Seeking Input: How Should the Section Act Upon a Theme of Student Workers in the Archives?

By Rebecca Goldman

A student in the archives. Image courtesy Georgia State University Library.

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:

  • Comment on this post
  • Reply to the discussion on the C&UA listserv
  • Email the Steering Committee
  • Email me directly

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?


  1. Address issues of student labor and economic justice in the context of the corporate university.
  2. 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.).
  3. 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).
  4. 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:

    1. 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
    2. 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 …
  5. 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?
  6. 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.


4 thoughts on “Seeking Input: How Should the Section Act Upon a Theme of Student Workers in the Archives?

  1. I would LOVE to hear more about what work student assistants are doing across different campuses/institutions–I didn’t really get to work in the archives as a student assistant myself (undergrad I didn’t qualify for work-study, grad school I worked & had internships in non-academic institutions), and coming into it as a professional I’m sometimes amazed at what students are expected to do in my current workplace (see: substitutes for professional archivists). I’m very interested in hearing more about how other colleges and universities employ their student assistants and what work they do, particularly in the realm of processing/arrangement and description/creating finding aids in archives and special collections settings.


    1. Hi Marcella,

      I’m also excited to learn more about what student workers are doing at other institutions. In my last job, the archives was also responsible for digitization, so our student workers often did scanning or OCR correction. In my current job, another department handles digitization, so our student workers assist more with processing and supervising the reading room.



  2. All interesting topics for discussion. A few years ago NARA had to abandon its extant student worker program and the current one has far fewer students. While NARA is subject to guidelines that don’t apply to C&UAs, there are lessons to be learned re how not to employ students.


    1. Hi Daria,

      I hope we’ll hear both success stories and cautionary tales from our members. Do you have any lessons you can share from your NARA experience?



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