While surveying a shelf of materials in the archives in December 2017, project archivist Dan Michelson came across a small red leather-bound almanac perched alone on a shelf. The book, published in 1793, was out of place, so Dan promptly showed it to John Myers, catalog and metadata librarian at the Schaffer Library. Flipping through the first few pages, Myers noticed a small envelope tucked inside the title page with a handwritten note on the front. It read, “Washington’s hair, L.S.S. from James A. Hamilton given him by his mother, August 10, 1871.”
Inside the envelope were strands of whitish/brown hair, gathered together with an old piece of string. Myers would later describe it as an “OMG moment!” Unable to contain his enthusiasm, Myers immediately sent me an email about his discovery.
“It was one of those mind-blowing moments that happen every once in a while in a librarian’s life,” said John Myers, a catalog and metadata librarian at the college. “I thought, that doesn’t mean George Washington, does it?” – The Associated Press, 2018
We later learned that James A. Hamilton was the son of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton and Alexander Hamilton. According to Ron Chernow’s, Washington: A Life, “As a remembrance of her husband, she [Martha Washington] asked Tobias Lear to snip locks of hair from the corpse before it was deposited in the coffin.” The locks of hair were distributed to close family and friends of Washington; the Hamiltons were close friends of George and Martha Washington.
Handwritten note on envelope with the contents – strands of George Washington’s hair – pictured beside it. Image courtesy Union College.
Inscription in Schuyler book
When Union College Librarian Frances Maloy became aware of the finding, she requested more information to include in a report to the campus. One month later, I was contacted by Phil Wajda, campus communications officer, who suggested that we write a press release about the discovery of the hair. Of course, we were delighted to share the story and jumped at the chance to highlight our collections. On February 13, 2018, we released a statement to the press and media outlets.
It would have been impossible to anticipate the ensuing media storm. Less than 24 hours after the release, the Archives and Special Collections department received a flurry of requests for interviews from national and international media outlets, including the Washington Post, CNN, ABC News, CBS Saturday Morning, USA Today, Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal. The story also appeared on the cover of the New York Times on Presidents Day. Social media channels included approximately 2,500 posts on Twitter and Facebook.
The College communications office tracked media coverage of the story as shown in the following graphics from a Media Coverage Report:
Based on our experience, here are some tips, should you as an archivist find yourself in the midst of a media storm:
Work with your communications department (if you have one) to craft a standard response. This will help you plan the two or three pieces of information that you want to convey in all your interviews.
Be concise. Your interview will be edited, so highlight short facts about your collection or employer/institution.
For video interviews (Skype/Zoom/FaceTime) have a “practice” session beforehand to ensure the connection.
Choose a “friendly” location for video interviews; avoid conference rooms or messy spaces (offices/processing rooms).
Promote! But be discreet. Media professionals are savvy, so they can spot a shameless plug. Still, this is a valuable (and free) opportunity to publicize your collection or institution.
Be prepared. Reporters work on tight deadlines, so some interviews get scheduled quickly. Keep a black blazer in your office to wear during television interviews. (This is also helpful should a donor arrive unannounced.)
Be friendly and upbeat. If you’re excited and engaged, the viewer will be excited and engaged.
Next steps During the news coverage, we were frequently asked, “What next?” and “When will the hair be on display for the public to see?” I am currently looking into preservation options that will allow the hair and the book to be stored together in a custom-made, acid-free container. This will make it possible to display the hair for the purposes of teaching and exhibition.
The Schaffer Library plans to mount an exhibition to highlight the hair discovery and other aspects of the story. Eliza Hamilton was the daughter of Philip J. Schuyler, a prominent resident of Albany, NY and Major General in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. The exhibition will feature the hair and related objects around the Schuyler family of Albany, NY. This includes an original letter written in 1795 by General Schuyler promoting the establishment of Union College in the town of Schenectady rather than Albany, NY. It’s hoped the exhibition will coincide with a fall 2019 performance of the musical “Hamilton” at Proctor’s Theater in Schenectady, NY.
India Spartz is the Head of Special Collections and Archives at Union College in Schenectady, NY. She holds an B.A. from the University of Alaska (her home state), MLIS from UC Berkeley, and M.A. in Museum Studies from the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. She’s a member of the Academy of Certified Archivists and serves on SAA’s College & University Archives Steering Committee.
I became the archivist of the Central Upper Peninsula and Northern Michigan University (NMU) Archives 21 years ago on March 1, 1997. On that fateful morning, ice blocks, towering snow drifts, and frigid temperatures greeted me as I made my way through campus toward the archives. Looking back now, I can see how the classic Upper Peninsula winter setting provided a fitting context and metaphor, since I had inherited an archival program in suspended animation much like the long dead mastodon found frozen in ice.
