SLIS Alternative Spring Break at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library
By Sarah Conrad, MLIS Student
To many students, spring break is that blessed week off of school where they can relax and go on vacation. To me, spring break was all about working hard and gaining valuable work experience. This year I was fortunate enough to participate in the SLIS Alternative Spring Break program and was placed in a weeklong internship at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library in Ann Arbor. I was also lucky to have two other SLIS students joining me at the Ford Library, Natalie Piernak and Nathaniel Arndts. It was nice to have some familiar faces joining me on this project, but I was still pretty nervous going into the first day of the internship; I had never worked in a government archive before and wasn’t sure what to expect. However, by the end of the week I was wishing the internship would never end.
Throughout the week we were assigned to work on three different collections: The Ford Congressional Papers, bulk mail sent to President Ford regarding the Nixon pardon, and mail sent to Betty Ford supporting her “60 Minutes” television interview. Our task with these collections was to rehouse and organize the records as well as do some basic preservation such as removing rusty staples and separating acidic newspaper clippings. Letters about the Nixon pardon and Betty Ford’s interview were also further organized into pro or con sections. This required us to read through the letters to determine their opinions, which turned out to be very entertaining.
There were many letters with very strong opinions, especially regarding the Nixon pardon, and it was great to read about what people were feeling during such a tumultuous time in American history. Working on these collections also turned out to be very helpful in understanding some of the topics we have been discussing in the MLIS program. Both the bulk mail collections were so large, it limited the amount of arrangement that could be applied to them. The letters within each folder were not given much organization mainly because there were so many and any further organization would be too time consuming. In class, we have talked about the difference between detailed arrangement and faster processes like More Product Less Process (MPLP), but at the Ford Library we were able to see these concepts in action and further understand that sometimes the best way to make collections accessible is to limit the amount of arrangement.
Every day during the week we would take a break from working on the collections to meet with different archivists and staff to learn about the various functions of the Ford Library. We toured the Audio/Visual Collections, learned about the Reading Room and policies the library has in place for researchers, and learned about some of the functions that makes the Ford Library unique. While the library is a part of the National Archives and Records Administration, it is the only Presidential Library to still use PresNet, a database originally created in the 1980’s that searches the collection by folder titles. While an older system, many of the archivists we talked to said PresNet provides more detailed results for researchers than newer database systems, which is why they still use it at the library.
All of the tours we had during the week were great and very informative, but the most interesting for me was when we spoke with the declassification archivists. Never having worked in a government archive, this was a completely new aspect of archival work and the most interesting to learn about. Because the library is a Presidential Library, the collections often contain records that are confidential or secret in nature. It is the job of the declassification archivists to review these documents and determine if they can be opened to the public or need to remain closed for security reasons. The process goes well beyond protecting records from copyright issues and we were only allowed to see a small part of what the declassification team does, but it was an amazing experience nonetheless.
By the end of the week not only had I had gained valuable hands-on experience but I also had the chance to work alongside and learn from archivists in the field. Everyone we met at the Ford Presidential Library was very welcoming and willing to share their knowledge with us as we prepare for a career in archives. I enjoyed my time so much that I hope to volunteer this summer and continue working with the amazing team at the Ford Presidential Library. In the end, it wasn’t the relaxing spring break many students probably hope for; I worked hard every day and learned a lot along the way, and I wouldn’t have asked for any other way to spend my spring break.