Internship for the Uninitiated Archivist

Being one of the new fall interns here at the Burke Library, one of my first assignments is to write a blurb for the blog about my expectations for my upcoming semester.  I am in my final year as a graduate student at Pratt Institute’s School of Information and Library Science, from which I will earn certificates in Archives, as well as Museum Libraries.  (Additionally, I am also matriculated into Pratt Institute’s History of Art Master’s degree, but I won’t finish that for another few years.)  Each student who is interested in gaining an Archives or Museum Libraries Certificate must finish a Practicum course.  The course requires 100 hours of on-site work experience supervised by an information professional in a setting that reflects my interests, 4 seminar sessions, and a project based on site experience research and observation.  I decided to focus my Practicum course internship towards Archives which will be done under the supervision of Brigette Kamsler, Archivist for the Missionary Research Library Collection and the William Adams Brown Ecumenical Archives.

Why Archives as a focus for my Practicum?  An art librarian internship would seem a more obvious choice from looking at the above biographical information.  You can see that I am definitely interested in art and museum librarianship, archives just doesn’t seem to fit naturally into that mix.  As a kid my favorite classes had to do with history, art history or literature.  I grew up loving to read anything that took primary source documents as their inspiration and it was even better if examples of those documents were somehow included in the book.  I got my BA in American Studies because it was a major that understood that literature, pop culture, personal experience, art; essentially anything that affects us in our daily lives, is what makes history interesting and the study of all those things combined is what gives us a better overall picture of times past.  However in regards to personal experience, aside from a brief stint working on a research project at the National Archives in Washington D. C., I have not really set foot in an archive.  Even my Management of Archives and Special Collections class at Pratt was held in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University, where I was only able to pour through a total of 5 archival boxes during the entire class.  I have never created a finding aid and I have never sorted a collection from beginning to end.   What really sold me on doing my Practicum internship here at the Burke was Brigette and in some small part the collection itself.

I have met with Brigette a few times before starting work here; I even interviewed her for a paper for that Archives class I mentioned.  She is enthusiastic about her job, not to mention willing to take some time out of her busy schedule to not only thoroughly answer interview questions, but to help me improve my resume and cover letter.  On those visits I enjoyed hearing about her experiences working with the William Adams Brown Archives and seeing some of the more interesting objects in the archive, like the cricket cage and the Indian palm leaf books.  I am really looking forward to exploring more of these ecumenical collections and while religion and theology has never been a main focus of mine, it has been something that I have been interested in knowing more about, especially when I can look at primary source documents.  At one of our meetings Brigette outlined how she was going to organize the internship; essentially it is an internship for the uninitiated archivist, which is perfect for me.  It is also the first internship that has structure and is organized in such a way to teach me exactly what I want to learn.  I have had the opportunity to intern for various institutions, some operate on the philosophy that interns are just there for free work and others were not very structured when it came to what they expected you to do each day.  While this made each day a mystery, it would have been nice to be able to come in assured that I would be busy and learning each day (thankfully in that instance I worked under two very resourceful people who always found me worthwhile and interesting projects).  While I learned much from these previous internships and I enjoyed being there; I am excited by the fact that this internship will be structured and focused on teaching me. 

I cannot wait to get to work following the basic schedule that Brigette outlined in one of our initial meetings.  I will begin by going through some articles related to archival processing that she feels are necessary for any archivist to have a grasp of, as well as the Burke and Columbia processing guides. Then she plans to start me off on a small collection for which I will ignore the “less process, more product” rule (*gasp*) and do a full and thorough processing job.  After I finish with that and I am comfortable with the whole process I may move on to processing a larger collection.  Then we will see what I have time for, it all depends on how quickly I can learn how to do all this.  The two collections that I may be working with are within the William Adams Brown Ecumenical Library Archives, namely the American Bilateral Conversations, 1965-1975 collection and the State Council of Churches collection.

All of that and I have not quite answered the question of why archives for my Practicum project.  My philosophy on internships is that while they are beneficial for the institution in that they get free labor, that benefit should NOT be the guiding philosophy on why an institution is involved in having an internship program.  Internships are always linked to an educational program, therefore internships (especially if the student has to take the internship for school credit, since that means they are paying money to be there) should be focused on teaching the student skills that would be beneficial for them, especially skills that are not necessarily taught or understood  from just classroom experience.  Additionally, students should also focus on applying to internships, not just as names to fill up a resume, but as places where they feel they can learn skills that they are not learning in class.

I decided to do an archival internship for my Practicum because I felt this was the best place for me to learn skills that I have not been able to learn in my classes and in fact it is where I feel I am most lacking in my studies.  While archives may not seem to naturally fit into art librarianship, it does when you realize that art libraries can contain many more things than just books.  Artist files, objects, letters, and journals are just a small list of items that can overlap with what would generally be regarded as items primarily contained in an archive.  Not to mention the fact that many art libraries are housed in institutions that have on-site archives, as well.  The Burke is the first internship I have been involved with which is focused around teaching interns (in this case a well-rounded approach to assessment and description).  It is a good model to follow.  I want to not only be able to learn how to assess, organize, and describe archival collections and write clear, understandable finding aides, but how to be a better manager, especially in regards to interns or new members of the staff.  I would like to focus my project not only on what I need to learn as an archivist, but also on what I think is valuable for any institution: how to effectively teach the uninitiated. 

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