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June 22, 2017

Library Insider

Librarians Mentor Undergrads in Archival Research

“With this project, I have created something helpful for the library, faculty at the University, my fellow students, and myself. I had never expected to learn so much about the world or myself.”
– Leslie Rose (A&S ’17), Archival Scholars Research Award recipient

The University Library System librarians knew our Archival Scholars Research Awards (ASRA) would provide benefits to the students themselves, but we were thrilled and proud to have helped these undergraduates find a deeper connection with their research material, their future academic/career plans and future scholars and researchers.

ASRA started last year when a few University Library System (ULS) librarians got together to discuss applying for a mini-grant from Pitt’s Year of the Humanities in the University matching funds program to create internships for students to work with primary source material and archival collections. Our librarians work daily with graduate students, faculty, and researchers on dissertations, projects, in-depth research and more, but undergraduates are largely unware of the rich resources in our archives and special collections. A group of librarians got together to address this gap.

These librarians collectively outlined a number of potential internship position descriptions based on some of the University Library System’s popular collections, such as gender, sexuality, and women’s studies, Pittsburgh history and childhood studies/history of children, as well as topics in music or fine arts. Our librarians’ plan was to focus on the archival methods of organization and description to increase the discoverability of lesser-known archives and special collections, but they wanted to include student-created output that might include inventories, processing plans, archival finding aids or metadata that could be of benefit to the library. This would provide a unique opportunity for students to see their research go further than just their own work, to create academic tools to help future researchers better discover some of the same material or experience different connections in the learning community of Pitt and beyond.

The application requirements for the award included a written proposal by the students; a reflection essay for the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR), our partner in this program; and an assignment related to the research, such as a working lesson plan or other piece as approved by the faculty mentor. The archives research component would include the archival research under the supervision of a librarian and the creation of a library deliverable as we initially envisioned, such as finding aids, inventories or metadata. Archive award recipients also agreed to complete five research hours per week and attend three workshops over the term. They would also participate in the Celebration of Research event at the end of the term, sponsored by OUR, alongside all OUR research award recipients.

Nick Grieneisen (A&S ’16), one of the ASRA students who worked with our music librarian Jim Cassaro pointed to reproductions of Gregorian chants, showing an analysis of the scribed manuscripts that provided him with “insight into how historians and archaeologists piece together independent objects and ideas in order to come up with broader theories about how the world works.” Another ARSA student, Corina Andriescu (A&S ’16), a medical student planning a career in pediatrics, used books from our Nesbitt Collection, which primarily comprises children’s literature and material related to the history of children and their books and media. Corina wanted to learn more about the history of black characters written during the Black Arts period (1965-1975) which she noted will inform her work with diverse patients. A third student, Zachary Grewe (A&S ’17), followed his interest in activism, using our archives of Pittsburgh queer periodicals from the ’70s and ’80s to examine queer identity in the Pittsburgh area in the latter half of the 20th century. His analysis brought out an altogether unexpected aspect of researching primary sources, as he explained in his final reflection: “What I did not expect were the acute feelings of nostalgia … As I traced the development of queer culture in the steel city, I began to notice in myself a profound longing for the sense of community created by historic marginality.” Zachary also wrote several Tumblr posts for our Special Collections Tumblr blog as part of his project.

These students’ learning experiences were deep and rich – touching in some of the students the same sense of excitement and pride that we in the library and archives realize every day in our dealings with primary source material.

The example of these three students working on one collection illustrates the rich possibilities and wide-ranging connections even one collection can bring to a variety of research topics. The ASRA awards are an enriching experience for select undergraduates to become researchers, scholars and, along with their librarian advisors, members of a learning organization building a community of knowledge for future researchers to both better access and engage with our unique historical collections.

Interested in becoming part of the program? Want to learn more? Know of a student who would be interested? Email Jeanann Haas, head of special collections, at

 Heidi Card is the social media librarian at the University Library System. She can be reached via email at

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