My predecessor had been gone for nearly a year by the time I arrived. She had fled leaving me with a records management program on life support and a nascent regional historical collection. I was expected to manage and expand both responsibilities without any hope of additional professional staff support. At the same time, I was also a tenure track assistant professor, with all the obligatory service and scholarship demands. Young and naively confident, I brushed aside any worries and brashly galloped off into the fray only to quickly crash into the painful boulder of reality. By the end of my first year, I was an exhausted, broken, and angry lone arranger perched atop a teetering mount, wallowing in self-pity, and nearly in tears. I can vividly remember sitting at a reading room table feeling sorry for myself and wondering if I had made a terrible mistake. At that moment, I looked up through the window into the adjacent hallway and saw scores of students rushing back and forth between classes. For the first time in my life, I suddenly experienced the closest thing to a “religious epiphany.” With a jolt, it dawned on me, “you idiot. There’s the solution to your problem.”
The solution was to hire more student assistants and train them to work as paraprofessionals capable of completing all the basic archival management tasks, such as arrangement and description, reference and reading room assistance, and public outreach programming. To be honest, I wasn’t quite yet thinking of student assistants as paraprofessionals in those early days. That thought came much later after I had read a definition of the term and realized it fit my creation. In essence, a paraprofessional is defined as a trained aid who assists a professional person. The aid is not licensed or credentialed through professional training or a college / university degree.
My idea to use student assistants as paraprofessionals was not unique. In 1992, Barbara L. Floyd and Richard W. Oram conducted a study on the use of undergraduate students in college and university archives. They surveyed 132 archives and found that 72 percent used student assistants extensively in multiple archival tasks with varying degrees of complexity, and 37.3 percent stated that student assistants performed “professional tasks.” Given the demanding nature of archival work, Floyd and Oram made a number of recommendations designed to facilitate recruitment and retention of high quality student assistants. They urged archivists to write position descriptions that reflected graduated levels of specialization and higher levels of pay. They also encouraged archivists to develop appropriate training manuals and commit themselves to intensive training of student assistants. Short of actually using the term, Floyd’s and Oram’s report confirmed that many university and college archival programs were using undergraduate student assistants as paraprofessionals.
At the time of my “epiphany” twenty years ago, I had two student assistants working a few hours each week doing little more than answering the phone, monitoring the reading room, and re-shelving boxes. Today, seven undergraduates work in the NMU Archives on a variety of specialized tasks. They work 10-20 hours per week and are paid according to a wage scale described by each position classification. Each student assistant starts at the entry-level Archives Student Assistant I. Following successful completion of their first year, they are promoted to Archives Student Assistant II. The archives normally hosts 1-2 student interns completing a field experience requirement of the Department of History’s Public History minor. These interns work only one semester and are focused on very specific, “small” projects, such as processing a collection of letters or developing an online exhibit. Currently, the archives has two volunteers; one is the library’s retired cataloger and the other is an expert in genealogical research.
The key to the archives’ student assistant program is the position of senior student assistant (student assistant III), known affectionately as Number One. Number Ones generally work 15-20 hours per week. Candidates for the position must demonstrate a proven record of exceptional maturity, responsibility, professional deportment, interpersonal relationship skills, and the ability to manage increasingly complex tasks. The candidate is normally a veteran staff member, having served at least two years as a student assistant I and II. Number One is the “lead” student assistant and is primarily responsible for basic office management and the recruitment and training of new student assistants. Number One also assists the archivist in supervision and performance evaluations. They also chair the archives’ biweekly staff meetings, including the preparation of agendas and minutes. Most Number Ones serve for one to two years until they graduate.
I do not hire archives student assistants. They hire themselves in a process modeled after professional staff recruitment and hiring at NMU. Generally, the archives hires one or two new student assistants at the beginning of each academic year, depending upon how many graduated or left service the previous spring. Number One forms a “Search Committee,” comprised of Number One as chair and usually two other student assistants. The search committee writes the position announcements (based on the position descriptions), conducts publicity, manages the incoming applications, and conducts interviews. Number One submits to me a written recommendation ranking the applicants. Unless I see something glaringly wrong, I generally “rubber stamp” the search committee’s recommendation.
The search committee makes every effort to recruit a diverse workforce but struggles because of the small number of students of color at NMU. For example, NMU currently has only 150 students identified as African-American, barely 2 percent of the undergraduate population. Regardless, the current staff does include one African-American student assistant, Kyleigh Sapp, who recently gave an outstanding Evening at the Archives presentation on the history of black student protest on campus for Black History Month.
