Four SILS students spend spring break with NARA

April 14, 2017

The term spring break often conjures images of unwinding at the beach or relaxing on the couch, but many university students now opt to spend their brief vacations contributing to the public good through alternative spring break programs. This year, four master’s students from the UNC School of Information and Library Science (SILS) worked with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for a week, helping “the nation’s record keeper” with important projects and gaining valuable insights into their future careers.    

Jessica Kincaid, Hannah Noel, Devon Murphy, and Erin Black with certificates
from NARA recognizing their work during spring break 2017.

Jessica Kincaid went to Chicago, while Erin Black, Devon Murphy, and Hannah Noel traveled to Washington, D.C. The students, who are all completing their first year at SILS, received distinct assignments that offered glimpses into how a high-caliber archival organization operates.

Kincaid, a Master of Science in Information Science (MSIS) student, worked on the archival processing project, digitizing district court files related to one of Chicago’s most notorious citizens – Al Capone.  In D.C., Black worked on the Information Services Portfolio, and Noel was a research assistant on the Black Cabinet Subject portal, a project focused on making obscure parts of African American history more visible. Murphy worked with the Selective Service Processing Project to organize records from World War II. 

“I mainly wanted to do the program because I have a large interest in archives, but know so little about their day-to-day practice,” said Murphy, who is pursuing dual master’s degrees in information science and art history. “I figured a week immersion in a massive archive would acquaint me with aspects of archival work and current issues such as processing and access — and it did!”

The students working in D.C. were pleasantly surprised by the hospitality and openness they encountered during the week.  Murphy had expected many areas to be off-limits given that it was a federal building, but all three students went on thorough tours and were able to view other areas like the microfilm collection room at their leisure. The staff were also encouraging to their potential future colleagues. 

“Every person I met and worked with at the Archives and Archives II was encouraging, friendly, and willing to share their experiences both on and off the job, as well as how they ended up in their current profession,” said Noel, a student in the Master of Science in Library Science (MSLS) program. “We were given a thorough tour of both facilities, introduced to both the Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, and the Assistant to the Archivist, Sam Anthony, and encouraged to ask questions and make contacts by our project supervisors.”

Each student’s experiences dovetailed with their larger career interests. Black, an MSLS student at SILS, wants to work with digital libraries and user experience, and her position provided her first taste of UX work by designing a page on the National Archives collaboration network. 

Noel is interested in advancing information literacy in underserved populations and working to preserve and promote knowledge and use of important cultural documents and objects in non-traditional spheres. For her project, she researched and wrote biographies for the Black Cabinet — an informal group of African-American public policy advisor’s for Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the New Deal — which were then published on NARA’s official website as a part of the Black Power Subject Guide. 

For Murphy, her experience sparked an already smoldering interest in archives. She wants to explore how the physical spaces of museum and archival holdings interact to create information spaces, as well as how people organize those spaces to elicit certain kinds of information.  She already has some experience on the museum side, which has different goals and workflow, but processing draft records from World War II and beyond helped expand her knowledge.

“From this experience, I have a better idea of how processing works, why archival materials are described and organized the ways that they are, how much agency archivists have in determining these factors, and most importantly, how I can explore these questions further for my research.”

Story by Logan Ulrich, SILS Communications Assistant