Society of Southwest Archivists

Poor Pay in Archives: How Top Archives Directors and Our National Organizations Are Failing Us

14 Nov 2018 12:04 PM | Jaimi Parker (Administrator)

The top Archives directors are failing the profession.(1)

It appears nearly every day brings a new article contrasting national wage stagnation with the ever-climbing stock market.(2) Even before the great recession, archivists, who are highly degreed professionals comparable to lawyers, accountants, and IT professionals, were poorly paid.(3)

The reasons, both before and after the recession are, in large part, a failure of leadership by both those archivists at the head of management and the national organizations that claim to advocate for us.

Most of us have at least one “prestigious” archives in our state, either at the largest public university, the largest private university, a private research library, or a presidential library; they tend to pay well.

That is, they tend to pay one person very well: the director. The person at the ¹top of the organization chart should be a leader, yet sadly these de facto leaders of our profession, who have reaped so much, are failing our profession.(4) These “rock stars” are usually full professors from an academic department and the monkish world of terminal degrees, where individual achievements are rewarded, and not from a profession strongly focused on collaboration, customer service, public service, and outreach like Archives.

Directors often make two to three times more than the management team directly below them, the associate or assistant directors. Those folks keep those prestigious archives operating Monday through Friday, while the director sets the mission and vision, does a lot of public speaking and talks to the press, meets regularly with their dean or board (and their associate or assistant directors), and meets with any potential donors.

Here are two current examples in Austin of pay inequity, from two independent research centers at the largest public university in town, where the directors have lots of individual discretion over their budgets.(5) The information is obtained from a database of state government salaries maintained by the Texas Tribune, an independent news source based in Austin.(6) The Director of the Harry Huntt Ransom Humanities Research Center, or for short the HRC, makes $270,300.(7) The four associate directors listed make $96,900; $86,595; $79,707; and $71,420. Thus, the director makes more than double the highest paid associate director, and almost four times as much as the lowest paid associate director.(8)

The Director of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, or the Briscoe Center, makes $220,239. The four assistant director salaries listed are: $88,990; $81,151; $76,404; and $70,411. Thus, the director makes over double what the highest paid assistant director makes, and triple what the lowest paid assistant director makes.

If you look at the pay scale for the rest of the professional positions at both institutions, they generally are stacked between the $40,000s to $90,000s. This is a pathetically narrow range, considering levels of experience probably exist between 0 years and 30+ years, and supervision duties probably range from none to several persons.

To be clear, I don’t begrudge these directors making good pay.(9) I only know them both by reputation, but they both have been in the profession a long time and are highly respected. However, they should think about their staffers more than they do promoting themselves.(10)

Perhaps these directors would say in response, “well there is only so much money to go around (in the budget), and there is so much to do in an Archives.” Personally, speaking as a director of a large archives, I would rather have less staff, but have them better paid, with better morale, than to have more staff that are poorly-paid, with poor morale.

Equitable salaries and higher morale will increase retention, as well, and if there is one thing archives benefit from, it’s institutional knowledge which we lose with high turnover. Some duties will probably never be done that formerly were done; that’s when you ask your boss for another “well-paid” position, not a poorly-paid one. I also realize all of this is relative, since no two archives are exactly alike, and at least partially based on geography; what is considered a good salary in Austin, Texas would probably be considered a poor salary in San Francisco, California. But we must start somewhere in better advocating for our staffers.

Here is a simple back-of-the-napkin example, using Austin-area salary ranges: you have $225,000 in your budget for processing collections by early to mid-career archivists (pay only, leaving aside benefits to make the math the simplest). I would rather have four archivists making $56,250 each than five archivists making $45,000 each.(11) Can we all at least agree on this concept?

I know we are all highly goal oriented, deeply care about great customer service, and hate to look at backlogs and unprocessed collections that could be used by our researchers, but if we don’t start better advocating for ourselves, we will have NO staff, as they leave our profession in droves soon to go do something else that pays better (like UX or records management).

I also ask that if your state has a website that lists public salaries, including Archives, inside the southwest region or anywhere in the U.S., please let me know, and we can start compiling this information on a page on the SSA website, and add salary envy and peer pressure to this vital issue.

Mark Lambert, current President of SSA.

This is part one of a 2-part series.


1. I am focusing on archives, since that is what I know best, but a lot of what I write could also possibly apply to our allied GLAM professions (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums.)

2. “The Recovery Threw the Middle-Class Dream Under a Benz,” New York Times, Sept. 12, 2018,
2018/09/12/business/middle-class-financial-crisis.html; “Home affordability drops to lowest level in 10 years,” Houston Chronicle, Oct. 4, 2018, real-estate/article/Home-affordability-drops-to-lowest-level-in- 10-13280986.php.

3. Tanya Zanish-Belcher, “President’s Message: Aiming for Affordability,” Archival Outlook, July/August 2018, p. 2.

4. As we say in the military, “Lead, follow or get out of the way.”

5. I realize not all top archives directors have the large amount of individual discretion over their budgets of the two mentioned here, but many do.

6. The salary information was pulled from the database on 10/7/18. There does appear to be a few persons at each institution listed with higher salaries than the persons listed as associate or assistant director, but without inside knowledge of each archives, I will assume they are due to endowed positions which might or might not come with management duties.

7. My goal is not to embarrass individual archivists, so I am leaving individual names out of this article; you can look them up if you want to, using the sources mentioned here.

8. Since I don’t have any inside knowledge about this archives, I will assume the disparity in pay among the associate directors is related to the length of time in their respective positions.

9. And for the record, they are both men—you can look up their biographies yourself.

10. This recent Wall Street Journal article writes about corporations now looking for more bosses with humility (no joke!): bosses-1539092123

11. Currently, the Texas Library Association asks that librarians with a graduate degree and no professional experience start at a minimum salary of over $43,000.

This article also appears in the Fall 2018 issue of the Southwestern Archivist.

UPDATE: SSA has created an opportunity to submit files to a crowd-sourced publicly available website, Archives Regional Salary Research

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