Once hired, new student assistants begin a six month “probationary period.” Number One conducts basic training in reading room procedures and file management. I introduce and train the new assistants in basic reference, accessioning, and arrangement and description work. The training includes an initial presentation, selected readings, one-on-one guidance, and practical exercises that culminate in a final project.
During new student assistant training, I develop a better understanding of each student’s personal and professional goals and abilities. This knowledge helps me identify the area of archival work best suited to them. I assign each student assistant a “specialization” in accessioning, arrangement and description, reference/reading room, or digitization and web site design. Each student assistant receives a formal title, such as arrangement and description specialist, reference and reading room coordinator, or digitization specialist. These titles look much more impressive on a resume than the simple and colorless, “Archives Student Assistant.” Number One adds each student assistant’s picture, title, and a very brief biographical statement to the staff page on the Archives web site.
As paraprofessionals, the student assistants are fully integrated into the management and operations of the archives. Aside from their area of specialization, each student assistant participates in bi-weekly staff meetings, where they report on the progress of their assignments and contribute to decisions on policies and procedures. Student assistants also participate in public outreach by contributing to social media posts, writing blog posts (The Northern Tradition), creating online exhibitions, and giving public presentations. If a student assistant has an idea for improving a policy or procedure, nine times out of ten I will try the idea. Sometimes the idea fails, but we always review what went wrong and try to learn from the experience.
NMU Archives student assistants receive a formal, in-person and written evaluation at the end of each semester. If serious difficulties develop, I may call for a mid-semester evaluation or initiate the established Disciplinary Actions Procedure. At the end of each semester, each student assistant has the opportunity to submit to Number One a confidential written evaluation of myself. They may also submit to me a confidential written evaluation of Number One. Number One and I review my evaluations, and Number One responds with an email summarizing how I will do my best to address any problems. I want the student assistants to know that I have honestly read and considered their evaluations of me. Over the years, I have found the student assistants’ evaluations of me to be extremely helpful and include them in my professional annual evaluations.
A carefully defined and structured evaluation process is essential for a successful student assistant, paraprofessional program. Archivists lacking in supervisory training and experience may find it difficult to work with student paraprofessionals. For the most part, undergraduates require a heightened level of supervision and guidance that can be a time-consuming distraction for a lone arranger facing multiple demands and responsibilities. In general, an undergraduate’s developing maturity and emerging self-confidence can result in frequent mistakes and difficulties dealing with challenging patrons or overbearing faculty. Undergraduates are still developing their problem-solving skills. Sometimes, their earnestness to please and do well will cause them to make decisions or take actions “beyond their paygrade” that can cause real havoc. In my experience, fortunately, I have found these problems to be manageable and infrequent. In fact, I have only implemented the Archives’ disciplinary procedure twice in my career at NMU.
The advantages of a paraprofessional, student assistant program far outweigh the disadvantages, and these advantages accrue to the students as well as to the archives. As college and university archivists, we have a responsibility to support and enhance our undergraduates’ education. The NMU Archives provides each student assistant with a unique experiential learning opportunity and the experience necessary to compete for post-graduate professional jobs and graduate school applications. NMU Archives student assistants have conducted digitization projects and created the digital object metadata for ArchivesSpace; they have designed and created web sites and online exhibitions; conducted public presentations; and created DACS-compliant collection finding aids. Although NMU does not have a graduate archival program, five former student assistants are now professional archivists and records managers. Two others have completed their PhDs in history; one is a PhD microbiologist; one is ABD in linguistic anthropology; and another is ABD in Medieval literature. The remainder have gone on to successful professional careers related to their major degree program.
The Archives student assistant program did not spring to life overnight according to a well-defined blueprint. It was a collaborative effort between me and the student assistants that, for the most part, was a halting, piecemeal process of trial and error.
Naturally, all archival programs should be fully staffed by professionally trained archivists. One should not misconstrue the NMU Archives’ student assistant program as evidence to support staffing cutbacks, or as an excuse for administrations to continue their exploitation of adjunct faculty and part-time staff. For the struggling college or university lone arranger, however, the program’s success provides a possible solution to the problem of meager budgets and burgeoning demand for archival resources and services. Archivists in higher education are fortunate to have at their disposal a ready crop of inexpensive, smart, skillful, and highly motivated undergraduate students. To reap the benefits of this harvest, all we have to do is acknowledge and treat our student assistants with the respect they deserve as paraprofessionals. With just a bit of effort, an enterprising lone arranger can identify and mold these young people into effective and productive staff members.
