Learning While Working: The Benefits of Being a Student Assistant in Digital Curation Services

 

Scanning the Bay Psalm Book required unorthodox methods due to the text being close to the gutters.

Scanning the Bay Psalm Book required unorthodox methods due to the text being close to the gutters.

The title-page of the Bay Psalm Book.

The title-page of the Bay Psalm Book.

I recently came across an interesting article titled “Hidden Learning:  Undergraduates at Work in the Archives” that provided an alternative way for viewing the student workforce in many university libraries.  I decided to share this article because, in many ways, Digitization Services is already putting into practice what it’s author’s suggest:  Treating its students as professionals and educators.   When thinking about student workers, generally library assistants, tour guides, bus drivers, and lifeguards, and receptionists come to mind.  Many of these jobs require special training prior to the students being able to work.  However, the level of initiative and creative thinking required by these jobs is generally fairly low.  The job of a Student Assistant at Digitization Services, however, is a different animal altogether.  We work with a broad variety of objects, many of which hail back to a time when printers didn’t follow regulations and books were not bound by novel conceptions such as regular shape or format.  Therefore, while many standards exist and extensive training is provided, the students are required to often make judgment calls and work together to solve problems.  For example, while scanning the Bay Psalm book student workers, Cissy and Neda, found the usual methods of book scanning unsuitable to the task because the binding of the book was incredibly tight.

Student Assistant showing students how book scanning is done.

Student Assistant showing students how book scanning is done.

In their article Hidden Learning:  Undergraduates at Work in the Archives, Kelly Miller and Michelle Morton present a compelling statistic:  97% of recipients of Cataloging Hidden Collections Special Collections and Archives grant projects report that they employ student workers and 73% reported that their student workers included undergraduates. (Miller & Morton, 2013) I find this statistic interesting because I have often encountered surprise when I tell people what I do.  Many people find it astonishing that the University would hire students with little to no previous library and archival experience to work with the delicate rare materials housed in the Special Collections Library.  I understand where these individuals are coming from because on one hand student workers do not make the most efficient work force.  While we are cheaper to employ from a wage standpoint, we are an incredibly unstable population to recruit from for a job that requires as much training and oversight as working in digital curation does.  However, working in an environment like that of Digitization Services has given me and my fellow student workers an excellent opportunity to develop many important skills.

Scanning a Daguerreotype

Scanning a Daguerreotype

From my experience I can easily say that some of the most important life skills I have attained while at the University of Virginia came from my time with Digitization Services as a Student Assistant and later a Student Supervisor. The lessons learned in the classroom have many potential uses, but the lessons learned in Digitization Services, such as teamwork, patience, attention to detail, and communication, are far more directly useful to the workplace.  Regardless of whether we graduate as English, History, Biology, or Mathematics majors, those of us who have worked at Digitization Services will have skills and experience useful to a broad variety of careers. Placing emphasis on the efficient training of student archivists and how that training benefits them educationally improves the over all gains for the student and the library.  In the end these jobs are student jobs, and the worker’s role as a student at a university should not be forgotten.  After all it is the primary job of a university to educate its students, so why shouldn’t emphasis be placed on ensuring that while work gets done, learning is accomplished also?

 

 Jacob Ericson

CLAS 2012