Student Experience Series: Sami Norling

This post is part of our Student Experience Series, which features current and former archives students as they reflect on graduate school, internships, and early career issues. If you would like to contribute a post for this series, please email me

Samantha (Sami) Norling is a graduate of the dual MA History/MLS program at Indiana University, Indianapolis. Originally from Minneapolis, MN, she attended American University in Washington, DC where she received a BA in American Studies. Sami has held the position of Archivist at the Indianapolis Museum of Art since January 2014.

1. What year will you graduate? 

August 2013

2. How did you end up in this field?

My original interest was in history museum collections, due to an internship at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum as an undergrad. When considering an MA in Museum Studies, I learned about the field of Public History, and dual degree programs with Library Science caught my attention. The flexibility of having the two degrees in a tough job market, and the range of experience/training the programs would provide made this option very appealing. Work experience in archives and the good fortune to have amazing archivist mentors solidified my desire to become an archivist.

3. What do you wish you had known before you started graduate school? 

Going into my dual program (which did not offer an archives specialization), it would have been nice to know that I was going to end up pursuing the field exclusively. This may have changed my decision to select that program. However, not having the specialty led me to pursue many other opportunities (archival internships and employment, Digital Archives Specialist courses, involvement in SAA, etc.) that I know without-a-doubt helped me to land my current job.

4. Did you have any experience in libraries or archives before you started graduate school?

Yes, and these experiences really helped to shape the course of my academic career. As an undergrad, I worked at the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry Museum and Library, first as a tour guide and then as a Museum Collections Assistant after graduation. In my time off between undergrad and grad school, I pursued an opportunity to be a PT Rare Books Cataloger at the Old Cathedral Library in Vincennes, IN. In the summer before I began my program at IU-Indy, I made the move to Indianapolis and began working PT as a Project Archivist at the Indiana Historical Society, and as a Graduate Assistant at my university’s ILL department.

5. Have you (or will you) completed any internships or practicums as part of your studies?

I completed internship credits for both of my graduate programs, neither of which were required, but strongly encouraged. I received credit for a paid internship at the Indiana State House Tour Office for my MA in History degree. I also received credit towards my MLS for my time as a Junior Fellow in the Manuscripts Division at the Library of Congress. This position was also paid, and I feel very strongly that it is a great benefit to students for their programs to support paid internships/fellowships for credit.

6. What classes have been most valuable to you so far?

Without an archives specialty, my program only offered one dedicated archives course which covered both archives theory and practice very broadly. Some of the classes that were most valuable to me were my general library courses, such as cataloging and advanced catalog, that provided me with knowledge of descriptive practices and theory that have influenced the way that I understand and practice archival arrangement and description. An in-depth research project completed during the final year in my history program gave me a much better understanding of the researcher experience, which has been valuable to me as an archivist.

7. What does your program do best?

As a smaller department (as opposed to the larger school of library science), the History department at my university offers an amazing internship program that provides course credits and a monthly stipend while students complete a year-long internship. The History department has built up a variety of partnerships with institutions around the city, including the Indiana Historical Society, the State Archives, State Museum, and the Great American Songbook Archives. The students really benefit from the opportunity to intern PT for these institutions, while receiving in return a bit of financial assistance and stability that can be hard to come by in graduate school. On the other hand, the school of library science did not offer any comparable funding.

Mentorship. While I only had one archives course, it was taught by an archivist with years of experience who was very involved in the professional community. She encouraged and supported me every step of the way. I was very fortunate that my internship supervisor at the Library of Congress has also been an amazing mentor.

8. What could your program do better?

More flexibility in selecting electives would have been great. With the dual-degree requirements, my options were very limited and I had to seek permission to divert from the prescribed requirements.

And of course I would have loved to have the opportunity to take more specialized archives courses, but that was more a problem with my program selection than the program itself.

9. How do you stay informed about trends in the profession?

I stay informed primarily through my involvement in professional organizations, and through related outlets such as listservs, newsletters and publications, roundtable happenings, etc. Live webinars play a major role in my continued professional development as well. I am also a big fan of Twitter as a professional network.

10. What would you tell a prospective student who is thinking about becoming an archivist?

Engage with the professional community, especially as a student. It can be intimidating at times, and more established professionals can sometimes be a bit overwhelming, but more and more students and new professionals are establishing themselves as important players in the professional dialogue and developments.

Be very aware of the local professional opportunities and take advantage of them. If your program is in a city where there are limited opportunities, with many students vying for those positions, then you may struggle to establish professional ties. Same applies to distance, online learning; be sure that there are institutions for which you can work and make connections with working professionals while you are in school.

Seek out mentors. Not everybody will be receptive to this, but you will be surprised at how many established archivists are more-than-willing to advise and train archival students.

For more posts in this series, check back here.

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