 Barbara L. Floyd and Richard W. Oram, “Learning by Doing: Undergraduates as Employees in Archives,” The American Archivist 55 (Summer, 1992): 440-452.
Marcus Robyns is professor and University Archivist at Northern Michigan University. He worked professionally in Texas and Oregon before landing at NMU in 1997. Marcus is the author of numerous publications, including Functional Analysis in Archival Appraisal: A Practical and Effective Alternative to Traditional Appraisal Methodologies (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014) and is a former Regent for Exam Administration, Academy of Certified Archivists.
In 2014 a die-in happened at Kent State University. Black students laid outside of the university’s Student Center, in chalk outlines, some bearing signs “Hands Up Don’t Shoot,” to draw attention to the national protest and discourse surrounding the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. On November 9, 2015, university president Tim Wolfe resigned from Missouri University, in the aftermath of pleas to address growing racial tensions that resulted in a hunger strike by a graduate student and the threat of another strike by the university’s football team. In December 2016, a group of demonstrators was arrested at Michigan State University as they expressed opposition to the arrival of Milo Yiannopoulos, an author, who is widely known for his controversial views on a range of topics from social justice, to feminism, to the LGBTQIA community. More than a year later, on September 5, 2017, nearly one hundred students at Case Western Reserve University banded together to amplify their concerns on the repeal of the Dreamer’s Act (Deferred Actions for Childhood Arrivals), impacting hundreds of thousands of immigrants. These social movements stem from a long, storied tradition of activism on college and university campuses around the country that can be traced back hundreds of years in some instances. But are these narratives of student protests about marginalized and often oppressed communities being routinely archived as part of the responsibilities of university archivists in the tradition of capturing and preserving the entire narrative of our academic institutions?
In the fall of 2016, I contacted Tamar Chute, the university archivist at Ohio State University. The goal was to make sure this idea wasn’t crazy and to flesh out an effort to centralize access to these narratives taking place throughout our nation’s academic organizations. One objective was to learn what types of challenges and successes academic repositories were facing in archiving the voices of students who remain in the margins, from Chicano/a, African American, Native American, differently abled, LGBTQIA, ethnic minorities, Latino/a, etc., and other historically marginalized groups. Chute and I discussed the potential benefit of a collaborative tool that could help fellow professionals build relationships with student organizations where none existed, as student organizations are often the custodians of such records. We also acknowledged that creating a tool to bring together resources held at institutions across geographical regions will elevate our resources and potentially drive more traffic to digital and analog collections that may currently be underutilized. In June of 2017, Project STAND (Student Activism Now Documented) was officially launched to address these questions and create a collaborative of folks ready to highlight their work, interrogate archival practices, pose ethical issues, and build a resource illuminating projects and collections on the frontlines.
Project STAND is an online clearinghouse where academic institutions can provide researchers a centralized access point to historical and archival documentation on the development and on-going occurrences of student dissent. Project STAND focuses on digital and analog primary sources that document the activities of student groups that represent the concerns of historically marginalized communities (e.g., African American, Chicano/a, LGBTQ, religious minorities, disabled, etc.). STAND will also highlight the work of others (e.g., faculty, staff, and administrators) who advocate for or support the interests of those communities.
The project was initially Ohio-based and partially inspired by the Black Metropolis Research Consortium (BMRC) due to its data collection tools, but quickly began to incorporate institutions outside the state. This initiative now includes 40 participating institutions including Arizona State, AUC Woodruff Library, Chicago State, Cincinnati, Bowling Green, Jackson State, Kent State, Miami University, Michigan State, Purdue, University of Iowa, South Carolina State, Wright State, University of Akron, University of California San Diego, and University of Rhode Island.
Participants complete a collection assessment sharing information on holdings that meet STAND’s objectives. So far, close to 200 surveys have been completed, and the early data shows 20 percent of the responses represent collections from 2000-present, while records that center on the LGBTQ community, religious minorities, Native Americans, and Disabled Rights are underrepresented. The project aims to continue building partnerships throughout 2018 with symposia and updates through STAND’s website. As we continue to drill down into the data submitted by participants, we seek to get a stronger image of student activism surrounding historically oppressed communities across geographical locations, and to not only interrogate our practices as archivists documenting more contemporary narratives, but also to ensure we have captured the social movements of our past.
