Student Experience Series: Cathy Miller

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

My name is Cathy Miller and I am a student in the Master of Archival Studies program at Clayton State University in Morrow, GA. I grew up in Georgia, but avoided the Southern accent thanks to my parents being from Wisconsin and Indiana. When I am not reading articles for school, I work as an archives technician at the National Archives at Atlanta. When I am not doing school or work, I like to watch IQ-lowering t.v. shows with my husband and read mysteries, histories, biographies and books on current events. Oh, and to hang out with my dog Google. She’s pretty awesome.

1. What year will you graduate? 

Fall 2015

2. How did you end up in this field?

My first exposure to archives came through my volunteering at the Atlanta History Center’s Kenan Research Center. While volunteering there, I saw an email through my (then) graduate school program’s listserv that there was a student position available at the National Archives at Atlanta. I was hired in July 2010 and after having worked there a few months, realized that being an archivist waswhat I wanted to do.

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

The intensity of it. Grad school – for me – has been leaps and bounds more intensive than undergraduate. Not to be flip, but my undergraduate degree was a cake walk.

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

As mentioned above, I volunteered at the Atlanta History Center’s archives and did begin my student job at the National Archives at Atlanta before grad school started. Of course, there is the technicality that grad school has started twice for me. I was initially in a Public History program at Georgia State University (beginning August 2010) and then, upon realizing that being an archivist was what I wanted to do, I applied to the Master of Archival Studies program at Clayton State so that my degree would be focused on archives (beginning August 2012). The Public History program at Georgia State University was a great program, but very interdisciplinary, so I feared that having that degree when applying for jobs in archives would leave me lacking with many of the points that are listed as knowledge requirements.

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

I have had two internships so far. Summer 2012 I was a Junior Fellow intern in the Manuscripts Division Reading Room at the Library of Congress. Last summer I interned at the Yellowstone National Park Archives. Both internships were really great experiences that allowed me to further expand my knowledge and skills.

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

I know this will seem like the easy way out, but all of them!  I will specifically highlight two of the courses which have resulted in us producing meaningful work. One of our courses is “Archives and the Web” in which our final project was to develop a website for an academic archives. This class was amazing for the beginner’s knowledge it provided about HTML5 and CSS. We used the Bluefish Editor tool to help us develop templates for our HTML and create the corresponding CSS worksheets. To link information from a database to one of the webpages we had to create as part of our final project, we used MySQL Workbench. The class also provided an introduction to PHP code at a very elementary level. The other course I wish to highlight is our “Arrangement and Description” class, in which we used Archivists’ Toolkit. Of course, Archivists’ Toolkit has been superseded by Archives Space, but I really liked the class for the fact that we actively used a tool that was/still is being utilized by archivists.

7. What does your program do best?

To follow from the previous question, I think what my program does best is that it makes the effort to give its students opportunities to use practical applications in archives while operating in a classroom environment. The projects we are given are designed to produce finished products that we can use in a portfolio to show potential employers our familiarity with the varied aspects of archival work. I am almost to the midway point in my program and have produced the following products which I can point to: multiple web pages, finding aids produced through Archivists’ Toolkit, a social media strategy policy document, and a collecting policy for a university archives. Another area in which my program excels is its emphasis on writing and critical thinking. As archivists, we cannot underestimate the importance of having well-developed writing skills. We do weekly reading reports for our classes in which we are required to not only summarize the text, but to really engage it and raise questions about what is being written about. This has led to many fruitful discussions in our online discussion board and in class, discussions that often come down to those quintessential questions of “who are archivists?” and “what do archivists do?”.

8. What could your program do better?

My program is completely online, which has its benefits but also has its downsides. Even though we use the online meeting software WebEx, which allows us to see and hear one another, I have perceived a general reticence on the part of many of the students to participate in discussion. Of course, all graduate students are familiar with this phenomena. It’s not like the physical classroom is immune from the awkward 30 seconds to a minute silence that results after the professor asks a question. However, I wonder if our cohorts might feel a better sense of community if we were in a physical classroom? I wish that my program offered a course in “Proposal and Grant Writing.” So many project archivis positions are funded through grants that it seems a necessary knowledge for archivists to have. In addition, it would be great to have one of our courses provide a section in which we learn about how to conduct surveys. One need only take a glance at archival literature from the past ten to twenty years to see that surveys have played a key role in archival research.

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

I have found that following archivists on Twitter has been a great way to find out about current studies and literature. In addition, being a member of several of the listservs through SAA provides a bounty of knowledge and information (sometimes more information than one knows what to do with!).

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

I would first direct them to Kate Theimer’s blog post “Honest tips for wannabe archivists out there” (http://www.archivesnext.com/?p=2849). Beyond that, I would tell them to seriously consider whether this is what they truly want to do. I think that students thinking of pursuing a career in archives should begin with volunteering in an archives to see if it is truly something they will enjoy. After all, being an archivist is not all glitz and glamour. We may find ourselves in front of the copy machine for 4+ hours of our day, reproducing copies for a patron. This task is one that comes part and parcel with the job.

Everyday cannot be an exciting journey into the records, and even when it is, it is important to recognize that a lot of the records you are going to be working with may seem “just plain boring” to  you. From experience within my own program, I feel that some of the students are pursuing this degree because they felt it was a natural progression from their undergraduate degree in history. The thought process goes as follows: “Oh, history, I love history!  I’m going to become an archivist so I can work with cool documents all day long.”  The reality is, you won’t always be working with “cool”  documents all day long. What I am essentially advocating for here is that prospective students give themselves a reality check by actively volunteering in archives. Such experience can cement for them whether being an archivist is what they actually want to do.

For more posts in this series, check back here.

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