How Working with Special Collections Made Me a Better Historian

My name is Daniel Arenas and I am currently a doctoral candidate at the FSU history department but I have also been working as an intern with Special Collections and Archives. Specifically, I am working as a digital curator intern for the FSU Special Collections collaboration with the John G. Riley Center and Tallahassee Community College to digitize the museum’s archives as part of a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services alongside fellow interns Noah Cole and Neissa Philemon. I began this internship to broaden my experience in public history and it has been a uniquely rewarding experience!

My day-to-day work revolves around receiving a box, identifying each item, logging descriptive information for it, and, to a smaller extent, research and organization to understand the items and make sure that we don’t log duplicates. This experience of physically participating in the archival process gave me a much deeper understanding of how archives work beyond the theory I learned in class at the History department. It is surprisingly collaborative; what collections we worked on were decided based on the constantly evolving needs of the overall digitization project and evaluations of the collections in the archive. There is a fair bit of leeway when it comes to interpretation of the sources and making the descriptions, but Riley House did provide a Field Dictionary of Subject Headings for us to use, and this involves periodical updates as we the interns suggest new specific headings as we became more familiar with their collections.

Riley House ultimately determines which collections get digitized based on their stated goal of making these collections accessible to the public, but the two collections we have focused on so far (the Thelma T. Gorham and Joseph N. Crooms collections) were essentially the personal papers of two educators, including things ranging from personal correspondence to internal school/university memos to even course assignments from students. Each of these have their own status in terms of copyright, and both SCA and Riley House had to have long discussions about what should get digitized, not just to avoid issues of copyright, but ethical ones of making personal family history public.

Ultimately, the archival process, as I have learned, requires fostering close working relationships between the archival staff and the institution holding or donating the collections. I entered into this internship with a theoretical understanding of the archival process, but my experience actually working in one has given me a deep respect for the work of the archivist. While I believe my professional career will lean more towards research and teaching, the knowledge I gained will directly transfer to my work as a researcher. As a matter of fact, I have already begun applying this knowledge; I will be traveling for my dissertation research in the spring, and I have already noticed how much more comfortable I am with archival catalogs and websites as a direct result of my work here.

More abstractly, I have a crystal clear understanding of just how difficult archival work is, and how complicated issues of digitization can be, which will inform my relationship with the archivists I will be working with. I can also say that Special Collections is a wonderful work environment and I thoroughly enjoy the experience. I am grateful for having been accepted by the SCA for this internship, as I believe that I am a better historian for it.

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