By Kyle Neill
Between intimidating backlogs, student researchers, genealogists, accommodating classes, and balancing administration requests, archivists have a lot to keep pace with. As the majority of archival institutions are of the “small shop” variety—archives hosting one or two professional archivists, usually in the academic field—archivists are wearing more hats than ever before in the profession.1 For such an archivist, hosting an intern can be a major boon in regard to day-to-day operations. Apart from the benefit to smaller archives, interns themselves receive valuable insight into the archival profession for their own career path decision making, and that ever-important work experience necessary for gaining entry into the field.
Many archival internships, especially at larger institutions, constitute focused, project-based experiences. Interns are hired on for a set length of time or until project completion, often gaining the skills and experience related to the singular project: i.e. compiling data from a given collection into a reference resource or digitizing a collection at the request of a generous donor. These are valuable experiences but provide limited wholistic professional training that interns generally seek. A more general, survey approach may be of greater benefit to both smaller archives and interns themselves, however. Interns will gain archival management experience applicable broadly to the field, and the A*CENSUS II All Archivists Survey Report shows that professional archivists consider on-the-job training to be the most useful learning experience to an archivist, even more so than a graduate degree.1 Providing a general internship experience serves as an extremely effective way for interns to explore a career option in archives and prepare for further professional education via the MLIS.
At the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point, a reoccurring archival internship is offered on a semesterly basis and provides a rounded experience for curious or aspiring young archivists. By advertising open internships as career-focused, we attract candidates interested in exploring archives, or the information field broadly, as a potential career path. Most often, undergraduate history majors desire to explore history-related career paths apart from a K-12 teaching experience. “What can I do with my history degree besides teach?” they often ask. An internship in archives provides a world of answers to that common question.
The UWSP Archives partners with our Pathways Internship Program on campus, which provides funding to pay interns in proven high-impact internship positions. While it is a considerable benefit for internships to be paid experiences, many smaller archives lack a source of funding to do so. It is worthwhile to note that not all students can afford to work in unpaid internships, but do not think that you may only offer to train and educate aspiring archivists if you also have the ability to pay them. Hourly pay is nice, and should be provided if funding is available, but students are well aware that the experience will pay dividends in the future. Pay or no, internships are always worthwhile experiences.
A career-focused experience should be goal-oriented and reflect the day-to-day work that transpires at your institution. What activities do you spend most of your time on as an archivist? What fundamental knowledge is required to complete these activities? Most commonly, the answers to the former are reference, processing, and digitization. To the latter, a near universal requirement to accomplish any project in archives is: know the collection.
All archives have a collection scope. For some it’s as simple as collecting and preserving the history of their associated institution. Many collections are more nuanced. The first week or two of our interns’ experiences are aimed at learning our collection. What is the scope of our collection? How do we organize our collections? What does jargon like “collection,” “series,” “lot,” “letter,” or “legal” mean? What are specific collections most commonly used for? All these questions are answered for our interns during what we dub our “Archives Treasure Hunt,” a guided exploration of our collections in which interns learn about our organization structure, seek out specific items, and are challenged to ask questions about collections’ use. It is always one of the most exciting aspects of interns’ experiences. Think back to the first time you opened an archived collection or held a several-hundred-year-old book in your hands. Interns get to continuously experience that inspiring thrill of discovery all while learning about the basic nature of our particular archives.
Following a general introduction to our collection, internships then focus on the most common aspects of an archivist’s duties. Processing collections is an inevitability in each internship. Not only do we teach interns the basics of accessioning and appraisal, arrangement and description, and general preservation practices, most processing projects are quite time consuming and serve as convenient fallback activities when other circumstantial projects are not available.
Reference experience is also a core feature of our internships. Some archives accept researchers by appointment, others by walk-in. Though the former is easier to plan for your intern to shadow a reference consultation, if your intern is working on a processing project as their primary project it will be convenient to pause processing work when a patron walks in with a research question. Your intern might shadow the first few interactions providing reference services to patrons. Whether paging a specific collection, aiding with genealogical materials, or demonstrating a database, your intern will experience your attentiveness to the researcher’s questions and learn as you provide answers. During subsequent research visits, let your intern take the lead while you shadow, provide tips, and make yourself available for the inevitable questions that follow. Following this experience, you can further distance yourself from interactions and make known to your intern that you are available for any questions and advice they might (will) need. This approach to training an intern in professional reference services eases them into the experience while also challenging them to think critically about the process along the way. All the while increasing their own responsibility over the situation.
Digitization projects may be short and sweet or long-term internship projects. Key lessons should include user vs. preservation copies, the importance of file format and resolution, the benefits to access and preservation for a digitized collection, and the proper handling of materials when using scanning equipment. Keep in mind, there is a lot of depth to digital projects, but you are providing a cursory experience to an intern who is exploring the archives field. Let them learn about checksum processes, digital obsolescence prevention, and the importance of geographic separation in storage locations if they choose to pursue an MLIS. Such particulars are the realm of advanced education, not wholistic internship experiences.
Throughout the internship you want to ensure your intern is having an effective experience. It is helpful to provide your intern with learning outcomes at the onset of the internship so they have realistic expectations of what experience and skills they should be gaining. For a general internship, learning outcomes should be appropriately general: Gain practical archives management or patron research assistance experience, develop organizational skills or an attention to detail to complete archival projects, etc. Learning outcomes can be just specific enough to provide context to your intern. You should also have frequent, informal check-in meetings with your intern. Ask your intern how their current project is going, if they have any questions, what they are learning, and how they are applying what you have already discussed to their project. These brief meetings ensure the intern’s experience is staying on track.
Finally, do not let your mentorship and support end with the internship. Make yourself available to your former intern for advice. Be willing to share your own professional development experiences. Offer to serve as a reference and write letters of support. These activities help support your former intern as they pursue the path that you helped direct them on.
At the UWSP Archives, three of the five interns we have hosted using this format have gone on to pursue an MLIS to enter professional archival work. Only one knew prior to the internship that they wanted to become an archivist.
1 Makala Skinner and Ioana G. Hulbert, “A*CENSUS II All Archivists Survey Report,” Ithaka S+R, August 22, 2022 (https://sr.ithaka.org/publications/acensus-ii-all-archivists-survey-report/).
Kyle Neill is the Instruction and Digital Archivist and Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point Archives and Area Research Center. He earned his MLIS from the University of Wisconsin – Madison in 2018. Kyle’s work focuses on his students: teaching, leading internships, and mentoring future archivists. He is a member of the Midwest Archives Conference.