This piece is a companion to Cat Phan’s previous post describing the creation of the Student Historian in Residence position at the University of Wisconsin Archives.
My name is Rena Yehuda Newman (they/them), the Student Historian in Residence at the University of Wisconsin (UW) Archives for the 2018-2019 school year. The Student Historian position has now completed its pilot year, open and full of possibility. What began as an undergraduate research opportunity expanded into a project that not only reflects on history but turns forward to the future, integrating modern outreach and collection projects into the work of creating student memory.
I’m a history student going into my senior year at UW-Madison. My work at the University Archives began in July 2018, fresh to the world of archives and deep-diving research. For me, this was my first experience with long term research, beyond a short paper or a couple brief sessions with primary source materials in a reading room. Though my research would unfold in unexpected directions, I had set out intending to study student activism during the Vietnam War era, focusing on the anti-racist organizing efforts of the late 1960s, like the Black Student Strike. With eight to ten hours a week in the archives, I had the chance to wander down rabbit holes and find myself in a wonderful, spinning universe of secret doors and unopened boxes. By October I had my land legs and adventurer’s tools; I was totally submerged in the archives, sailing paper seas.
During my time in this position, I researched the Black Student Strike of 1969, one of the most major (and arguably most successful) student protest movements of the sixties, where a core group of black student organizers mobilized thousands of UW students to fight for the creation of a Black Studies Department, one of their “13 Demands” for racial justice at UW. This study culminated in a research paper and a teaching kit commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the movement, part of a collaborative celebration event between the University Archives, University Communications, and the Black Cultural Center. Along the way I also stumbled upon several unresearched folders and boxes, including a set of materials about Educational Policy Studies 900, an entirely student-led course run concurrently to the Black Student Strike. In the second semester of its offering, the class had over five hundred students enrolled and had to be capped, lest the class accumulate a thousand. All of these subjects created opportunities for reflection and reckoning, both personal and public.
Inspired by all of these student organizers, I became determined to make my historical work face forward. While the University Archives is a source for learning about past activism, it is also filled with gaps and omissions of voices from the student organizers themselves; without these stories, student organizers of today are at a loss for their context. Looking around at the modern campus climate, I wanted to make sure that today’s change-making students would be able to speak for themselves. Learning to see students from the 1960s as historical subjects taught me that in 2019 we are historical subjects too. So how can the archives collect these stories? Documentation defends against erasure: I don’t want administrators telling our stories when we have the power to write our own.
In the spring, I began an oral history project to collect the stories of my peers — modern student activists addressing food and housing insecurity, racism, accessibility, trans rights, and more on campus from 2016-2019. Being a student paid to do archival work situates me in a special location which obligates me to both document and honor the work of my peers, preserving campus memory through their lived experiences on their own terms while also engaging in peer-education about the meaning and power of archives. Like any other public job, the Student Historian position is a great privilege and a great responsibility. The Student Historian should serve the student body, working with peers to preserve student memory.
University archives can and should fund paid positions for student historians and archivists, especially for undergraduates. Student staff are uniquely positioned to build trust and create lasting bonds between archives and the student community around them, engaging in relevant research, teaching other students to think of themselves as historical subjects, and collecting contemporary stories. Who is filling these positions also matters. Bearing equity in mind during position advertising and recruitment processes means hiring students holding marginalized identities who will bring unique, necessary perspectives to the work.
I am so grateful for the opportunity to have held the position of Student Historian in Residence. I learned deeply from the staff, from the materials, from my peers. As this position grows from grant funding to a more institutionally supported structure, backed by the UW General Library System, I hope that this position will continue to provide impactful opportunities for future scholars and activists, creating a long line of Student Historians (maybe even a cohort!) at UW-Madison, inspiring similar programs at schools across the country. May this memory-work find its way beyond the walls of the archives and into the minds and memories of students on this campus and beyond. We are historical subjects — let’s act like it and document the meaning along the way.
The University Archives at the University of Wisconsin-Madison just completed the pilot year of its Student Historian in Residence program this summer. This program is designed to provide the opportunity for one undergraduate student to join the staff of University Archives for an academic year and undertake a significant research project related to university history focusing on under-researched and underrepresented stories and communities on campus. As part of their responsibilities, the Student Historian is also expected to engage in outreach activities, promoting their discoveries and the collections and sharing the outcome of their research in one or more ways.
