Hidden Learning: Undergraduates at Work in the Archives

By Kelly Miller, Michelle Morton
September 2012

Students as Archivists

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Behind the scenes in special collections libraries and archives across the country, undergraduate students are being hired as part-time, temporary employees to assist with processing cultural-heritage materials. A recent survey of recipients of Cataloging Hidden Collections Special Collections and Archives grant projects[1] found that 97% of respondents employ student workers, and 73% reported that their student workers included undergraduate students. Students are assisting with civil rights collections at Emory University, modernist architectural drawings and plans at North Carolina State University, Jewish cultural-heritage materials at the College of Charleston, and Moravian historical documents at Lehigh University, to name just a few examples. Employing students in special collections libraries and archives is not a new practice; indeed, many of today’s career librarians and archivists were once student workers themselves. Generally this is a budget-driven practice: students are in need of work and their labor is relatively inexpensive. The educational impact on students, however, is not widely understood or even acknowledged. How does working in archives impact students themselves? What skills do they acquire? Is their library employment connected to their studies? Does this work experience influence their career path? How does engagement with cultural-heritage materials affect their learning in the digital age?

Archivists as Educators

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Student workers require management: recruitment, training, oversight, and mentorship. In fact, when viewed strictly as employees, student workers—a transitory population with jam-packed, fluctuating schedules—do not represent the ideal work force. At the same time, we know that employment in the archives gives students an exceptional opportunity for applied learning under the guidance of professional archivists who can provide for the growth of intellectual and practical skills. These skills include exposure to primary sources combined with hands-on training in cataloging, processing, preserving, and digitizing such materials. Working with primary sources involves precisely the kind of active, integrative, experiential learning that is vital to inspiring undergraduate research.[2] So, how can we better reconcile the challenges of employing student workers with the potential educational benefits of such labor? We believe that by recognizing and empowering archivists in their roles as teachers, the informal or “hidden” learning that student workers gain can become more visible.

Linking Archival Work to the Educational Missions of Universities and Colleges

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Based on anecdotal evidence, we know that student workers’ exposure to primary sources and the skills and technologies necessary to preserve, manage, and study them is resulting in student learning, informing choices of major, and altering career paths. Yet, the informal or “hidden learning” that is occurring behind the scenes in libraries and archives is treated largely as a side effect, a fortunate but contingent byproduct of labor, rather than as an integral part of the educational mission. We hope this situation changes with closer attention to the educational experiences of students working in the archives. To that end, we are currently engaged in a study that investigates the impact of working in libraries and archives on students involved in civil rights-related hidden collections projects. These civil rights collections—records of organizations such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Alianza Hispano-Americana, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Voter Education Project—are often directly connected to local communities and relevant to contemporary issues and curricula. Most importantly, students are often able to recognize themselves and their communities in the collections, thus increasing the potential for transformative educational experiences. We believe that such work should be acknowledged as precisely the kind of applied learning that most higher education institutions are now actively pursuing in the form of internships, field work, and community service. Our study raises the following questions:

  • 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0
  • What if “student workers” were perceived as “student archivists,” “young researchers,” or “apprentice scholars”?
  • What if student participation in the work of libraries and archives was foregrounded and celebrated, instead of remaining largely anonymous?
  • What if training students was seen as central to the business of library and archival practice in educational institutions?
  • What if the work students were being hired to do was considered essential to their educational experience and the mission of their universities?
  • What if professional archivists emphasized their role as teachers within institutions of higher education?

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0

Archival Work, the Digital Humanities, and the Library Commons

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Connecting informal learning to university education requires that librarians, archivists, and technologists view themselves as educators working alongside faculty to help students become researchers in a hybrid analog-digital world. Twenty-first-century models for collaborative learning and teaching are emerging, especially in the digital humanities, where students study primary sources in digital formats and apply new technologies to pose and answer research questions. In the digital humanities, students are being guided by faculty to identify and study research questions using new technologies in partnership with their peers. At many institutions, such classes and activities are being supported in Library Commons’ spaces—multi-service research and learning hubs that are technology-enabled and staffed by professional librarians and technologists. How might the hidden learning that students are experiencing behind the scenes in special collections libraries and archives be connected to the digital humanities and the Library Commons?

