Everything has a history, even if it is not the easiest to find. Your town or city is no different; in fact, depending on where you live, your town may have played a crucial role in the history of the nation. A lot of people, however, do not know about the past of their community. This “hidden past,” as I have heard it referenced, is often kept in the local historical society. Especially for archivists and technicians working in the governmental or educational sectors, historical societies have the added value of giving a fresh, new perspective.
This summer, after I completed an internship with my college’s archives (which also sent me to NARA for two weeks), I was in want of a new experience. With somewhere around five weeks to kill, I decided to reach out to my local historical society, seeing if they could use any help. After a short sojourn from my trip home, I started at the Springfield Township Historical Society, right outside Philadelphia.
My time at the society allowed me to experience aspects of the archives profession to which I had no previous exposure. One of my largest tasks involved the reorganization and rehousing of the society’s approximately 70 linear feet of documents, photographs, and objects. I then processed multiple recently donated collections, covering many subject areas including manufacturing and education. Throughout my time, I also worked with the society’s cataloging system and provided limited reference work. The best part, however, was learning about the history of my town during the entire process.
Although archivists and technicians generally have some experience with all of the above-mentioned areas, specialization of task and subject forces archivists to forget other aspects of their profession. A processing archivist is wont to ignore the job of reference archivists, and vice versa. Volunteering at a historical society, as furloughed conservation technician Meris Westberg learned, gives established professionals the opportunity to apply learned skills to a new situation. While societies reap the benefits of a trained archives worker, archivists experience the profession from a new (or otherwise forgotten) perspective, all while discovering more about their community.
I am a big believer in continuous education. Even though volunteer and internship positions in many archives are geared towards graduate students, current professionals are not barred from the lessons that a new experience can impart. During the down time produced by the government shutdown, Westberg found for herself a “temporary home” at her local historical society.
As anyone who works in the profession will tell you, archives are never short of work. Historical societies are no different. Take advantage of your local resources, and you can gain a new perspective on archives and the profession that will help you in the future.
What do you think? Share your comments below on your previous experiences, with historical societies or any other institution!