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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Thing About Interns Is...

So there I was, staring at at least 200 red plastic clips that had been removed from a collection because the papers had been lovingly cared for and segregated into their respective folders - no longer needing the blasted red clips.  The clips were bent out of shape and hardly reusable, but they had been returned to the container in a sincere effort of frugality.  I was on my knees sorting through the offending clips when I felt my anxiety rise.  Why was I getting so worked up about these clips?  What horrific stress event had I endured that would cause such an adverse reaction?  Oh yea, I was an intern.  

Intern: A student or a recent graduate undergoing supervised practical training.  Read: free labor, willing to do anything with a cheerful attitude in order to achieve career experience and contacts.

Those were the days, right?  Sitting down at oak tables sifting through documents that proceeded your birth by decades if not a century or two?  I do fondly recall my slow, romantic acquaintance with the archives.  Archives get a bad wrap for being musty, basement dwelling, second-class to objects - collections  When in reality for anyone in the know the archives is a mecca of history, passion, knowledge, discovery, laughter, tragedy, you name it.  I still vividly remember the exact day I knew the archives was the right profession for me. I was interning at the National Archives in Seattle when my supervisor took me to the back corner of the warehouse to "the vault."  Through a series of complicated maneuvers, he unlocked it and tenderly pulled out a single half sheet of paper enveloped in mylar.  He handed it to me to view, and as I read the words my knees began to tremble and my heart dropped into my stomach.  

"AIR RAID ON PEARL HARBOR X THIS IS NO DRILL" (As taken from the National Archives and Records Administration:

That was it.  What most people feel when they know they are in love are the same symptoms I felt when I fell in love with the Archives.  The immensity of the telegram's message compounded with my deeply committed love of history, and an archivist was born.

Not everything in the Archives is so glamorous though.  And to make your way up the ranks you must pay your dues.  In this case, internships - for free - and lots of them!  I have removed many an offending paper clip, rubber bands, decrepit envelopes, and other unusual things that typically don't belong and can endanger paper collections.  Internships were exciting in their new experiences, and the hands on projects; however they could also be extremely repetitive and a waste of the many other skills I could have given to the repository.

Don't get me wrong, ensuring the physical integrity of a collection is very important and a wonderful "go-to" for free-labor job descriptions.  However, I advocate that intern supervisors take an additional moment to really think about your Archives' needs.  Yes, we will always need more labor in order to care for our collections to a level they deserve; and as history is always being made, our job in that is perpetual.  But we have other needs to.  Needs that I believe are being overlooked when it comes to really utilizing our interns to their full potential.  

Think about what else your Archives is most likely going through.  We're always in the middle of grant preparations, digitizing, outreach program coordinating, and web and social media content creating.  I argue that the interns you are getting today are far better suited to these tasks than paper clip duty.  Not only will you end up getting more productivity from the interns, you are also fulfilling a need, and will have a more visually appealing and dynamic product from the internship.  Interns will in turn receive a golden resume line on something they can truly be proud of, and that will help establish their advanced skill sets in a career atmosphere. 

This last summer I had a rock star of an intern.  Her resume mentioned several attractive skills that I knew I needed for more projects than the traditional collection re-house.  I brought her in, and although she did get a bite-sized collection to process, I quickly turned her over to other projects that were much more attractive for everyone involved.  She got the Freer|Sackler Archives started on youtubeShe taught Me how to film, edit, and publish videos online; so that even as I lost her to the start of school I am now empowered to create and publish my own video content!

The thing about interns is that as much as they're here to learn something from us, we can also learn something from them.

It's so simple, but so easy to forget or overlook.  Archives are inherently always behind due to the production rate of history.  As a result, we are always looking for interns, yet we don't have a whole lot of time to craft non-traditional projects.  I encourage intern supervisors to find the time.  An intern's skills can be so valuable and essential to the other projects you are working on, and perhaps the skills are not even ones that you or your staff posses!  Take the time and effort to identify some more dynamic opportunities, and then sit back and enjoy the pride both you and your intern will feel in the end.

Internship applications for Summer 2011 are now being accepted across the Smithsonian.   The deadlines are various, but a majority start to occur in February and March so get on it!  See the Smithsonian intern page for more details on the opportunities and how to apply.  

Interns.  I <3 you.  I feel like there should be an intern appreciation day because without your enthusiastic, professional, and free labor - we would all be sunk.  My advice to you?  Do the required paper clip removal, but any chance you get, take an opportunity to shine.  Observe the other activities happening in the Archives and see where your skills might be able to help out.  From my experience as an intern, and now as a supervisor, I know that the majority of the time your supervisor will be grateful you spoke up and appreciative of the skills and solutions you can lend.

Best of luck!
Rachael Cristine Woody
Freer|Sackler Archives



  1. What a lovely caring approach to what can be a soul-destroying time for the intern. How eloquently you describe the joint fulfilment that can be gained by putting that little extra thought into what the Archive will gain from that extra pair of hands when it is well utilized.

  2. As a museum intern and library tech, I've done small tasks like you've described above(although no paper clips!) and it can be frustrating at times. But the opportunity to collobrate on meaningful projects, gain experience in my dream field and make friends makes it all worth it.

    It's nice to hear about your intern experience and to know that you are working with interns today. I hope when I get my dream job, I'll be able to have interns work with me. I think it's a great way to help others in the field, esp. if you were once in their shoes!


  3. Thank you both for your lovely comments!