Uncovering the “Hidden Learning” of Undergraduates

A few months ago, I stumbled upon an article in Archive Journal on the impact that archives work can have on undergraduate students employed in their college’s repository.  As an undergraduate worker in the Dickinson College archives, I found this article especially compelling, as it brought up many interesting points that I believe are reflective of my positive experiences within the profession.  The article inspired me to reflect upon my personal experiences as a “student archivist.”

Like many first-year undergraduate students, my first semester in college was a long period of personal discovery, confusion, and anxiety.  What I did in my free time, however, was to read about the history of my college.  I had been interested in local history ever since my senior project in high school, during which I digitized a series of old student newspapers.  With this previous experience in mind, I stumbled into my college’s archive, and asked if I could volunteer on any small projects.  I was welcomed with open arms.

My high school newspaper started it all...

My high school newspaper started it all…

My college archive employs around ten to 15 student workers a year, something that still occasionally surprises me.  Both the Archivist and Special Collections Librarian had experience with mentoring undergraduate workers, many of whom had moved on to graduate programs in the library and archival sciences.  Their passion for their work, as well as the plethora of lessons I was learning about my college and the surrounding town, inspired me to eventually change majors and career plans.

My volunteering in my archive eventually led to regular employment in archive, which then allowed me to work as an intern over the summer on a digitization project of materials related to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, a former off-reservation school for Native students located on the current site of the Carlisle Army Barracks.  That internship, which was extended into the current academic year, has taught me a lot about the issues and ideologies within archival science and digitization.  As a result of that project, I am currently planning on graduate training to become a digitization specialist or digital archivist.

The archive at my college has taught me a great deal about the “real world” of archival science.  My experiences and personal growth have been fostered not just by the Archivist and Librarian in the repository, but also by the post-graduate workers with whom I interact.  I find my work in the archive both productive and beneficial, and I believe that I am learning a lot about my local town and school while also experiencing the real work of archives.

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School website, my current internship project.

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School website, my current internship project.

The Archive Journal’s article makes some great points about the role of archivists and other information specialists in the experiential education of undergraduate workers.  My positive experiences would not have been possible without the guiding help of the college Archivist, the interesting and challenging work I have been assigned, or the extensive hands-on training I have received.  The role of archivists and librarians as teachers is especially key here: without the input and interest of the professionals in the archive, my volunteer work would not have been as fruitful as it was, and I most likely would not have embarked on my current educational journey into the world of information sciences.

I believe that colleges and universities of all sizes should see undergraduate students as a potential gold mine for both inspired workers and passionate future professionals.  In addition to the questions posed by Miller and Morton in the Archive Journal article, I think that some further questions may help guide both professionals and interested undergraduates in the future:

  • How can students vary their experiences within their college’s archive?  How can professional archives help expose students to as many different aspects of the profession as possible?
  • Where can undergraduate students find guidance or experience if their college or university does not have an archive, or will not accept undergraduate workers?
  • Where can undergraduate students find experiences outside of their university’s archive?  Through jobs? Volunteer experiences? Internships?  How can these students compete with graduate students for positions?

The future of any profession depends on the interest and passion of the next generation.  By embracing the undergraduate worker, archives and repositories can help future professionals uncover the “hidden learning” that comes with employment.  Current archivists, serving as mentors to their employees, can have a great impact on undergraduate students, and thus on the future of the profession.

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