Hello! I’m Rachel Sedlacek. I had the joy of being the Strauss Health Sciences Library archival intern for the past semester and a half. This blog is a culmination of my musings on everything that happened during the project.
As the world has moved through the greatest modern pandemic, numerous positions and careers have had to change entirely to meet safety requirements on multiple levels. Archival internship work is no different in need and, likely, no different in challenges either. But it has all proven to be a brand new and blatantly needed lesson on what archival practice looks like during world altering events like this.
Things got off to an apprehensive start. Ironically, I had begun to properly plan my internship back in March 2020 with the intention of doing it over the summer semester. But like with many major life events and important decisions, the start just kept being pushed back. Those early days were so difficult to see beyond. The future was all just a “maybe”.
In reality, nothing could truly start until August and even then, the entire internship process had to be reworked so it could function remotely instead of in-person. The first challenge was creating a workstation in my apartment. Archive items must be kept in certain environments so that preservation standards are upheld. I spent about an hour circling my apartment and investigating hopeful places to store materials as well as to process them. In the end, it was the easiest solution that proved the best. I had already had a crafting table set up in our living room, beside which was a massive wardrobe that was half rolling drawers and half open space. The wardrobe would keep materials out of direct sunlight in a cool, dry place and the table had enough space to accommodate a flatbed scanner and my laptop along with stacks of folders and papers. One particular concern that I knew I had to address as well was the presence of glitter and possibly other crafting remnants though. As other crafters very well know, glitter gets everywhere. My table was black and I could dust and clean both at the start of and throughout my internship work. But that nagging fear was still there. Again, the solution was easy though. I had a thin foam mat that had come with my laptop case. This became my actual work surface. It was solely for archive items and then, when I finished for the day, it was rolled up and stored in the wardrobe as well. Having that additional layer meant that nothing transferred to the items. And it honestly helped my focus as I worked. Lifestyle bloggers and reporters have made multiple articles and comments about how it’s important to separate home life from work life while doing remote work. This foam mate, which was a bright teal, was a perfect visual cue. When it was out, I was working. I was focused. When I put it away, I could walk away that much easier and worry less about the pressure of having work so close at hand.
I ended up only spending a few hours actually in the library during this whole process. It was just long enough to get my chosen collections, new archival grade housing in the form of better boxes and folders, the flatbed scanner, and general office supplies like a staple remover. It was a bit of whirlwind day going in and out of the library and then in and out of my apartment. But with my set up plans already made, in the end everything fit as I imagined.
The actual archival work of my internship was mostly straight forward. I had already completed most of my graduate education so I had a lead on metadata, material processing, and organization. Yet, doing an internship, especially in a field like library sciences, really is a necessity. I relished the opportunity to hear about actual decisions and workflow during meetings and to act as a functional part of the team, even if I wasn’t permanent. It helped immensely to be able to check my own judgement or thoughts against those of an experienced archivist. Thus, I got a good balance of strengthening what I had already learned and learning exactly how theoretical lessons such as repository management apply to an actual archive.
The true challenge of my internship, and likely the challenge that millions of people have faced this year, was IT problems though. Taking everything out of the library and into my apartment meant that there was quite a bit of IT set up involved. VPN. Server access. Scanning software. Accessibility software. It felt like as I went through every step, there was another one waiting right beyond it. The roughest parts were when something would finally get set up and I’d start on the applicable part of my work only to have a new error message or problem pop up. It was so frustrating! Some times, I would be ahead of the game and on top of the world and other times, I feared I wouldn’t finish anything in time or have anything to actually contribute to the collection. In terms of timing, I probably spent an equal amount on IT meetings and my own troubleshooting than I did on actually processing the collections and fulfilling my internship objectives. That really was life in 2020 though. The whole year was about changing and figuring out what could be done and what needed to be done overlapped successfully.
Archives in the future may either continue remote work because of crises like this or may very well utilize remote work to create new opportunities for staffing. I got a glimpse at what may be the future of archive work in some regards. It was more of a loss than I realized to miss out on the ease of working in-person, of being able to pop my head into an office door to ask a quick question or to stand behind an IT staff member as they fix something directly. But, in exchange, I got a crash course on adapting to major changes and on creating an archive workstation from scratch. I feel ready to move into the workforce and even feel like I have an advantage because I’ve gone through a major learning opportunity during unusual times. Now that everything is settled, all the challenges are behind me so things could only go up from here and I wish I could just continue working and progressing. On the other hand, this ended up being the last piece of my graduate work and I am so excited to finally be done with school!
Rachel has completed processing two archival collections, the Frank B. Rogers History of Medicine Exhibits and the Dr. Lawrence Meskin and CREEDD documents. Please check out the digital exhibits on the library’s website!
This was written by Rachel, you can contact AskUs with questions.