The program started as a simple idea conceived to take advantage of a funding opportunity. The UW-Madison General Library System was inviting all library units to submit proposals for the new Innovation Fund, a program “to financially support the most promising innovative ideas proposed by library staff across the General Library System.” So, we in the University Archives proposed and were awarded pilot funding for a new student staff position, the Student Historian in Residence. The idea was straightforward: provide a paid opportunity to a student to undertake research in our archives collections on a topic related to campus history, focusing on underrepresented campus stories. We modeled the position after similar programs at other institutions as an intense weeks-long limited term research project, and our goals were simple: bring students into the archives to do research and learn more about previously overlooked aspects of campus history.
We posted for the position, leaving it open to both undergraduate and graduate students. Out of a healthy applicant pool, we hired Rena Yehuda Newman, an undergraduate history major entering their junior year. We structured Rena’s work first by onboarding them to the University Archives and archives in general, selecting readings and pulling targeted collections around their interest area, student activism. We set up one-on-one meetings for Rena to meet and get to know the rest of the University Archives staff and also set up a weekly check-in meeting for Rena and me, as their direct supervisor. As we got to laying out a tentative plan and target milestone deadlines for their project, we quickly realized that the original idea of several intense weeks was not suited for an undergraduate student. Rena had a packed class schedule, among other obligations. We had to readjust the work to be fewer hours per week, over a longer period of time. It was something we would have to do all year long: adjust, pivot, and accelerate in a different direction.
Rena’s list of accomplishments during the year is long and impressive. They regularly contributed to our UW-Madison Archives Tumblr feed, notching ten blog entries; they wrote a research paper; presented on their work and their research at least five times across campus, including a guest lecture to their undergraduate peers in a Civil Society and Community Studies class; produced a primary resource teaching guide around the UW-Madison Black Student Strike of 1969 (a version of which will soon be submitted as a resource to Wisconsin OER Commons); presented a poster at the Midwest Archives Conference (and was selected as one of the top three scoring posters!); created a zine “What is an Archive?”; and undertook collecting some oral histories of contemporary student activism on campus. The position and Rena have been, without a doubt, an amazing success.
As we take the time to reflect now, there are many things that we learned over the past year that will help us structure the program moving forward. First and foremost, we realize this should be defined as an undergraduate position. Although left undefined in the pilot year, having hired an undergraduate student as our inaugural Student Historian, we witnessed the impact of empowering and trusting undergraduate students to play an integral role in researching and telling university stories. Moreover, few opportunities for archival and secondary source research exist for undergraduates. This position will likely be their first opportunity to engage in primary source research and to conceive of and complete a public history project. In this way, we contribute to introducing undergraduates to the archives and helping them understand their place in university history.
As mentioned above, we modified the structure of the position on the fly, changing it from a weeks-long project position to an academic year position, with Rena working many fewer hours per week than we had originally envisioned. This works best for undergraduates during the academic year, who often have limited hours per week to balance with a busy class schedule. In addition, we found it best to give the student more time to orient themselves and learn about the University Archives and archives in general. The longer time period also allows the student to get to know both full-time and student staff at the archives, an integral aspect of the experience. Moving forward, the general framework for the year will be 1) onboarding and orientation, 2) research, likely over the first semester, and 3) a writing/presenting and outreach focus during semester two.
We now know how important it is to devote a significant amount of time to properly onboard. While Rena had some familiarity with the archives, having had a class assignment that brought them into a reading room, they still needed time to learn more deeply about archives, what they are, and what they can mean to students in order to understand the goals of the position. It would also be worth spending time integrating the student into the other work of the archives, meeting the other student staff. Moreover, Rena unexpectedly launched into many outreach activities over the course of the year and effectively became a University Archives student ambassador to their peers. In thinking back, how would we want to prepare the student to be an archives ambassador? What should they know about archives, specifically about the University Archives collections, about what and how we accept and collect materials-(Rena brought donation ideas many times!)? Could we make our collection development and donation procedures easier for undergraduate students to understand? Moreover, Rena’s outreach work made us re-think what this position could and should be. We witnessed the impact of peer-to-peer outreach and education. In their final reflection piece, Rena wrote that they believed the position should be thought of more as a “public office” rather than strictly a research position. The position’s platform and power, they felt, gave them a responsibility to serve the student body by engaging in community outreach and educational activities.
There are also many challenges that we will continue to think through as we develop the program. For example, how do we provide a consistent framework, structure, and expectations for a position that will necessarily be defined by the individual who occupies it, with their own interests, experiences, and abilities? Also, we had many, many conversations with Rena on how their own identity impacted the work and research they were doing and can’t emphasize enough how important it is to hire students with perspectives from underrepresented communities on campus. We have not previously reached out to the black, indigenous, and students of color of campus. How do we reach out to these communities responsibly and respectfully to ensure they are a part of defining the program? There’s a lot to think about as we move forward.
