Monday, May 28, 2012

What do you do? I archive

Lots of files.
My last day of work study for the year is fast approaching and I couldn't be happier. When I think about how much time I've spent filing and scanning and filing and scanning and filing and scanning, I get a little dizzy. And it's not because there's a lot of activity related with those two tasks. In fact there's barely any.

I work at the University Archives, but I'm a student worker. So I don't do much. But I'm pretty good at filing and scanning - as if you couldn't tell.

Before I got to this school, I'd never held a steady job in my life. I'd never held a job in my life, really. All my summers were spent sitting in front of my television or going to the mall with my grandma. Responsibility was not my middle name. It wasn't even very often in my vocabulary...unless you count finishing homework on time.

Back in elementary school, I would talk to my mom about college all the time. We spoke of it as if it was an inevitability. I guess that was right - I did end up going to a good university and it did seem pretty inevitable for all of my life. But what wasn't inevitable was the prospect of working while in college.

Some of my mom's favorite morality tales were the ones that ended with her telling me why you shouldn't grow up too fast. She told me that I should enjoy my time not wearing make-up. She would explain how once she started wearing eyeliner it made her skin less healthy (That must have been some pretty bad eyeliner). She told me it was a good idea to wait until it was absolutely necessary to shave my legs. If she had chosen wisely she would have waited until high school, she said.

I didn't follow her rulebook in either of those aspects of my life. By the time I was in tenth grade, I was wearing make-up to school and I'd been shaving my legs for three or four years. I didn't see the point in letting myself look awkward and ugly just to "preserve my youth" for a few more years.

My mom also had another rule. Don't get a job until you're out of school.

Well that suggestion didn't stick either.

More files.
When I got to college, one of my first steps was to begin applying for work study jobs. Admittedly, it was part of my financial aid package and many other students are also work study participants. It's not unheard of. In fact, I'm more surprised when people don't have the necessity for work study than I am to know that anyone does need it.

As I filled out the paperwork, I remember considering what my mom's perspective would have been on the subject. Would she have forced me to throw down the pen and walk out before I could sell my soul to the University Archives?

I don't know, but I'm glad it didn't happen that way.

What I do three days a week is pretty simple and uninspired. For two to four hours per day of work, I go into the old half of our University Library, say 'hi' to a supervisor...and then I file. Occasionally I look through photos and scan things. Or sometimes I return papers to their files downstairs or in the storage center outside of the library.

That's pretty much it.

It sounds exciting, no? I didn't think I fooled you anyway.

Despite all this negativity, being an archival assistant has undoubtedly given me some pretty amazing and invaluable experiences at my school. Or at least interesting experiences, depending on how easily you're amused.

For my work, I've gotten to look through artifacts of the school dating back to its earliest days before the turn of the 20th century. I've gotten to learn about some of the leaders of our university past and present, to know their brief stories when other students might not even recognize their names. I've found out about some of our most interesting alumni and read through strange papers and collections that speak to the history of the school.

Day to day - or at least Monday to Wednesday to Friday - at my job I get to interact with some seriously eccentric folks who know a bit too much about one little Midwestern school. And despite their oddness, they're great people.

But I think the best thing about working in the Archives is that I've gotten to be intellectually stimulated for so much of the process. Granted, I've spent hours sitting around in the same room clicking a mouse. I've also spent hours standing and putting papers away into file folders. It's not always a fascinating experience.

Yet among my most boring experiences - the ones that I often complete half-asleep - are the great things that I've gotten to do that my fellow work study students (who sit at a desk and do homework for eight hours) will never quite understand. Here are just a few:

1. I've gotten to read through a couple of holiday cards that alumnus Zach Braff sent to his old theater professor. On the envelope of the cards was a return address that I may or may not have written down.

2. There are pictures and pictures of student plays, including those with some famous alumni like Stephen Colbert, Ann-Margret, Paul Lynde, Warren Beatty, etc., that I've had the pleasure of looking through.

3.  Last year, I compiled a set of photos, books, clippings and dance cards about Valentine's Day and its relation to the school. For those who don't know what dance cards are, they're pocket-sized booklets where girls and boys would write down the names of whomever had asked them to dance at a formal.

4. In looking through the papers of a professor who dealt with the supposition of otherworldly life forms, I've gotten to read testimonials and see drawings of reported "UFO" sightings.

5. For a large portion of last year, I researched a hippie coffeehouse on campus that hosted concerts in the 1970's on and off campus, including a performance by the Grateful Dead.

And in an even broader sense, I've come to know more trivia than most students learn throughout their entire tenure at school. Simply by being surrounded by all the seemingly worthless papers of professors and students and alumni and administrators, I've experienced the history of my college in a way that most people don't ever have or take the opportunity to do. And I get paid for it.

I think I complain a bit too much about my work at the Archives. Sometimes I side with my mom, wondering why I take so much time out of my week to go to work for minimum wage when I could be using that time to finish up homework assignments.

But if I really think about it, my mom was wrong. Sure, jobs while you're studying can be a stressful addition to an already overloaded schedule. They can be a downer and a source of boredom in the few free hours of your day. But they can also be endlessly fascinating and unique. They can make you knowledgeable and inquisitive. They can help you manage your time more efficiently. They can show you the value of a dollar that you've worked hard for.

They can also make you a better person.

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