This effort is emerging at a time when many organizations and scholars are making efforts to do a deep-dive into this area through expanding the scope of their collection development areas, digital initiatives, and exhibits, like Kent State’s Black Campus Movement Project, a collection development initiative to engage in outreach with alumni and current students to capture the history of black student activism, and eventually serve as a model to acquire records pertaining to other disenfranchised student populations, Princeton’s ASAP project capturing the activism of Princetonians on and off-campus, to UC San Diego’s How UC It: Living Archive, “an alternative way to highlight awareness, provide a space for dialogue, preserve and document events that have affected the UCSD campus climate socially and/or incidents that have targeted specific underrepresented group.” Groups such as the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) even hosted an online forum in January entitled A History of Student Activism.
STAND is providing a platform that will elevate collections addressing the growing needs of faculty, students, researchers, community members, and various stakeholders interested in the complex and richly diverse voices of their academic institutions. We are also creating a network of professionals who acknowledge and accept the challenge and rewards of documenting communities that are often forgotten but critical to unpacking and understanding our institutions and communities in which they reside. If you are interested in these issues, we would love to have you join us. Please send inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lae’l Hughes-Watkins is the University Archivist, Assistant Professor at Kent State University. She is the founder of Project STAND and holds a position on SAA’s Appointments Committee. She holds an M.A in English from Youngstown State University and an MLIS from Kent State.
At our last Steering Committee meeting, we discussed several ideas for section projects that we can make progress on in the next several months before our section meeting in August (thanks to those of you who responded to our request for input). We’ve narrowed it down to three broad ideas:
Encourage folks who successfully manage student workers, or who have recently completed an interested project as a student worker, to write blog posts or Campus Case Studies. (Steering Committee members are happy to review Campus Case Studies in advance for authors who are current or recent student workers.)
Create a bibliography of readings for orienting student workers to archival work.
Create a literature review on topics related to student workers in archives.
There was interest from the Steering Committee, and from the membership, in sharing policy and procedure documents. However, many sections have already created individual sites for these types of documents, and we’ve contacted SAA about the possibility of creating an organization-wide site for these materials.
We are hoping to start on our section projects in the near future, but we welcome additional project ideas from members. Please share them with us soon!
During our same meeting, we also discussed options for programming during our section meeting time at SAA. Although we didn’t come up with any specific recommendations, we see two possible directions:
Invite section members who have done innovative work around the topic of student workers in college and university archives
Invite speakers who can offer a different perspective on student workers in college and university archives, such as:
Current or recently graduated student workers
K-12 archivists, who see our students before they get to college
Career Services and HR staff, who have expertise in hiring and career readiness
We welcome your feedback on which direction to go in for our section meeting–or even a totally different direction!–as well as nominations for specific speakers to invite.
Please join in the discussion in one of the following ways:
Rebecca Goldman is the College Archivist at Wellesley College. She holds a MSLIS from Drexel University and a BA in linguistics from Swarthmore College, and recently earned her MA in Public History from La Salle University. She currently serves as chair of the College and University Archives Section.
At our last meeting, the College and University Archives Section decided to focus on the theme of student workers for 2017-2018. We’re in the process of coming up with new projects for this year and an agenda for our in-person meeting at the 2018 SAA conference in D.C.
We chose this theme for a couple of reasons. It expands on my personal interest in new professionals in archives. Our student workers are all future new professionals–and most of them won’t stay in the archives field after they graduate. How can archival work as an undergraduate help prepare them for other careers? We also hoped that this topic would be relevant to academic archives in all environments, not just large research universities or well-funded institutions. Repositories of all sizes rely on student workers for a variety of archival tasks. We have a lot to learn from each other.
Before our next Steering Committee meeting on February 1, we welcome your ideas and feedback. If you’re a current or former archives student worker, we especially hope to hear from you!
Please join in the discussion in one of the following ways:
To get you started, here are some focusing questions, and some feedback that we received from members last year when we proposed our student worker theme:
What knowledge can college and university archivists share with each other related to student workers?
What actions can we take as a section to benefit our home institutions and our student workers?
What resources, within and beyond the archives profession, should we be aware of?
What issues should we consider as we move forward?
How can we center student workers in this conversation, and highlight their accomplishments, without asking them for unpaid labor?
How can we use our SAA meeting time to move our work forward?
Address issues of student labor and economic justice in the context of the corporate university.
I especially like the idea about “how archival work can help prepare students for careers outside of archives”. I find the whole discussion about Archival Literacy Competencies and Teaching with Primary Sources in SAA very useful, not only for history students but for our student workers too. In addition, I hope we will be able to have some feedback on the problems that might come up with regard to archival policies (issue of confidentiality, excessive use of social media while at work, etc.).
