Developing and Maintaining a Student Assistant Program at Northern Michigan University

By Marcus C. Robyns, CA

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.[1] 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.

Number One
Number One, Stefan Nelson, at his desk. Stefan is a senior majoring in Wildlife Management. Image courtesy Marcus Robyns.

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.

Lydia
Lydia Henning working on book mending project. Lydia is a senior majoring in Spanish with a minor in Art and Design. Lydia is also responsible for maintain the Archives’ web site, designing online exhibitions, educational outreach publicity flyers. Image courtesy Marcus Robyns.

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.

Lucas
Lucas Knapp working on a reference query. Lucas is a junior majoring in Mathematics and Environmental Studies. Image courtesy Marcus Robyns.

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.

Libby
Libby Serra digitizing a collection of oral histories and creating ArchivesSpace digital object metadata. Libby is a junior majoring in Digital Cinema. Image courtesy Marcus Robyns.

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.

[1] 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.

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One thought on “Developing and Maintaining a Student Assistant Program at Northern Michigan University

  1. So exciting to hear about your student assistant programme! It sounds like it really works and you have a great system in place!

    Like

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