Uncovering college history at Archives and Special Collections

How working in MHC's Archives and Special Collections has impacted their lives.

Ruilin Fan ’17 and Margaret Stanne ’16 spent a summer uncovering history. Stanne returned home to Hudson Valley, N.Y. where she invested her time at the Historic Huguenot Street. Alternatively, Fan decided to stay and continue her work at Mount Holyoke College’s Archives and Special Collections, the department in which the two students currently work.

The Archives department hosts various items, from handwritten cards to rare books, that capture the College’s history. Besides adding student archivist onto their resumes, both students agree that this work has enhanced their college experience. Fan reflects, “It just made me realize the historical weight and of the generation of women before me [and] of what they have done to make my experience possible.” At Archives and Special Collections, Fan and Stanne unearth the College’s narratives in order to enrich the experiences of the student body.

In Dwight Hall, across from the McCulloch Center, visitors walk down a flight of stairs and can find Archives and Special Collections. Leslie Fields, Head of Archives, and Debbie Richards, Special Collections Archivist, direct nine student workers and volunteers. Student assistants typically work eight hours per week and invest their time in independent projects. Students can specialize in designing one of the four annual, collaborative exhibits, direct social media, or even suggest and develop a new project. Fan and Stanne crafted their own undertakings.  Fan launched an Archives video series and Stanne expanded the Archives’ social media outreach by including Instagram; an account that she says is her “baby.” Both feel that their work with the department has amounted to character growth and a discovery of new passions. 

Both students had archival experience prior to working with the College’s division. “I knew how to handle documents – use pencil and handle a folder carefully,” Fan explains, from interning at her high schools’ archives for a month. “I did already know how to re-shelf things in the stocks.” The prospective English and History double major clarifies that her year of service has exposed her to new skill sets. “I learned how to integrate new files, how to help and do sessions.” (Sessions is the process of incorporating donated materials into preexisting folders).

Fan, who hopes to one day be a professor, explains how her college studies have helped her. “I think that the critical thinking and writing skills are the two things that no matter what you’re doing are essential.” Fan also produced the videos uploaded onto the department’s YouTube page. The web series exposes viewers to various insights. Some highlight the current student workers while others expose clip reels from the past. Fan says that the mini-film project has developed her editing skills. The biggest lesson that Fan has learned has been with visitors. “When I started working at the receptionist desk,” she recalls her summer assignment, “I was trained to read others [and] how to take a phone call.” Fan insists that she will incorporate those skills into her personal and professional everyday life.

Stanne also invested previous volunteer high school experience into her work. “I work a lot with the historic clothing collection because I’ve done curatorial work.” Stanne studies History and plans to declare a Nexus minor in Public History, Archives, and Museums. She is determined to work in what she refers to as the “umbrella term of public history”. After handling archival items – such as photos and hand-written documents – Stanne realized that she enjoys more than just designing curatorial exhibits. Beyond discovering a new enthusiasm for her work, Stanne also credits her position for marketing her as a competitive intern applicant. After reapplying for an internship position at Historic Huguenot Street, Stanne recognizes that she offered more desirable qualities than when she was a volunteer. “Coming back I’d added this breadth of experience of doing social media, putting together an exhibit [and] collaborating with other people.” In terms of Archives and Special Collections’ main social media sites – TumblrTwitter and Instagram – Stanne noticed how the pages spawned a network of shared interests. “You can find a connection. I remember we made a post about horseback riding and all of a sudden all of these horseback people were reblogging us.”  Stanne recalls the discovery that she made about the College. “I think the ideal of what a Mount Holyoke woman is has changed.”

The common tasks that all students share include brainstorming ideas for exhibits, commenting on social media, and collaborating with other departments on campus – such as the athletic teams – to record their history. “From the get-go,” Stanne mentioned, “you’re making social media posts, doing research for blog posts, and you’re eventually doing research for your own exhibit.”  Fields (who along with Richards) welcomes students into the department explained, “When a brand new student starts I like to meet with them and go over the basic things.” She also gives the new team member a document that they need to sign with guidelines. One of the statements includes an agreement of confidentially. Many of the paperwork and materials regard private matters of the College. Fields who is an alumna of Smith College, class of 1995, became interested in pursuing a career in archival research during a class her sophomore year. “We were required to go into archives and find an item from a student from the past era. I chose the diary of a woman who had been there in the 1920s who was in the same house or residence hall that I was living in.” The Women’s Studies major realized when she returned to her room that day that she could spend her life discovering the lives of women and make connections through working in archives. After she graduated, Fields attended New York University where she received a Masters in Archives and Public History, her focus was the management of such materials.

Fields has been working at the College for two years and places emphasis on what she values the most in applicants. “Enthusiasm and strong writing skills are very important.” To weed through the 50 applicants of last semester, she placed particular attention to detail in JobX submissions. “When people send their cover letter and resume as a Word document – something that could be changed – it sends out a little alert in my head.” Sending materials as pdf files and labeling the documents with name, subject, and year are also critical. During the interviews, she focuses on the ability to work independently. “Sometimes they’ll need to work in teams to do research, but a lot of the work is independent.”

The balance of academics, work, extracurricular activities and a social life is not easy. Stanne who is a member of the Mount Holyoke Glee Club and assistant director to the Treble Effect, the school’s show choir, said, “Sometimes I get the balance right, sometimes I don’t. I try to plan it so that Saturday is a day of work so I have a bit of a head start on the week and then I give myself Friday and Saturday night off.”

Fan adjusted her 20 credits to 18 for this semester. She stated, “I decided that a wholesome college experience should be an education that takes place both inside and outside the classroom.” She plans on studying abroad in the United Kingdom because “There are a lot of colleges with a tradition of excellence in the humanities.”

With one more year left before graduating, Stanne looks forward to using her Lynk Universal Application Funding (UAF) towards an archives-related internship, but with a different institution. After Mount Holyoke, she intends to go to graduate school. “For what I have to do, I pretty much have to go. It’s pretty much required if you want to get a job. If you work in the Smithsonian, there’s going to be a niche that you have to fill.” Her work at archives has exposed her to various opportunities in the field of public history and she is now focused on trying to find her calling.

Work at Archives and Special Collections allows student assistants, such as Fan and Stanne, to delve into the College’s history and traditions in a manner rarely available to other student employees on campus. Each day their responsibilities and interactions with archival materials have furthered their knowledge of the institution and of the community of students that it has fostered.