Public History Grad Assistant in Special Collections
by Tracy Harter
No one could have predicted what would result from this simple phone call. In August, 2007, Dr. Gabrielle Lanier, a faculty member in JMU’s History department, contacted Special Collections Librarian Tracy Harter to inquire whether Special Collections could use a 20-hour per week graduate assistant for one semester during the 2007-08 academic year. This was to be a new graduate assistantship for an incoming graduate student interested in public history, who would spend one semester in a museum setting and another in an archives setting. This was great news for Special Collections, as the assistant would be available for twice the number of hours than that of an intern, had a vested interest in public history, and would be funded through the History Department, not the library. Special Collections looked forward to working with the new graduate assistant during Spring Semester 2008.
Heather Browne, public history graduate assistant working in Carrier Library Special Collections.
And what a semester it was! Heather Browne, a May 2007 graduate of Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, PA, with a degree in history and a minor in gender and women’s studies, quickly proved to be a valuable asset to Special Collections. Initially, she arranged, described, and created the finding aid for the Liskey Collection of Heavner Family Papers, 1791-1967, SC#5006. Upon completion of this project, Heather subsequently arranged, described, and created the finding aids for several other diverse manuscript collections, including Long’s Store Account Books, 1869-1921, SC# 4056, Mt. Clinton Post Office Records, 1879-1893, SC# 4057, the Virginia Elizabeth Tisdale Fenlon Collection, SC# 4058. She became proficient creating html finding aids for the Special Collections website as well as EAD “encoded archival description” finding aids, which were uploaded and sent to the Virginia Heritage Project, a database of finding aids from member repositories in Virginia.
Heather’s professionalism and attention to detail in these finding aids inspired the Special Collections Librarian to hire her for the summer to assist in other areas of archival administration, and to encourage Heather to extend her assistantship for a semester of 08-09 academic year, which she gladly did. Working closely with the Preservation Specialist and a summer intern, Heather served as the point person for maintaining intellectual control of manuscript and archival collections during an NEH-funded preservation and rehousing project. Heather joked that she “spent so much time here that I know where everything is by heart.” This working knowledge of the collections, and the variety of materials housed therein, served her well when providing reference to patrons.
By Fall 2008, Heather was an archivist at heart! When asked what she liked most about working in Special Collections, she answered “everything.” For Heather, working in Special Collections involved a variety of skills, which suited her interests well. As a result, she actively sought permission from the History department to explore a non-traditional thesis, which would involve processing a collection of papers from a local social work organization, Project Concern, Inc., recently acquired in Special Collections. She continued to work closely with the Special Collections Librarian on projects ranging from describing oral history interviews, preservation scanning of archival materials, compiling metadata for scanned images, and revision of non-standard finding aids, and continued to represent Special Collections to a variety of patrons.
Heather’s contributions to Special Collections during the last year have had far reaching results. She has left her mark on the collections she processed. Her thesis project, the first of its kind in the History Department, sets a precedent from which other scholars in the field of public history may benefit. By serving as the first graduate assistant in public history, she has singlehandedly demonstrated that graduate assistantships in public history have a place at JMU. In addition, the experience of this partnership may also serve as a gateway for possible graduate assistantships in other areas of JMU Libraries & Educational Technologies.
Heather will graduate in May 2009 with an M.A. in History with a public history concentration. Although Heather will be missed, the Special Collections Librarian will look forward to her contributions to the future of the profession. Good luck, Heather!