Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Behind the scenes: Reflections from our Reference Intern

 Guess blog post by our Reference Intern, Brandon. You'll be missed!

For the past ten months I have been working as a Reference Intern at the Champaign County Historical Archives.  Unfortunately, today will be my final day on the desk, as I will be moving to Chicago at the end of the week to begin a summer position with the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Special Collections Library.  During the time I have spent working in the archives I have learned a great deal about providing effective reference services to members of the community, and about genealogy and local history research in general.  In addition to having an opportunity to meet new patrons and assist them with research that is often very personal for them, I have also enjoyed getting to know my colleagues in the archives and throughout the library.  The best part about my internship experience is that at no point did I ever feel like a part-time intern, but rather was quickly welcomed as a full-fledged Urbana Free Library employee and contributing member of the archives staff.

This was a very exciting, and challenging, time for me to be working at the Champaign County Historical Archives.  Locally, I both witnessed and participated in the transition to a new catalog system for the entire library.  For the archives, this meant moving from the old Local History Online database to a new Polaris catalog designed specifically for the archives.  This experience gave me a chance to learn a new catalog system, and to help our patrons learn how to perform effective searches in the new system.  On a broader level, I also had the once -in-a-decade chance to be working in the archives when the new 1940 Census was released to the public.  In the weeks following the release, we had countless patrons come into the archives who were interested in finding “their people” in the Census records.  Because the census images for Champaign County have not yet been indexed, assisting those patrons proved to be a challenging, yet manageable endeavor.  Working together as a team, the archives staff utilized the tools at our disposal to design a work-around for determining correct Enumeration District numbers and locating names in the corresponding Census images released by the National Archives.  Understandably, our patrons were not interested in waiting months for the Census to be indexed, and thanks to the staff of the Champaign County Historical Archives, they did not have to.

In addition to assisting patrons at the desk, during my time at the archives I also processed two important collections of archival records that will undoubtedly see a great deal of use by our patrons in the future.  The first collection, the records of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, documents the history of an important religious and social institution in the local African American community.  The second collection project I worked on involved assembling a combined collection of school ephemera materials from local schools, both past and present, throughout Champaign County.  In total, this collection fills a dozen boxes, covers approximately 150 years of student, faculty, and administrator activities at schools ranging in size from one-room rural school houses that have since disappeared, to larger institutions like Urbana High School that endure today.  This collection will continue to grow indefinitely, as new donations from local community members arrive at the archives for years to come.

My experience working as a Reference Intern at the Champaign County Historical Archives has been a great one.  I am not often given to sentimental feelings, but I will definitely miss coming into work every week and seeing the familiar faces of my colleagues and regular patrons, and especially the new faces of the patrons who are visiting the archives for the first time.  I would encourage any GSLIS student who is interested in archives and special collections librarianship to consider the Champaign County Historical Archives when it comes time for them to seek out volunteer, practicum, or, if they are lucky, internship opportunities in the area.

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