I would love to share with many of my colleagues just what it is that archives students do across the spectrum of universities and colleges (each time I mention my experience from 10+ years ago, I think they think it is just me and not an experience shared by many students in archives across the years).
I think it’s really important to address the gig economy and its implications for work in this field.
Two issues leap immediately to mind:
The practice of using underpaid or volunteer workers, as well as interns and library assistants — and, of course, student workers — as substitutes for professional archivists
The increasing “adjunctification” of the archival profession that the next generation of archivists will be facing, and that this generation is already enduring, where archivists live (and often move) from gig to gig, and where all too often temporary/short-term jobs translate not into permanent jobs after one has “paid one’s dues,” but rather into, at best, a string of renewals. There are so many problems with this model, not least among them the inhibition of people’s chances to request decent pay and raises or to build careers. Students should be well aware of what they may be getting into, because I don’t think archives education programs stress anywhere near enough how many people are unable to find decent, long-term professional jobs …
Have people successfully (or unsuccessfully) involved students in a “snazzy” (untraditional) side of archives; i.e. working on cool exhibits (interactive); working on DH or game-based learning programs or apps, etc.; outreach to communities; programming? Things that make you go “wow!” How about in lone arranger settings?
As a current Student Assistant working in special collections/archives, I appreciate the Steering Committee’s focus this year. All of the ideas are great and would be relevant to the work I’m doing now and the questions I encounter. I especially like the idea of the Campus Case Studies because I’m sure we’re all doing some fascinating work. One topic that may be of interest is how student assistants can help encourage fellow students to utilize the archive or special collection. It seems in my institution, at least, the Special Collections department is one of the best kept secrets in the library. It does, however, have a lot of information that could be useful to student researchers. As peers, I think we have a unique opportunity to generate interest in our collections among students.
Rebecca Goldman is the College Archivist at Wellesley College. She holds a MSLIS from Drexel University and a BA in linguistics from Swarthmore College. She currently serves as chair of the College and University Archives Section.
As you can imagine, when an undergraduate liberal arts institution like Union College is more than 200 years old, it generates and receives an astonishing amount of information about its alumni: newspaper clippings, notes, letters, and ephemera related to centuries of graduates.
In an attempt to maintain active relationships with its alumni, Union’s College Relations department established a series of alumni files. Several decades ago, files dating from 1795 to 1929 were transferred to the Schaffer Library’s Special Collections and Archives department for research purposes and safekeeping (the materials are currently stored in a secured climate controlled environment).
The files are a rich and valuable resource for documenting the history of Union College, and Special Collections receives frequent requests from students, faculty, and researchers who seek information pertaining to its alumni.
When I arrived as head of Special Collections & Archives in 2014, the alumni files were stored on shelves in the library’s basement. This arrangement meant that student workers and library staff descended three flights of stairs to pull files. Aside from the amount of time it took to retrieve and return the files, frequent handling put the materials at risk for damage. I immediately recognized the need to relocate the alumni files into the Special Collections & Archives department and began developing a way to scan the contents of each folder for long term preservation and access.
Union College is like most small undergraduate liberal arts institutions: we currently lack a sophisticated digital lab and have limited resources for outsourcing large digital scanning projects. So I determined that the best way to tackle scanning hundreds of alumni files would be to utilize student workers. In 2015, through a generous bequest, the library acquired a Zeutschel OS12002 overhead scanner. The Zeutschel makes it possible to customize scanning settings, which allowed us to streamline the digitization process. This feature also allows students to be quickly trained to scan the alumni files using basic Photoshop commands.
In order to capture the necessary metadata, Special Collections & Archives collaborated with the Technical Services department to create protocols for assigning numbers for each item within a folder. The metadata naming schema uses the surname and first initial of the alum (as shown in image at right).
Training The Technical Services department trains students on how to use the Zeutschel. The Special Collections & Archives staff also train students on handling and handwriting the metadata (using a #2 pencil) on each document. More experienced students have also acted as trainers by teaching each other how to scan and code the documents. So far, the students have successfully scanned folders dating from 1795 to 1866.
It turns out that the more recent folders require additional time to complete, as they contain more information. This has slowed the pace of scanning considerably.
As students graduate, it’s imperative that the Special Collections & Archives department hire new student workers each year and provide training in order to continue the project.
Folders post-1900 are likely to contain confidential information since the College Relations department began sending questionnaires to alumni. These questionnaires requested information about their personal lives (names and birthdates of children, home addresses, etc.). Therefore, it may be necessary to restrict post-1900 alumni files because of confidentiality concerns.
