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June 19, 2017

Every so often we like to pull back the curtain and give readers a behind-the-scenes look at the work that we do here in Special Collections. This week we’d like to spotlight some of the hidden but invaluable labor that we get from our student workers at our Main Campus location.  Stay tuned for a Part II post on the additional amazing work our volunteers contribute at our HemisFair Park/ITC Campus location.

Part I: Main Campus Student Spotlight

In a building on the north side of UTSA’s main campus, there’s a quiet hallway with just a few doors. Occasionally people come in and out wearing sweaters and maybe pushing carts full of boxes.  This is the Library Collections Annex, which, along with the reading room and cold storage vault on the 4th floor of the John Peace Library, make up the main campus workspaces for UTSA Libraries Special Collections.  In these cold spaces you’ll find tables covered with boxes of papers, shelves full of archival material and books, dozens of computers and digitization stations buzzing along, and preservation supplies tucked in every available corner.  And in the midst of these things you’ll find the people who tirelessly work—often in sweaters—to make sure archival collections, rare books, and historical photographs are connected to students and the broader community in their research quests.  Here are a few highlights on the kinds of things we do, with a special emphasis on the students who help us along the way.

Before a collection is ready to be requested and used in our reading room it has to be processed, meaning it needs at least a folder level inventory and a basic collection guide produced to help researchers understand what the collection is about, where it came from, and what kind of content they might find in it.


UTSA grad student Christina Frasier removing rusty old fasteners from a collection she’s processing

Depending on what we know about it and the size and shape of the collection when we receive it, this can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few years (such as our Southwest Voter Registration Education Project Collection, which is generously funded by the National Archives!).  This is where our students really help us push through.  With training, they sort through often chaotic paper stacks to find intellectual order, while removing rusty fasteners, replacing aging acidic office folders and encountering all sorts of dust, mold and bugs that find their way into old boxes before donors give them to Special Collections.

In addition to physically processing materials, our students are highly adept at researching information about records creators and assembling descriptive information about collections that we incorporate into our collection guides, also called “finding aids.”  Armed with this carefully-reviewed content, archives staff are able to encode these guides into an XML schema following the Encoded Archival Description (EAD) standard—basically, this is where we invest a little extra time assembling text into a complex system of tags that allows users to more easily find and understand our material online.  After a few cranks in an XML editor, we get the collection guide online and it can be found in search engines and library catalogs.  Here’s a sample collection guide students have had a huge part in producing: “A Guide to the San Antonio River Authority Records, 1920-2014”  (click on Administrative Information to see the names of people who have had a hand in processing this huge collection).


UTSA student Paige Hayhurst, making protective book sleeves for our rare books. Measuring, measuring & measuring before cutting, bending and assembling.

Our students have a knack for performing repetitive, mundane, and highly detailed tasks.  They’re able to handle fragile rare books and documents and take extreme care in creating preservation enclosures that keep the materials protected.  They’re also able to stare at massive spreadsheets to help us sort through inventories, and they’re our go-to people for creating metadata (titles, descriptions, subject terms) for things like photographs (which would be practically un-findable without description!).  And when we need materials digitized, they’re able get through the highly detailed process of scanning according to key parameters, keeping up with progress and creating descriptions for items along the way.  Sometimes, we get really lucky and find out that they have additional talents, like photography skills that help us capture content too big for our scanners!  Then when it’s time to get those scans uploaded into our digital library—a painstaking process that involves spreadsheets, text conversion, finicky software and waiting on status bars—you’ll find them calmly sitting at their computers, delivering content our researchers need amid the sounds of mouse clicks, key strokes, and occasional humming along to music.


Helen Stevens-Martin, graduate intern from Johns Hopkins University, wowing us with her photography skills (and MacGuyver-like ingenuity) as we sought a way to digitize a large trifold presentation board.

We’ve been fortunate enough to have more than a dozen students work in Special Collections in just the past 4 years.  They’ve worked for us as UTSA student clerks or as interns from UTSA and other schools.  We’ve loved having them be a part of our workflow because they’re able to share their unique student perspective, which helps us present information about our collections in a way that others (especially students) can understand better.  Some of them have gone on to work in other libraries, archives and museums, which we delight in knowing, because we’ve helped them develop a passion for connecting the public with the valuable historical materials that they can learn from and use to create new knowledge.  Simply put, our students are rock stars, and we literally couldn’t do the things we’ve been able to do without them.


See our Instagram tag #WeAreSpecialCollections for more behind-the-scenes fun.

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