By Mary Jo Fairchild, MA, MLIS, CA
The choice to embark on the journey to become a Certified Archivist is a personal decision based on professional experience, preferences, and devotions. In this post, I will share some observations based on my own experiences with the processes of taking the exam and recertifying before highlighting some nuanced ideas to consider if you are interested in joining the ranks of the Academy of Certified Archivists.
I enjoyed preparing for the Certified Archivist exam. Something about the tidy but comprehensive delineation of roles is very satisfying to the archival disposition. Over the course of one summer, I devoured books, articles, and case studies (many of which are freely available via HathiTrust) within the framework of the seven comprehensively defined domains upon which archival theory and practice are scaffolded, at least for the ACA. Collectively, I call these “the universe of archival roles and responsibilities.” I created the infographic below to illustrate the interconnectedness of archival functions that, as professional archivist, are also essential responsibilities. These include selection, appraisal, and acquisition; arrangement and description; reference services and access; preservation and protection; outreach, advocacy, and promotion; managing archival programs; and (finally!) professional, ethical, and legal duties.
I often share with colleagues and students that I found the act of preparing for the exam to be the single most valuable piece of the initial certification process. Whether I took the exam and passed or failed was inconsequential when compared to the wealth of knowledge I accrued from rigorous engagement with professional literature over the short period of several months. Under what other circumstances could I justify reading Ritzenthaler, Jimerson, Dooley, Spencer, and Pugh in such a short amount of time? It was a delightful excuse and taking the test certainly provided motivation for spending my weekends consuming technical literature relating to my chosen career.
The experience of taking the exam is unremarkable. But I will say that on the day on which I took the exam in a classroom on the campus of the University of South Carolina, I was compelled to not-so-fondly reminisce about the standardized tests we take in high school (as if an archivist would have any trouble remembering the requisite #2 pencils to fill in the scantron bubbles for each of the 100 multiple choice questions!) In all seriousness, the ACA’s Examination Development Committee strives to “evaluate, monitor, and oversee periodic revision of the examination for certified archivist to ensure its accuracy, comprehensiveness, and appropriateness” (see theACA By-laws for more on the EDC). Because of the vast pool of archival principles and practices that a certified archivist (CA) should have facility with, the exam is tricky. Oftentimes there are at least two multiple choice answer options that could be correct and it is up to the test-taker to judge the varying degrees of correctness. Many talented archivists sit for the exam on multiple occasions before passing. If this happens to you, you are in the best of company! Rosalye Settles writes about the experience of taking the exam multiple times in her article “Three is a Charm: Certification by Examination”.
The ACA requires CAs to recertify every five years to ensure that they do not become stodgy or out-of-touch. CAs can recertify by taking the exam (again!) or by petitioning the ACA. I chose to recertify by petition this spring. A successful petition demonstrates sustained contributions to the profession and development of one’s own archival skillsets based on a weighted rubric of “qualifying experiences” that include employment, education, participation & outreach, service, and writing, publishing, & editing. Be warned, the application interface for entering recertification data remains clunky at best, however, the process is clearly defined and straightforward as far as which professional activities count towards recertification credits. The ACA website comprehensively outlines the benefits and drawbacks to both pathways to recertification.
Questions and Ideas to Consider
While the information contained on the Academy of Certified Archivists website is comprehensive, there are some ideas and considerations that are not fully represented on www.certifiedarchivists.org. Is the ACA right for you? If so, at which point in your career should you begin the process? How does becoming a certified archivist compare with other professional certifications offered in colleges and universities or by professional organizations like the Society of American Archivists?
While graduate curriculum is essentially valuable for becoming familiar with archival theory and methodology, the worth of work experience in an archival repository cannot be overstated. As such, I would encourage individuals engaged in professional archival work for at least 4 to 5 years to take the exam. Making a go at it before one has had the opportunity to encounter a broad range of scenarios or decisions in the field is premature. Furthermore, if you prefer sustained but focused engagement in only one or two of the role delineations outlined above, I would still encourage you to give certification a second consideration. The aforementioned interconnected nature of archival roles and responsibilities mandates that archivists have general facility with all facets of archival work even though they may choose to specialize in digital forensics, processing, or reference, to name only a few areas of expertise.
But it is important to note that embarking on the certification journey facilitated by the ACA is only one way in which archivists can satisfy their devotions to the work of preservation, access, and public service. Chief among the gripes directed at the ACA is the argument that the benefits of certification ( knowledge, credibility, enhanced employment opportunities, etc.) do not justify the expense of certification fees and annual dues. If an archivist passes the exam and becomes certified, they will pay $400.00 over the course of the five year certification period. There is no recertification fee, but a CA can expect to pay the $50 annual dues for the duration of their active certification.
For the purposes of comparison, the expense over the course of the five-year certification period with the ACA is comparatively less than the cumulative fees associated with certification in SAA’s Digital Archives Specialist (DAS) or Arrangement and Description (A&D) curriculum. However, coursework for the DAS or A&D programs is robust and students are paying for a suite of learning opportunities led by experts in the field. In contrast, becoming a Certified Archivist through the ACA is more autonomous and one’s standing is dependent on engaged work in the field, contributions to professional organizations, and participation in an inclusive set of learning opportunities from community workshops and events to academic curriculum in a master’s program.
Another fact that may inform one’s decision to become a Certified Archivist is that, in more ways than one, the ACA is an entity that is grounded in traditional archival theory and practice. Of course, there are benefits and drawbacks to this allegiance to tradition. For example, on the examination, one can expect to encounter questions relating to the histories and evolution of archival work in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which were dominated by western, white, intellectually privileged, and often male figures. While understanding the principles set forth by these early archivists can be worthwhile for reasons beyond procuring context to identify the framework in which records were created and maintained by earlier generations of archivists, the real value of building basic understanding of concepts defined by individuals who (for better or worse, populate the archival canon as defined by the ACA) may lie in the subversive applications of this knowledge. Awareness generated from consuming early archival literature, can help 21st century archivists recognize these patterns in order to disrupt standards that favor privileged persons and institutions and to ultimately work to build a more inclusive historical record. And, it should be noted, this sustained engagement in our profession in order to bring these ideals to fruition is represented in the currencies of archival recertification credits, or ARCs.
I value my affiliation with the Academy of Certified Archivists because taking the exam and maintaining one’s certification status is one way that I can demonstrate commitment to my profession. If you are considering taking the plunge and want to talk more or have questions, I am always eager to have a conversation! I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Mary Jo Fairchild is the Manager of Research Services in the Special Collections Department at the College of Charleston’s Addlestone Library. Prior to arriving at the College of Charleston in 2015, Fairchild was the Director of Archives and Research at the South Carolina Historical Society for nearly five years. Fairchild holds master’s degrees in History and Library Science and is a Certified Archivist. She has served as President of the South Carolina Archival Association and the Charleston Council on Archives, Libraries, and Museums. A member of the Archives Leadership Institute’s 2014 cohort, Fairchild also contributes to the Society of American Archivist’s Regional Archival Associations Consortium and the Southern Association of Women Historians’ Professional Development Committee.