As of this writing, scanned alumni files are only accessible via an in-house server. Special Collections & Archives staff are authorized to reference these files for researchers. Patrons may receive copies of the digitized files upon request. The Schaffer Library recently launched an institutional repository called Union Digital Works. This platform will likely serve as the online access point for digitized alumni files. Once online, researchers will have full access to the pre-1900 alumni files via the internet.
Student worker Anouk, poses next to the scanner.
Anouk works with the Zeutschel scanner
Anouk makes an adjustment on the Zeutschel scanner.
Student engagement While the coding and scanning process can be tedious, students have surprisingly embraced these tasks. More than once, they have commented that coding and digitizing the documents provides an opportunity to listen to music on their headphones, relax, and escape their rigorous schedules.
Anouk, a senior majoring in environmental sciences, has worked on the project for two years. I asked her what she likes about coding and scanning the documents. She responded that she felt a sense of ownership of the project and commented that the project has taught her a great deal about the history of Union College and the importance of preserving historical documents for the future.
Quality assurance (QA) The student work is overseen and checked by an Archives Assistant. This includes retrieving the saved digital files and spot checking everyone tenth one. Should a digital file need to be corrected or modified, the Archives Assistant consults with the student to fix the problem. Once QA is complete, the finished digital files are stored on a secured “Library dark archive” or L: drive while access copies are made available to authorized staff via the “Library preservation” or M: drive.
Preserving the originals After the folders are scanned and quality assurance is complete, they are filed in acid-free boxes for long-term storage. At the beginning of the project, we decided to keep the original manilla folders rather than re-house the documents into acid-free folders due to time and funding constraints.
Timeline and follow up Because scanning the alumni files is an in-house project, there is no set timeline for completion. However, the department dedicates several students each year to scan the files. The post-1929 alumni files continue to be stored at College Relations. As this phase of the scanning project moves toward completion, efforts will be made to reach out and acquire the more recent alumni files for scanning and long-term storage.
Conclusion While this project not only preserves the alumni files, it has also made it possible to eventually make the alumni files virtually accessible to researchers worldwide. By incorporating student workers into the process, the project has been able to move forward because of their enthusiasm and dedication. The students have also embraced the opportunity to work with historical documents and learn about Union College’s unique history while acquiring new technical skills that will serve them in the future.
India Spartz is the Head of Special Collections and Archives at Union College in Schenectady, NY. She holds an B.A. from the University of Alaska (her home state), MLIS from UC Berkeley, and M.A. in Museum Studies from the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. She’s a member of the Academy of Certified Archivists and serves on SAA’s College & University Archives Steering Committee.
This blog post is drawn from one case study shared during a talk given at the 2017 SAA annual conference during Session 106 Active Learning for Archival Institutions: From Theory to Practice. Coincidently, as it relates to immigration it also ties in nicely to the last post Meet Your Vice-Chair: Ellen Engseth.
While I’ve been a full-time staff member of the IU Archives for almost 10 years now, in the summer of 2015 I moved into the new position of Outreach and Public Services Archivist and was tasked with developing our instruction program. This year our program served over 1,100 students in 70 separate sessions in 21 departments.
Like most archivists, I received no formal training on instruction during library school. Admittedly, looking back at my very early forays in instruction around 2011 I am a little embarrassed. These were often very passive sessions for the students, with me lecturing and leaving them little opportunity to interact with our collections. Over the years my teaching has been heavily influenced by a couple of professional development opportunities including the 2012 Midwest Archives Conference Symposium – Engaging Students and Teachers: Integrating Primary Sources in Curricula (in particular a session on Primary Sources in the College Classroom with Peter Carini, Dartmouth College), and in 2016 the first Librarians Active Learning Institute for Archives and Special Collections (LALI-ASC) at Dartmouth College. Both emphasized the importance of integrating active-learning techniques into the classroom, and the power that a strong story can have as our brains are built to process information as narrative. Furthermore, learning is enhanced when that story is authentic and relatable to the learners’ life.
COLL-S103 – Becoming “American”: Immigration and American Literature Immediately following my return from LALI-ASC, a relatively new faculty member who was teaching an Intensive Freshman Seminar (IFS) course at Indiana University contacted me. IFS classes are two-week 3-credit classes intended to introduce “freshman to the rigors of college life” two weeks prior to the start of fall semester. IFS classes typically enroll about 20 students. While planning the instruction session the professor noted that he anticipated the course would attract a large percentage of international students, and this may be their first time in the United States. Ultimately, we choose to target three learning objectives from the ACRL RBMS – SAA Joint Task Forces – Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy:
that students understand that they can “draw on primary sources to generate and refine research questions.” (I. Conceptualize; C.)
that students “recognize and understand the policies and procedures that affect access to primary sources” specifically in regards to handling and necessity for usage in a secure reading room (II. Find and Access; E. )
that students can “identify and communicate information found in primary sources, including summarizing the content of the source and identifying and reporting key components such as how it was created, by whom, when, and what it is.” (III. Read, Understand, Summarize; B.)
