In June, I got a full-time job as an archivist at a small archives in downtown Toronto. Sure, it’s great to be financially rewarded for doing the sort of work that I like to do, but this has also limited by ability to do the kind of heritage stuff that I can and want to stick with.
I’ve seen numerous other young(ish) volunteers reluctantly step back from heritage commitments after they found full-time employment, and I swore that I wouldn’t be the same way. Certainly, I don’t want to turn my back on the community that has been so good to me over the past few years. After six months, though, I’m realizing just how difficult it is to juggle full-time employment with heritage volunteering.
Since last spring, I’ve been contributing to Torontoist’s weekend history column, Historicist. My responsibility is to think up a subject relating to Toronto’s history, research it, and produce a substantial article, once every four weeks.
Even before I got a full-time job, I found this a pretty daunting responsibility. Although I was notorious throughout my school years for producing substantial work at the last minute, these articles take quite a lot of time to produce. Part of it is that I am still finding my popular history voice. Another part, though, is that it’s not like I just know all of Toronto’s history and pluck a story out of my head; every four weeks I have to think up a topic that I can reasonably do, frantically find source material, familiarize myself with it, find some relevant images, and construct a story. Whereas in school I was writing essays on topics that were otherwise relevant to the material I was already reading and contemplating for class, I usually don’t know anything about my subjects when I start looking for source material.
If, after starting research, I can’t quickly find enough content to guarantee a substantial article, I’m forced to find a new subject and start all over again, and this time I need to work even faster because I’ve already wasted several days researching something else. It’s a bit of a miracle that I’m ever happy with the resulting article. A lot of the time, I’m a little embarrassed by what I submit, feeling it under-researched or under-written. Thankfully, everything I write goes through editors who help me develop my ideas and fix my most egregious errors. (Although it doesn’t go through a Toronto history expert along the way, so I’m very much responsible if I get anything factually wrong.)
The Historical Society
I remain on thde executive of my local historical society, although I am not nearly as active as I was before. I no longer do original research when members of the public ask questions that the group cannot immediately answer. I’ve stopped submitting content to the newsletter, and have a minimal role in planning upcoming events. I still do one two-hour shift a month at the archives, and attend both the regular meeting and the executive meeting.
In theory, my executive portfolio includes handling the group’s correspondence, but I find I don’t have the mental energy or time to provide detailed answers anymore. Most of the time, I just think of who else could answer the question, and forward it along. Often, I go a few days without reading the correspondence, which isn’t good for the organization’s relations. Amongst other things I want to train new volunteers to do the sort of things that I had been doing up until June, but again, I find I don’t have the time or energy. Increasingly, my attitude is just: “I taught myself to do this, so you should be able to teach yourself, too.” This isn’t a good attitude to have anywhere, but it’s an especially bad one to have with a heritage group, where capitalizing on past experience and encouraging the spread of knowledge is supposed to be the whole crux of the organization’s existence.
I remain active on the Etobicoke York Community Preservation Panel. I don’t yet feel like dead weight, but this involvement now amounts to little more than answering e-mails and attending and contributing during a monthly meeting. There’s a building in the area which is both worthy of designation and potentially threatened with sale and/or demolition, but even though my knowledge makes me the best equipped person to research it and work with local groups to prepare the designation, I don’t see where I’m going to have the time to make an extra trip to City Archives. Not with my job and each impending Historicist deadline.
Toronto Historical Association
Shortly before being hired, I joined the executive of the Toronto Historical Association, which is an umbrella group of Toronto-area heritage groups and historical societies. It is currently in a phase of rebirth and new outreach, which means that the responsibility is theoretically somewhat greater than what I was prepared for.
I was recruited for this position in part because of my youth and connections with other groups, but find I have very little time for much beyond reading the e-mails and attending the meetings. As it’s an umbrella group everybody involved with it is, by definition, involved with other organizations, which makes it difficult for anybody with a 9 to 5 to give it daily attention. Those who are retired send significantly more e-mails which tend to sit in my inbox until the weekend, at which point I’ll go through them and decide if I’ll be able to send thoughtful responses or if I’ve got too many other things to think about.
In addition to the things that the rest of the board would like to delegate to me, I’m constantly seeing opportunities in the THA for other things that I could be doing, but these ideas generally go unshared because it’s not reasonable for me to see the idea through. It is frustrating.
And, of course, there are a variety of smaller or unofficial roles out there which have essentially disappeared from my life. Heritage Toronto has finally launched their new website, so I might get the opportunity to write for them again in 2013, but not unless I cut down on some of the things listed above. (Last year, I also lead one of Heritage Toronto’s historical walks, through the West Toronto Junction Historical Society.)
I also want to be able to attend other public meetings of interest, or go on walking tours, or see what is happening with other historical societies or museums. But I’ve done none of these things since getting the job. My commitments mean that I rarely get to be an ordinary audience member anymore. And that’s no good because, as I said above, I don’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Toronto’s history. I need to go to these things in order to learn and get better at the things I’m doing.
This blog has also taken a bit of a hit. I have about ten different posts in various states of completion right now, including book reviews, opinion pieces on various topical heritage issues, and odds and ends I’ve found while working on other projects. Finding the time to carefully choose my words, however, is my biggest challenge, as is motivating myself to use a computer in the evening after spending most of my day staring at spreadsheets on screens.
Finding the Time Outside of Work
I’m not a complete dreamer/idiot. Obviously, I expected to have less time available once I became employed, and warned all of my groups that my availability was about to become a lot more precious. But the hardest part for me is letting go and seeing necessary work go undone. It seems like everywhere I turn, there are things that aren’t being done that I know that I could do if not for the lack of time.
What makes this the most frustrating, though, is that when I don’t do this work, there’s no guarantee that anybody else will. A huge amount of heritage work in Toronto is being done by volunteers. A worrying amount, when you think about it. When I used to tell my friends what I was up to, they naturally assumed that I must be doing very well out of it, financially. The general public tends to think of heritage advocacy and history research and writing as vital, and assume that our society is somehow structured in such a way that those doing the work are being paid for it. And while they sometimes are, so much of what happens in Toronto’s heritage community only happens because some dedicated people are willing to sacrifice their time to see it through. Volunteers are preparing heritage designations, attending public consultations, sitting on committees, creating and leading walking tours, offering public lectures, promoting heritage in schools, performing original research, and providing information to journalists, to name but a few of the roles. And when these people stop, their work isn’t necessarily picked up by somebody else.
Right now, it seems like Toronto’s heritage community is really on the hunt for the next generation who will one day take over the reins. Well, we’re out there, but there’s only so much an employed person can do in their spare time. I thought I found a fair compromise in June, but it looks like I need to massively pare down my heritage commitments in 2013.
It is, of course, vitally important that we continue to cultivate younger volunteers in heritage, and keep them engaged and poised to inherit our local legacies; it just isn’t reasonable to hand over all of the reins right away. For a historical society executive looking for successors, or for other major volunteer heritage roles which seem like full-time jobs in themselves, we need people who actually have the time to do the job right.
I have a lot more to say on this subject, but as I don’t want to end on a pessimistic note, I’m going to save it for another time. In the meantime, I would love to hear from some other heritage volunteers who have had to scale back their involvement following employment. What other barriers have you found to your history/heritage participation? How did you decide what commitments to keep, and what do you tell organizations or other people who want you to do more?