This post comes from Caitlin Birch, who also reviewed her NEA Fall Meeting experience for us.
Last May I answered an internship posting. There was nothing particularly exceptional about that — I’m an archives grad student and internships, as we all know, are a requisite part of passage into the profession. So browsing the posting was unexceptional. Writing a cover letter and sending it, unexceptional. Sitting for an interview, also unexceptional. Learning that I was one of only a handful of candidates who had applied: exceptional.
The internship to which I applied, and the one I eventually accepted, was a part-time, unpaid archiving gig at a public television station. Certainly, the unpaid part of that description must have deterred some of my peers from applying. I’ll admit, it almost deterred me. I already had a part-time job and a full course load, and it seemed as if taking on much more than that, especially for free, might be too ambitious. But I’ve been in my grad program long enough to know that even the unpaid internships garner a slew of applicants; you can’t put a price on the value of experience in this industry, and more and more often, that statement is interpreted quite literally. So I knew that there had to be another reason so few students in a city saturated with beginning archives professionals had applied to this particular internship, and after talking to peers, it seemed I had found it: the internship was “non-traditional.”
It was not in an academic library or a special collection or a historical society or even a museum. I did not work with manuscripts or personal papers or legal documents or administrative records. I did not work with paper at all. I spent three months surrounded by boxes of videotapes, raw footage from literally all over the globe that had been pieced together to produce documentary TV programs. The medium — tapes — and the repository — a television production hub — put my internship outside the bounds of “traditional.” And I loved every second I spent there. This was not my first internship, and I had a wonderful experience directly preceding it interning with a local history institution and working with a paper-based collection. I don’t hold one above the other, but the fact that my audiovisual archiving internship attracted so few applicants leads me to believe such non-traditional opportunities might benefit from a little advocacy. So what did I get out of my internship that has me recommending similar ones to the SNAP community? I got all of this:
– Experience with a new medium. I had already gotten my hands on paper collections.
I had never worked with video recordings before. I can tell you more than you ever
wanted to know, now, about the differences between a Betacam and an HDCAM, about
the discrepancies in the metadata associated with them. Maybe that will never again
be useful in my career, but maybe it will, and either way, I am now a more versatile
archivist because of it.
– Excellent networking opportunities. My supervisor held a law degree, not an MLS.
Out of the fairly large production unit for which I worked, only two other people were
trained in library science. I met producers, writers, lawyers, IT pros, accountants,
salespeople, journalists, educators, and a whole host of other professionals. Even if
these new acquaintances never lead to a career opportunity, I learned how to talk to — and market myself to — all kinds of people outside the field of archives.
– The chance to innovate. Because I was doing archival work in a non-archival
atmosphere, I was often expected to solve problems independently. After all, there
aren’t too many people outside the library and archives professions who are going to be
particularly invested in your cataloging dilemmas. The responsibility with which I was
entrusted allowed me to take the lead in my work, and to draw upon my own knowledge
and creativity to devise necessary solutions.
– A job! OK, so it was a temporary job, but isn’t one of the end-goals for all internships (in an ideal world, at least) an offer of employment? My supervisor recognized my hard work over the course of the summer by hiring me as a production assistant in the fall. The short-term gig had me churning out metadata and performing lots of research for the production team, and I left with the knowledge that if similar projects cropped up, I was the one they would call.
Many of us enter our grad programs with a specific focus in mind, and I’m no different. But if you have the opportunity to do something outside the strictly traditional, I’d encourage you to take advantage. You may learn that the work involved is not what you want from your career. You may discover you love a type of work you never thought you would. Either way, you’ll almost certainly leave your internship with new skills, new contacts, new opportunities, and the satisfaction of having explored a corner of the archives world less traveled, but no less valuable.