Finally, I’m happy to report that we applied for and were awarded a Kemper Knapp Bequest grant, a UW-Madison campus grant supporting projects that “have an impact on the educational and cultural life of the university community, particularly projects that benefit undergraduate students” to continue the program for another year. Moreover, we are working with the budget powers that be to develop what the funding would look like to support the program permanently through the General Library System budget.
We are excited to continue growing the Student Historian program and recognize that it is still in its early years. We’re grateful for the opportunity to share our experience and invite others to share their thoughts or experiences with similar programs.
Stay tuned as our next post will feature Rena’s perspective on their experience as the inaugural Student Historian in Residence.
Cat Phan has been the Digital and Media Archivist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison University Archives since December 2016, caring for and managing the image and audiovisual collections of the Archives and leading the development of the born-digital archiving program.
This blog post is drawn from presentations at the 2017 SAA Research Forum and the 2016 European Conference on Information Literacy.
I was intrigued by a question posted by Rebecca Goldman on the Academic Archivist blog to kick start this year’s focus on student workers: “How can we center student workers in this conversation and highlight their accomplishments?” I believe there are two different perspectives that can help answer this question, and that incorporating both perspectives provides the maximum impact towards highlighting student learning in the archives.
The first perspective is that of the student worker, a voice that can be difficult to capture. With that in mind, I designed a pilot study around semi-structured interviews with student workers who interacted with archival materials at work. The interviews included open-ended questions about working in academic libraries and self-perceptions of how their work aligned with professional standards and how they will use what they learned after graduation. While I won’t dive deep into that here (it will be published in the Fall/Winter 2018 American Archivist), I will address the second perspective to the question how we can highlight student learning and their accomplishments.
The second perspective that is equally important to capture is that of archivists (and supervisors). As the head of special collections and archives at a land grant university, I often considered how I could better communicate the department’s impact in the library, university, community, and beyond. One aspect of this was to look at student learning taking place on the job. How do archivists usually convey student success and learning while on the job? The first ways that came to mind were written (evaluations, annual reports, development newsletters, etc.) and verbal (in meetings, donor conversations, etc.). I also wanted to acknowledge the value that archivists bring to teaching and enhancing the student worker experience. Many times, archivists articulate this through evaluations and statistics for annual reports, considering questions such as:
How does the archives/library provide effective learning opportunities for students?
How does student learning align with our professional standards?
How does the academic library align with university learning standards and strategic planning/mission?
One way to consider how archivists communicate student learning and highlight their successes is through an exercise that maps student job responsibilities to professional standards and literacies. As part of the exercise, I mapped functions found in student job descriptions to a corresponding standard or literacy learning outcome. For example, student positions that were heavily involved with physical or digital exhibits mapped well to visual literacy standards; students heavily involved with processing or digitizing collections mapped well to the new primary source literacy standards. This exercise can be broad or narrow; I decided to map functions to both the overarching standard and when appropriate a learning outcome found underneath it. This mapping exercise provides supervisors with more cohesive language that exemplifies both the student learning experience and the archivists’ role in teaching students in the workplace. Table 1 below shows common job duties that can be found in many archives departments.
A second mapping exercise that I found helpful to articulate learning occurring while at work in the archives was to connect student job descriptions and functions to campus learning outcomes. I found this exercise was effective in communicating with internal and external stakeholders and that I was better able to advocate for additional student opportunities. Academic courses taught at colleges/universities typically include specific learning outcomes for the course that align to campus learning outcomes. While not quite the same, one way to communicate student learning while at work in the archives is to utilize the same language. By making similar connections between learning in the classroom to campus learning outcomes, archivists can connect what students are learning at work to the same campus goals and speak the same language as other academic departments (see an example in Table 2 below). By placing student learning into broader competencies outside of professional standards and literacies, this information can be used by archives and library administrators to communicate the impact on student learning for annual statistics, reports, and accreditation reviews.
By reframing and aligning activities of student workers to professional standards, literacies, and campus learning outcomes, archivists can highlight student accomplishments and the value of archivists in a teaching role. Mapping student worker functions is one way to help archivists strategically communicate impacts on learning while working in the archives to our stakeholders at all levels, whether the position is paid, volunteer, or intern. The mapping exercise serves as a helpful tool for administrators to advocate for how the archives or library contributes to campus-wide learning outcomes, as well as help improve the student worker experience.
Erin Passehl-Stoddart is the Strategic Projects and Grants Development Librarian at the University of Oregon. She previously was Associate Professor and Head of Special Collections and Archives at the University of Idaho. She holds an MSI with a specialization in archives and records management from the University of Michigan and a BA in history and political science from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Erin is a past president of Northwest Archivists and served as SAA key contact for Oregon and Idaho.
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.
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.