[Series] So What Do You Do? National Agricultural Library Special Collections
03/07/2013 § 3 Comments
This post is part of our series “So What Do You Do?” in which LIS students talk about their experiences as interns. We want to showcase the wide range of things people are doing in the world of library and information science.
After my usability internship experience this past fall, I decided that my spring work experience should be something closer to my course work in archives. We are fortunate to have an abundance of libraries and archives here in the DC area, including the Smithsonian, the National Archives, the National Libraries for Medicine, Agriculture, Education and more. There is no shortage of places to apply.
On the advice of one of my mentors, I contacted the special collections department at the National Agricultural Library (NAL) in Beltsville (yes, that’s a real place!), Maryland. Adjacent to the US Department of Agriculture’s Beltsville Agricultural Research Campus, NAL has extensive holdings of agricultural research materials, USDA publications, and some fascinating special collections. While it’s a national library, the special collections department has only a few staff, and a large backlog as a result. Combined with the current budget climate, they were happy to take me on as a volunteer.
During my time at NAL, I worked on two projects. The first was part of a larger digitization project. NAL’s special collections include an assortment of posters produced by the USDA and affiliated agencies dating back to the beginning of the 20th century. The posters are being digitized through a partnership with the Internet Archive, but first they need metadata. My project was to take a section of the collection, primarily from the period between the World Wars, and attempt to extract metadata that would be useful to future researchers using the NAL Thesaurus as our guide.
This was the first time I had worked on a metadata project of this sort, and it was a fascinating experience. Not only did I see some really neat graphic design, and learn more about agriculture and its terminology than I ever thought, but I came to understand the benefits, challenges and limitations of using an established thesaurus. For example- using the term Anthonomus grandis grandis allows for easy reference to other materials in the catalog. But is it useful for the non-scientific researcher who wants to find posters about boll weevils? I can honestly say that it was the first time in my life that I engaged in a debate about boll weevils.
My second project was processing a relatively small (9 archival cartons) collection of personal papers. This type of work is bread and butter stuff for archivists, and something I quite enjoy. There’s something about bringing order to someone else’s chaos that is just so… satisfying. The archivist acts as a translator of sorts, attempting to interpret the papers in front of them in such a way that they become useful to the most general audience possible.
Acquired a decade ago, the collection hadn’t really been touched. I was tasked with refoldering, identifying possible series, reorganizing the records according to series, and then creating a finding aid. Even taking a “More Product, Less Processing” approach, this project took me the better part of a month. But by the end, I knew the collection backwards and forwards, and had created something that I was proud of. And something that other people would find useful (hopefully- the archivists’s lot is to work on collections they know may never be touched again).
My work with this collection drove home one of the real benefits of working with a small organization- the ability to work with a single collection from start to finish. While it might not be something you want to do every day, it’s the ultimate application into practice of all that theory you’ve been working on. It’s invaluable experience, and looks great on a resume.
I really enjoyed my time at the National Agricultural Library. Volunteering there yielded excellent experience in dealing with metadata (something we all need to understand), as well as bonus experience in collections processing. It’s easy to get caught up in chasing internships or volunteer opportunities at “sexy” institutions, especially in a city like Washington. But don’t discount smaller institutions out of hand. Ask around and you’ll often find that people have better internship or volunteer experiences at places you would never have thought of.
Now It’s your turn- have you interned or volunteered in an archives or special collections? What was your experience?