Saturday, October 25, 2008

Review of Archival Internships: A Guide for Faculty, Supervisors, and Students

Archival Internships: A Guide for Faculty, Supervisors, and Students

My review of Archival Internships: A Guide for Faculty, Supervisors, and Students by Jeannette A. Bastian and Donna Webber (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2008).
Published in Collections: A Journal for Museum and Archives Professionals, 4(4) Fall 2008.

While the importance of internships has been recognized since the archival profession’s establishment in the 1930s, a lack of research and standards has hindered their development. Jeannette A. Bastian and Donna Webber’s Archival Internships: A Guide for Faculty, Supervisors, and Students addresses this problem by imparting a holistic view of internships from the perspectives of faculty advisors, site supervisors, and students. Bastian, Associate Professor and Archives Program Director at Simmons College, and Webber, Simmons College Archivist, have years of experience placing and supervising interns. The manual developed from their need for overarching internship criterion when they discovered that sites had different business rules that produced inconsistent practica for students.

The authors conducted two years of research via focus groups, questionnaires, e-mail interviews, and web surveys; they also cite past research. The book provides site supervisors and faculty advisors with best practices, as well as assisting students with realistic expectations for internships. Although the book’s focus is on academic internships, a chapter focuses on the merit of independent paid opportunities—often the only option due to geography or finances. The guide also includes case studies that illustrate problems and solutions, appendices of sample forms and procedures, and a selected bibliography.

Through practical experience, students demonstrate their comprehension of archival principles and receive structured feedback on their newly acquired skills. Theory and practice meet during experiential learning, a microcosm of professional work where faculty, students, and site supervisors build consensus around processes, goals, and achievable outcomes. The authors state, “Cooperatively planned, [internships] can be ideal blends of giving and getting, a way for the profession to continually renew itself” (83). As archives become more technologically based, students will apply their knowledge of current and future trends, assisting working archivists in maintaining cutting edge procedures.

The tension between theory and practice runs throughout the text. The authors write, “Too great an emphasis on internships may reduce archival education to mere training, but with no practical learning at all, students are ill-equipped to enter a workplace that places a high value on experience” (15). Before the development of graduate-level archival education, historians with master’s or doctorate degrees became archivists through on-the-job training. Internships were a core component of early graduate programs, but became elective in some programs since the 1970s. Today, graduate education, work experience, and continued professional development is the ideal blend for attaining archival knowledge throughout one’s career.

The place and design of internships in programs is debatable, but as graduate archival education becomes a professional requisite, it will inevitably produce more interns. Educational offerings, especially multi-course curricula, have expanded in recent years, and some institutions offer master’s degrees in archival studies. These opportunities allow students to explore their interests beyond an educational core. The increase in eager neophytes could transform internships from individualized transactions to institutionalized programs that are “rigorous and designed with care” (13). Although the book does not resolve the debate between the two recognized career paths (education with experience or experience alone), continued demand for internships may lead to studies on their responsibility in educating beginner archivists.

The authors recommend measures, based on SAA’s 2002 Guidelines for a Graduate Program in Archival Studies, which established minimum educational standards for curriculum, faculty, and structure. Internships should augment, not replace, training and be structured, monitored, and evaluated by faculty advisors, and supervised by mentoring archivists. Academic programs should also be responsible for student placement, communication with site supervisors, and record maintenance. Ideally, each program should have at least one internship of 120 to 180 hours in the middle of the course of study with specific project deliverables.

Many guidelines omit site supervisors, the most critical part of internships, as multiple surveys have demonstrated. “The challenge [is to] fulfill both academic requirements and practical needs,” state the authors (15). Ideally, institutions and students enjoy a mutually beneficial internship. Given the realities of archives, intern-appropriate work may be more important to the institution than engaging for the student. Best practices call for a project that can be completed fully, giving the intern a sense of accomplishment. The book is especially useful to institutions considering hosting internships as it provides guidelines and standardized forms to minimize administration time.

Although some of the advice in Archival Internships may be common sense, this all-purpose volume for faculty, supervisors, and students should produce fieldwork that is more consistent and benefit new archivists. Internships are one way that archivists can encourage the continued development of comprehensive educational programs with a wider variety of master’s degree programs. These much-needed guidelines both define the academic preparation needed to meet these new challenges, and the obligation of the professional community to create rigorous and challenging internships for the archivists of the future.

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