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January 31, 2007

Why I'm Not An Historian (Anymore)

Kisha's recent post reminded me of just why I gave up on my brilliant career as an historian. Historians suffer some of the world's worst working conditions. Okay, that is probably an exaggeration -- it would (probably) be worse to work in a third-world sweatshop for pennies a day -- but considering that we are Americans with close to a decade of post-college education, our working conditions are abominable.

Granted, faculty positions can be pretty cushy for tenured professors, but in order to reach that near-mythical status, one must spend quite a bit of time in the dreaded archives, the subject of Kisha's post. In the archives, you can't eat, drink, or go to the bathroom. The chairs are uncomfortable and the documents are dirty. The archives can get away with treating historians like that because we aren't employees of the archives. Believe me, however, if the archivists couldn't eat, drink, or go to the bathroom all day, OSHA would close down the archives. Furthermore, when you think about the fact that grad students are paid on average about $15,000 a year for an average of about 60 hours a week, that works out to about $5 an hour, less than the federal minimum wage. Add on to that the fact that we have higher than average living costs because we have to travel to the archives and pay ridiculous amounts of money to stay in sub-standard housing while we are there (in London, I paid $50 a night to stay in a dorm), and it gets even worse.

The worst archive I worked in was the Public Records and Archive Administration Department in Accra, Ghana. The catalogs were scattered on the floor, half were missing, and the archivists kept the most important ones hidden. But what really bothered me was the bathroom situation. To begin with, it was kept locked, so I had to suffer the indignity of asking the archivists for the key whenever I wanted to use it. One would think that a locked bathroom would stay relatively clean, but not so. Just imagine what could be all over the walls, floors, and other surfaces of a bathroom. It was. Finally, there was toilet paper only for archivists and not for researchers. They got it out of their locked desk whenever they used the bathroom, but didn't give it to us! It was particularly disheartening to hear from another American historian there that Ghana's archives were better than most in Africa. After the first day, I just didn't eat or drink all day (since I couldn't do so in the archive anyway) in order to avoid having to go to the bathroom. I returned to the US 10 lb lighter than when I left.

So now that I have spent all this time complaining about the archives, you may be wondering why I work in one. I have addressed this in a previous post, but Kisha's post reminded me of more reasons why it's better to be an archivist than an historian. To begin with, as an employee of an archive, I have to be paid at least minimum wage and all of the usual OSHA standards apply to my working conditions. But I think I work in the world's best archive because researchers don't ever have to come here. All of our holdings are digitized, so scholars can download our materials from the comfort of their homes and offices, sandwich in hand if they so choose. They don't have to fly to Detroit or pay the exorbitant Ann Arbor hotel rates. For this reason alone, being a sociologist or political scientist (our main clientele) is way better than being an historian. Unfortunately, I didn't think of that before I applied to grad school.

Now if only someone could digitize historical documents...

Posted by eklanche at January 31, 2007 07:39 AM


I think, when you were applying to grad school, I had it in my head that being a historian would be better than being a historical linguist, since every college needs a history department. I guess not.

Posted by: esik at January 31, 2007 04:22 PM

Perhaps ICSPR can branch out, and you can apply for a grant to start digitally archiving historical data...

Posted by: khilfman@earthlink.net at February 1, 2007 08:50 AM

Well, Em -- Some of us aren't good at anything else so, we resign ourselves to a dusty, anomic, hunched-over, blearly-eyed, impoverished existence. (My roommate suggests I start writing romance novels but I don't think that's really my speciality either).

Posted by: khgarner at February 11, 2007 09:04 PM

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