunities for mentorship, entrepreneurial bootcamps, start-up funding, and guides to the legal and financial steps to declaring yourself a businesswoman.

Ideally, I’d love to do private archiving with artists — which is never high-paying. It tends only to happen when the artist is anticipating an eventual donation of their records to an institution — there, the benefit of getting things organized beforehand is the tax credit offered upon appraisal (in Canada, anyways). While an artist or arts group may want to get the job done, the money, often, simply isn’t there.

[Ironically, I just found contract archiving work in the private sector, which is not exactly walking-the-walk, but maybe I’ll have time for some pro-bono projects with individuals and non-profits. Stay tuned!]

I’m interested to know everyone’s thoughts. There were lots of nodding heads when Millar said it, but I still felt a bit radical suggesting it myself (ah, what the confidence a thirty-year career could give!).

What do you think: are librarians and archivists destined for lots of part-time, contract-based, multi-tasking jobs, helping everyone manage unique information needs? Or will the majority of us find the full-time, paid-vacation unicorn we dream of? Is there a balance between the two?

More scarily: will freelancing mean we all have to learn how to administer databases and provide cut-rate graphic design services? Is there a way to freelance in GLAM-related work that isn’t technologically dependent?

About allanaaa

allana.mayer [at] mail.mcgill.ca


  1. I’m actually very excited to read this post, as I have found myself (entirely through chance) balancing a part-time, permanent position (at a city agency archive) with a separate temporary project (consulting for a dance company’s archive), which seems to be a rather perfect combination of a more steady job with the flexibility to take on other projects. At first I was willing to accept the part-time position only because it seemed I had no other options and I needed to get experience, being a freshly minted MLS grad, but now I see it as a wonderful opportunity, and am now considering how to market myself as an archives freelancer for other part time projects. The only glitch in my situation is if projects require more hours per week than I can give outside of my permanent position (approx. 16), so of course it’s not a perfect solution, but still certainly viable for the time being.

    I have also been helped by connecting with a non-profit (the Dance Heritage Coalition) that exists to find funding to help dance artists and their archives across the country, and which places archivists (like myself) with various dance companies on temporary, grant-funded projects. Perhaps this is a model that could be utilized elsewhere (if it isn’t already), particularly with archives in the arts where money is usually lacking?

    At any rate, from what I’ve seen in my job search, there seem to be as many part time and/or temporary contract positions as there are full time positions being advertised. Not sure if this is a new trend or not, but it’s certainly the case at the moment, and I personally find it kind of exciting (the caveat of course being if too much is expected of a part-time position, and other potential abuse of the system– but that’s another discussion!).

  2. Honestly, I would love a full-time academic librarian job with benefits to enjoy until I retire – but they do seem to be more and more scarce. Most of the young librarians I’ve talked to here in Winnipeg have been bouncing from contract to contract, some having to go without working for a few months at a time. Maybe it would be easier to freelance in a bigger city with more options – though I bet some freelancers work on projects virtually. It’d be interesting to hear how that works.

    As to your question about whether freelancing means we’ll all have to become tech wizards and database managers and graphic designers all in one – I suppose these skills would just open more doors; the more you can offer to different projects, the more options you’ll have. (On a side note, I took a course in database design a few semesters ago, and I had so much fun :D definitely recommend it!)

    Katie, working with the Dance Heritage Coalition sounds great! We will definitely have to look into where similar things are happening, maybe get some art-related freelancing links in our blog resources…

  3. Katie, sounds like a dream combo! I’m worried my new full-time job won’t leave me enough time to read books, let alone finish off scholarly work in progress and keep volunteering — let ALONE pursue new contracts with artists.

    Maybe we as GLAM workers could put together a resource list for grant-funding for the types of projects we’d like to work on — then help arts groups work out the logistics of being able to hire us.

    I definitely agree that there are potential abuses — I for one would love a state-funded benefits program for part-time workers, or something similar (obviously different in the US than in Canada, although I am losing my shit over my new dental plan, so there’s obviously room for improvement). This also falls in line with standards for internships and other short-term work — how can we make sure businesses aren’t taking advantage of “continuous contract” style arrangements to deprive people of benefits and skip out on regular raises?

    Ellen, I think the best thing about web work and projects with virtual communities is the possibility of telecommuting. I would love to be “on retainer” for several websites that have digital archiving and metadata needs — who only pay when they have upgrades or new implementations to worry about, and who may only ever need to communicate with me over email. You can definitely benefit from these sorts of contracts if you’re the reliable, connected type.

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