Library Student Interns at the Smithsonian

Ashley Boykins is a senior art history major and German minor working at the William H. Hannon Library in the Department of Archives and Special Collections. We highlighted her back in Spring of last year before she interned at the Smithsonian. We wanted to follow up and see how things went! The following was prepared by Jessica Guardado.

How was your experience working at the Smithsonian?

My experience was wonderful. I met so many amazing people: my supervisors and other employees at the Archives of American Art included archivists, registrars, curators and collectors, publishers, and so many other people all working for the same goal of preserving American art history. I met my amazing roommate who I lived with at the George Washington University dorms, and my fellow Smithsonian interns – at the Archives I worked with a public history Ph.D. candidate at UMass, a MLIS graduate student at Catholic University, and a visual studies major from the University of Calgary. Hearing all of their different perspectives and seeing how we all fit into the world of archives was very interesting, and I learned a lot from them all. We formed a close friendship over the 12-week internship, and we still talk to each other every single day! DC in the summer is an intern haven, and the energy is infectious. Intelligence is celebrated, and kids come from all over the world to work hard and propel themselves forward.

In my work with the archives, I was able to help organize and house materials from African-American artists I have loved and admired my entire life. This group included Jacob Lawrence, Sam Gilliam, and Ed Clark, as well as artists I had not heard as much about such as Senga Nengudi, a brilliant performance artist and sculptor (look her up!). I was also able to write and publish my first finding aids, and now my writing is on the Smithsonian website.

National Gallery of Art
National Gallery of Art, East Building

The internship also provided me with many opportunities to take private museum tours with curators, have lunches with members of the Smithsonian’s staff, attend lectures and symposiums at the Whitney Museum and Freer and Sackler Galleries of Art, and learn first-hand about the benefits and challenges of working for a government-funded arts institution.

What skills did you acquire at the library that help you in your internship?

Working at the William H. Hannon Library provided me with the basic knowledge I needed to jump into my internship. On my first full day at the archives, my boss handed me the Smithsonian’s processing manual and asked me to read it. A couple of hours later they put me to work! If I had not had the foundation of working at Hannon Library I would have felt very lost, but I was familiar with a lot of the language and collections processing steps already because of my job at the library. It was just a matter of understanding how the Smithsonian Institution does things and adjusting how I tackled the collections.

Working with Loyola Marymount University researchers also helped me as I wrote finding aids, because I was familiar with the type of information people typically want to know about a collection before they request it. This helped me really focus my writing and manuscript organization more towards the researcher’s needs.

What did you enjoy the most about working at the Smithsonian?

What I enjoyed most about the Smithsonian internship is what I enjoy most about archival work: learning something new every day! Working with artists’ papers, I was able to see mail and correspondence, gallery files, artwork pricing contracts and marketing materials, contracts between the artists and museums, sketchbooks, and all sorts of things. Because I am an art history student, this was beyond fascinating to me. My favorite moments would be when I found personal letters between two artists I loved; I really enjoyed reading what they discussed about their art practice and the world at the time. I started to feel like I knew the people whose papers I was working with.

greenhouse plants
Smithsonian gardens greenhouse facility

Something I learned: when you are going through things that people have collected this often includes records of historical moments you did not plan on finding. For example, one day I came across an original copy of the 1970 issue of the New York Times, highlighting the Kent State shooting. I found so many important materials like this, and got to hold in my hands things that I had previously only seen in photographs. That was a really eerie and exciting experience. Every day I went to work was like a treasure hunt.

What plans do you have for this summer?

This summer I will be working at the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills as an Archival Processing Intern for The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Academy has an internship enhancement program called the “Academy Gold Program” which includes master classes with film industry professionals, special movie screenings and panels, and a mentorship with someone in your profession of interest. I am not sure which collections I will be working with yet, but I am very excited to experience archival work in a completely new and different context while learning a ton about movies and the film industry!

What advice would you give to incoming students about working in the library?

Working in the library has so many benefits. It has really strengthened my research abilities, as I feel much more confident in finding sources through the library website and books in the stacks. It has also taught me what a librarian actually does all day, and how they can enhance your education. They really want to help you learn and succeed and are always happy to help, so make sure you take advantage of their knowledge!

Thank you, Ashley, for sharing your experiences with us. We love to hear about how the William H. Hannon Library prepares students for life and work beyond graduation. If you have a story to tell, let us know! Contact John Jackson, Head of Outreach and Communications for Hannon Library.