Today’s blog post is written by one of our student employees here at UCI Special Collections & Archives, Deborah Lewis.
Every summer, thousands upon thousands of students come from all parts of the country to intern in Washington DC. This summer I was one of these interns. Through the University of California Washington DC Summer Internship Program (UCDC), I gained an internship with the National Archives. My pairing was extremely fortunate because my supervisor, Jane Fitzgerald, is the archivist assigned to the vault. For ten weeks, I worked with her in the vault and had the privilege to see many of America’s treasures. The first record that Jane showed me was the Oath of Allegiance signed by Benedict Arnold whose oath no longer has George Washington’s signature (someone had ripped it off). Other records that I was shown over the course of my internship included George Washington’s annotation of the Constitution; the Dunlap broadside, one of the first published copies of the Declaration of Independence; Brown vs. the Board of Education; Ford’s pardon of Nixon; the first public law ever (it was regarding the Oath of Allegiance); the first public law President Obama signed; and an Indian Peace Treaty with wampum attached to it. One of the coolest things I was shown was the Louisiana Purchase. My supervisor made it even more special for me when she opened the skippet to show me the wax seal inside. I do have to say that I expected Napoleon Bonaparte’s signature to be a little bit bigger. See for yourself here!
Over the next two and a half months, I worked on two projects. One was a reference list of state related documents located in the vault. This project required me to research via the internet, the Statutes at Large, and the vault in order to compile a list complete with a description of the act and its location. The list is now located in the vault to assist Jane whenever she receives an inquiry related to these documents.
The second project I was assigned to concerned the Nuclear Test Ban Treaties of 1963. The first stage involved a little processing, and I was tasked with refoldering and reboxing each treaty. As I went through the 128 treaties, Jane and I kept a friendly wager on which country would have the best-looking treaty. My choice kept changing, but Jane’s confidence in Japan never faltered. With the treaty handwritten in Japanese and bound in a red velvet covering with a hand stitched golden sun on the cover and the inside lined with silk, no other country came close to Japan’s not even the United States. The next stage required me to go back through the folders and to describe each item and input them into the holdings database. Unfortunately, ten weeks was not enough time to complete this second stage, but I was able to describe more than half of these folders (totaling an estimated six hundred items). I truly enjoyed working on this project and seeing not only how each country presented their treaties, but also seeing the politics behind the signing of these treaties.
Interns at the National Archives were also given the task of retrieving records for researchers as well as staffing the reference desk. The stacks are unlike the ones located here at UC Irvine. First off, there are specific times for pulling records. Secondly, the stacks are much more vast. They are comprised of more than a dozen tiers on both the west side and the east side of the building. These floors are then broken up into quadrants, ranging from 20 to 60 (or more!) rows of shelves. The best way to describe what the stacks look like is by comparing it to a submarine—narrow aisles and low ceilings. Whenever I was scheduled for a record retrieval shift, I felt like I was on an adventure traveling up and down the elevators, waving my badge everywhere in order to gain access past every door, and searching for that ever elusive record box.
It wasn’t always all work and no play at the National Archives. Interns were taken on tours of the National Archives in College Park. A meeting was also arranged with the Archivist of the United States, David S. Ferriero, which was definitely one of the highlights of my internship. Toward the end of my internship, I accompanied my supervisor to the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute to witness this relatively new technology called Reflectance Transformation Imaging, which takes multiple photos at different positions of an object. The purpose of this is to reveal what we cannot see with the naked eye. It is a very interesting as well as a complex technique. I also sought out on my own to meet with as many experienced archivists as I could, one archivist being from the Library of Congress. I was able to attend a lecture as well as a tour of the Manuscript Division. Both before my internship in DC and during, I found the archivist community to be very welcoming and eager to advise new archivists. This amount of support has only drawn me closer to the field.
Several times throughout my internship I found myself saying—and feeling—“This is where I am supposed to be.” One such moment was when an intern from the Department of Justice was given permission to visit the vault in order to see the Indian Peace treaty that his ancestors signed. Being able to watch someone’s reaction as he sees something his ancestors touched is as fulfilling as me finding my own family history in the archives. This is what the archives are about—not only preserving the past, but aiding others in retrieving their past. My experience at the National Archives is definitely one that I will take with me as I continue my journey to become an archivist.