Using a flipped classroom model to free up in-class time at the archives for active-learning activities, prior to their visit to the IU Archives the students were assigned to read this letter written in September 1940, by then IU student Charlotte (Lotte) Lederer, a Viennese Jewish refugee to the IU President and Board of Trustees. In the letter, she thanks the Trustees for supporting her studies, talks about her upbringing and about how her parents wanted an education for her equal to that of her brother, the start of the war, and her father’s support of the ill-fated Austrian government. She also goes on to mention that she recently applied for her first citizenship papers and hopes to always live in Indiana. Today’s readers are left with a LOT of hanging questions, which are perfect for demonstrating the above learning objectives. Prior to class, the students are simply asked to come prepared with a list of questions they have about the letter.
During their 90-minute session at the archives, as a group we first compile a list of questions: Did she graduate? Was she Jewish? What happened to her family? Based upon inflation, what would the cost of tuition be compared to that of today? Etc. I use this letter with multiple classes, and based upon their backgrounds the students ask different things and always add questions that I have yet to consider. I use this as an opportunity to share with students the number of directions that a single primary source can take them.
The students are then divided into 6 groups for a think-pair-share activity featuring other documents that fill in details of Ms. Lederer’s life and answer some of the questions they have generated. Included are a New York passenger ship log found through Ancestry.com, a dormitory scrapbook, newspaper clippings about a student refugee committee on campus, a wedding announcement found in the President’s office records, and a letter to the Alumni Association written while she was working as a classification analyst at the Pentagon. Students are then asked to fill out a simple worksheet answering questions such as What is it? When was it made? Where was it made? Who made it and why? What part of Lotte’s story does your item fill in? And does it raise any new questions? Then as a group, I ask the students to report back in a certain order on their documents so as to continue the suspense of the narrative for a while longer.
For the second half of the session, in order to reinforce these new skills I pull out another group of items from our collection that are completely unrelated to the Lederer story. For example, oral history interviews from Indiana immigrant communities, records from the Cosmopolitan Club, an early student group formed to support international students, examples of Polish ethnic jokes from the Folklore Institute student papers, and photos and notebooks from our Charles Cushman collection of a Polish Independence Day parade in Chicago in the 1940s. Again in pairs the students work through a similar set of questions as with the Lederer activity (What is it? Who made it? And finally – what’s one question that you have?). The students then come back together as a group to share their findings with their classmates. I also remind them that now they have each generated a research question that they could further develop into a project.
Offered again this fall, a second iteration of this course was expanded into a full sixteen-week course. With each, the professor shared that many of the students expressed that the Charlotte Lederer activity really resonated with them, in particular because she was a college student at Indiana University such as themselves. There is something quite powerful when you can use historical documents which refer to places and spaces intimately familiar to students.
To conclude, I will admit that it took a good amount of time (multiple hours) to develop this activity, most of the time going towards doing the research to find the pieces of Charlotte’s story that were present in our collection. This process actually proves helpful during the instruction session however, as I can share with the students my own research hurdles in an authentic way.
Furthermore, I certainly can’t create a new exercise like this for every instruction session that I teach. This one exercise is quite adaptable for a range of learning objectives and subjects. I use this letter for classes in the History department, Gender Studies, and even recently a School of Education Social Studies for Elementary Schools class. The key is finding an engaging document, which raises a TON of questions. Perhaps it relates to a local mystery, or scandal, or simply something that will draw an emotional response – every archive has that!
Are you wondering how to find engaging documents for use in instruction? Just keep an eye out for ideas while providing reference services, processing new collections, or looking for social media content. My position involves doing a ton of reference so when I run across something interesting that makes me ask questions, I make a quick photocopy and add it to my file of instruction ideas.
If you would like to know more about Charlotte Lederer’s story, see this post at the IU Archives’ Blogging Hoosier History.
Carrie Schwier is the Outreach and Public Services Archivist at the Indiana University Archives. In addition to instruction, she also manages public services, oversees exhibits and outreach initiatives, and supervises lots of graduate students. She holds an M.A. in Art History and M.L.S. with Archives Specialization from Indiana University, and a B.A. from Hanover College.