Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Student Guide to Getting a Job with the Federal Government

Note: This post refers to student positions with the Government of Canada. It is only one person's perspective and it is by no means "official," but I hope this will help to illuminate the process.

When I started thinking that I wanted to get a summer position with the federal government (more specifically Library and Archives Canada) back in September of last year, it was difficult to find information. Sure, there is the offiicial information that describes the programs on government websites, but there was nothing I could find about the nuts and bolts of the process. I am writing this post to remedy that and hopefully be of assistance to others in the future. I imagine it will be of greatest interest to graduate students interested in getting summer jobs with the federal government, though undergraduates, law and other university students use a similar process.

As far as I am aware, there are two ways of getting a federal summer job. The first is through a university arranged co-op placement - this option is only possible if your institution has a co-op program in place and you are registered in it. My university did not offer that option, so I had to look into FSWEP (Federal Student Work Experience Program). The rest of this post will be structured as a FAQ.

What are the basic requirements to participate in FSWEP?
For this, I will have to refer to to the government's website. In essence, you need to be a Canadian citizen (non-citizens can apply, but citizens get preference), must be a current student and must be returning to university study in the fall.

How does the application work?
You fill in a profile at the Public Service Commission of Canada website, check off that you want to be included in the "FSWEP Inventory." That's it. It is a bit odd since you have to submit a general application - there is no way to customize it for a particular position. The online application should take maybe 1/2 hour or so to complete.

When do people get hired for summer jobs under FSWEP?
A handful of people I know got hired in February. I was offered a position in April. My impression is that most job offers are made in April and May.

How are you contacted for interviews?
For me, it was a mixutre of phone calls and emails. It is critically important that you double and triple check your contact information on the form.

How do the interviews work?
I had two phone interviews with different departments. Both were approximately twenty minutes long and it was a conference call. In one case, there were four people on the other end, in another, there were two.

How much are FSWEP employees paid?
It depends on your degree level. Law and doctoral students get paid the most. You can find the pay ranges on the Treasury Board of Canada website. For the present year, the range for Master's students is $16-$20 per hour and most people work full time (37.5 hours / week). Your monthly income would therefore be somewhere between $1500 to $2000 per month, which is fairly good for a student position.

What are my chances of getting hired?
In the library science and archives field, there are about 50-70 students hired each summer by various parts of the federal government. I had the experience of working in two archives before applying, but others from my program were hired without any experience at all. Try to obtain any practical experince you can by the time you apply.

What about bilingualism?
For my particular position, it could be English or French. For others (esp. those dealing with the public), being bi-lingual is more important. While being bilingual will certainly give you an edge in general, it is certainly possible to be hired if you only know one of Canada's official languages.

That about covers everything I wish I knew before I applied. I would be happy to field further questions about the process and would certainly invite comments from others who have gone through it.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


It has been a few weeks since I started work at Library and Archives Canada. It is getting difficult to remain motivated about it. My particular job is just not very interesting. I don't even get to encounter researchers or users in any way, except when they somehow call me directly (this happened a few days ago).

Thus, I think I am going to re-read Douglas Coupland's novel, "Microserfs."

Before I close, I have started to draft a post of advice to students interested in working for the federal government. I know my position is nothing terribly interesting, but other people I know in the capital have good positions. I want to write that post because the whole federal government hiring process is sadly cloaked in mystery. At least, that was my impression as an applicant.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Missing university already: or, a note from a Metadata Wrangler

I've worked for over a week now and it is difficult to remain enthused about my particular role at LAC. The workplace itself has some good qualities, including a cubicle with big, great windows. My department supports archivists, so it is not professional work per se. That said, I am appreciating how technical services works.

In contrast to other places, I don't actually work with archival materials here. I have not seen any actual archival materials - I spend my days fighting with uncooperative bits of metadata. There was a brief and sad debate today about how these systems serve two different goals; internal use (e.g. to track workflow, to monitor the collection, and so on) and user use (i.e. retrieval, general research). I see no intrinsic conflict between these goals, but if there is a circumstance where one had to make one a priority, then I would always advocate for the user.

I don't know if the following makes me a statistical outlier in the field, but I think all services (espcially those that can be accessed by users) in archives should always have the user in mind. Do user research, ask them what they want, and try to match that, as much as is feasible. I wonder if professionals in this field sometimes get preoccupied with other concerns.

About a month after finishing my last paper, I find myself missing university. The challenge of it, the discussion of (generally) interesting issues and the great promise that it offers. I live in hope that I might become the kind of professional who writes interesting books such as Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles (rare books librarian at Harvard), a volume I recently picked up at an Ottawa used bookshop, or The commerce of cartography : making and marketing maps in eighteenth-century France and England by Mary Sponberg Pedley.

Flood at Library and Archives Canada

Want a good way of testing your disaster recovery planning? A flood! As the CBC reported, "A broken water pipe flooded the main building of Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa early Tuesday morning, closing the building and causing a small amount of damage to some books." You can read the whole story whose headline (Flood shuts Canada's national archives) says it all.

I do find it interesting that the CBC uses the phrase, national archives. In terms of institutional age, the national archives goes back to the 1870s whereas Canada only acquired a national library in the middle of the twentieth century. Even more interesting is that the article only refers to books being damaged, not archival materials per se.

That said, it could have been so much worse. One has only to think of the terrible library flood damage that occurred in Florence in 1966.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Library and Archives Canada - an arranged and uneasy marriage?

As far as I am aware, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is the only national institution that combines the functions of libraries and archives. The merger of Canada's National Library and Archives in 2004 into LAC is still a work in progress. Staff still identify as working on the "library" side or the "archives" side. Such identification is difficult to change as it is based on professional education, many years of experience and, as far as I have seen, rather different ways of approaching users and information. This division is also reflected, to some degree, in the internal structure of the organization. It is possible that this division will melt away as a new generation of staff work there but I doubt it somehow. As long as LAC is the institutional outlier on this (i..e. most libraries are still stand-alone libraries, many archives are only archives etc), this new world of the "knowledge institution" may not be introduced.

Yet, if you read statements about LAC by its senior leadership, annual reports and the like, you wil encounter a different vision. This view sees to leave behind the above divisions as relics and as inappropriate to the needs and expectations of the Internet era. As Ian Wilson (of LAC) put it, the ability to master search is now more important than the mastery of specific information. That is to say, knowing Canada's first prime minister is less important than knowing where to find that out. This is not to say that specific knowledge is without value - the professions provide a clear example of where it is important to actually know things, for example. However, placing a greater priority on search over knowlege might have interesting implications for libraries, archives and related instiitutions.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A Dream Come True: Library and Archives Canada

Several months ago, I was asked about my professional goals in an archives class. Some students articulated an interest in specific media or had not yet come up with such ideas. I was always keen to work at Library and Archives Canada.

Well, that is going to happen! I begin a summer position at LAC next week and I am quite excited. No longer will I be languishing in a basement archives, an institutional after thought. I would very much like to blog about what it is like to work there, but I may not be able to. The staff there are (rightly) very concerned with security, but hopefully I can share some general impressions. As much as reference work interests me, that is not what I will be doing this summer.