Teaching the Whole Student: Faculty, Librarian, Archivist, and Technologist as a Team

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Creating an integrated learning experience demands a symbiotic mindset—a team approach—with archivists, librarians, technologists, and faculty working together to support student learning through engagement with primary sources and new technologies. At the very least, expanding access to primary sources, both physical and digital, in the undergraduate curriculum will require intensifying and scaling coordination and collaboration between the faculty member teaching disciplinary content, the librarian teaching research strategies, the technologist teaching digital tools, and the archivist teaching primary sources. The aim of such coordination would be to provide an environment in which students were more likely to develop skills necessary for success in the knowledge-driven economy of the twenty-first century. Today’s students must learn not only to find and analyze reliable information, but also to communicate effectively, solve problems, work in teams, use advanced digital tools to create new knowledge, and engage in multicultural communities. The phenomenon of student employment on archival projects is happening largely undetected at the margins of higher education, but it could inspire a new approach to undergraduate learning that foregrounds the role of cultural heritage in the digital age.

[1] The Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives grant program, funded by The Mellon Foundation and administered by the Council on Library and Information Resources, addresses the problem of “hidden collections”: millions of cultural heritage materials held by libraries and archives that have not been adequately described and remain unavailable to researchers.
[2] See, the definition of “high-impact educational practices” articulated by the Association of American Colleges and Universities LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise) Program:
Hidden Learning: Undergraduates at Work in the Archives

Kelly Miller

Director of Teaching and Learning Services and Head of the College Library – UCLA Library

Hidden Learning: Undergraduates at Work in the Archives

Michelle Morton

Librarian – Cañada Community College

3 Comments on the whole post
Jim Gerencser says:

Kelly and Michelle,

I couldn’t agree more. In fact, an undergraduate student of mine mentioned to me this morning that he ran across your article and thought of how we do things at Dickinson College. As an undergraduate-only institution, we have for many years employed students and watched them develop skills and understanding regarding the primary sources they work with and the digital technologies we employ, while at the same time integrating knowledge learned in the classroom.

About 1 in 4 of our undergraduate work/study students go on to pursue careers in archives, libraries, and museums. I surveyed former student employees 5 years ago to learn how they viewed their employment, and the response was very positive. An article regarding the survey and its results, “Finding Value and Meaning through Work/Study in the Archives,” can be found in “Past or Portal? Enhancing Undergraduate Learning thorugh Special Collections and Archives,” edited by Eleanor Mitchell, Peggy Seiden, and Suzy Taraba (ACRL: 2012).

Thanks for reminding us all that educating – not just our college students, but all of our users – is one of the most important aspects of our profession.

Jim Gerencser

Kelly Miller says:


Thank you so much for your kind words! The work you are doing with students at Dickinson College is very inspiring. I was glad to read your article in “Past or Portal? Enhancing Undergraduate Learning through Special Collections and Archives,” a wonderful contribution to the important topic of how libraries contribute to student learning. I believe this is an exciting time for Special Collections and Archives.

On a side note, I spent one year working as a Visiting Professor of Russian at Dickinson College, so I know your gorgeous library very well! Undergraduates at Dickinson are in good hands.

Kelly Miller

Jennifer Quier says:

Kelly and Michelle,
What a wonderful piece! I am reading this just after an intern finished her time in the Archives, and she told us that her initial impression was that she “would just be scanning things all day,” but that working with us and having the opportunity to process collections and see the outreach work we do totally changed her internship experience. If you ladies ever find yourselves in Nashville, please come to the Archives to say hello!

Jennifer Quier

Comment on this Post