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Hands-on history

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Museum Studies team tackles research library collection

Team working in the library

UD Museum Studies students gather to study a framed diploma at the Delaware Historical Society Research Library.

Editor's note: Winter Session 2019 marks the 10th year that a group of students from the University of Delaware Museum Studies Program has answered a call for help from a local museum or historical site. Dubbed the SWAT Team, the students provide a jump-start to important projects at small nonprofits while also gaining valuable hands-on experience and marketable career skills. This year, they invited a writer from the College of Arts and Sciences communications staff to join them one morning at the Delaware Historical Society Research Library in Wilmington.

About five minutes into my attempt to help the students sort through and process a box of documents, I realize I may not be cut out for this.

There's a lot of work to be donethe backlog of papers that are waiting to be properly identified and cataloged fill many dozens of boxes stacked around the roomand the students in this intensive, two-week program are tackling the tasks efficiently. While they carefully note descriptions of each item on information sheets that will be attached to file folders, and then move along without delay to the next document, I'm constantly distracted by these intriguing glimpses of the past.

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Two students examine a book

Students Laura Earls (left) and Rachel Nelson begin assessing the contents of a box of books and documents.

There are old snapshots and newspaper clippings about Wilmington families whose names still appear on school buildings and street signs. Name badges and programs from 1977 National Organization for Women conventions. Baby books and high school yearbooks. A 1905 diploma in civil engineering from Delaware College.

And who could resist poring over the World War II era cookbook filled with tips on how to stretch your meat rations by making soup and your sugar allotment by baking cookies with molasses? Not me.

The students also pay attention to the content of the boxes, placing items into folders according to subject matter and identifying them as carefully as they can determine, but they keep up a steady pace, knowing that their work is just a first step.

The sorted and labeled boxes will be further reviewed later and processed so that visitors using the library for genealogical or academic research will be able to find and access what they need.

"Every box we open is a surprise," says Helen Siers, one of six graduate students working this day. "We found one with papers from Wilmington High School in the 1940s on top. Then, underneath, there were deeds from the 1700s."

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Two women examine a photo

Student Patience Ankomah (left) discusses a photograph with the librarys chief curator, Leigh Rifenburg.

By the end of the two weeks, eight graduate students will have taken part, and neatly labeled boxes, filled with orderly folders of historical papers, will be stacked in the library.

Previous SWAT teams have worked on various collections of objects, from duck decoys to fine china to Stanley Steamer automobiles. They've cleaned items, researched their history and set up record-keeping databases for the organizations to continue building.

But this is the first year they've tackled a library, said Katherine C. Grier, professor of history and director of the Museum Studies program.

"We're usually more objects-based," Grier said, "but archives work is increasingly a part of jobs in our field. Our archives classes are very popular, especially with English majors who may want to do that kind of work."

The basic skills used in libraries or archives are similar to those students develop when working with objects, said Megan Hutchins, the Museum Studies program coordinator.

"They're getting experience in a lot of areas they might need, especially as they begin their careers," she said. "Almost every site, especially the smaller ones, has a backlog of items to process."

The Delaware Historical Society Research Library has a small professional staff, so the organization isn't as dependent on volunteers as some museums are. But the SWAT Team's help was still invaluable, said Leigh Rifenburg, the library's chief curator.

"Even if all these items aren't fully cataloged by the time the students leave, this is still a very good start and a big help to us," she said.

Like the Museum Studies program itself, the SWAT Team members are an interdisciplinary group, representing departments of History, English and Fashion and Apparel Studies.

"I'm an English Ph.D. student, and I wanted to get some hands-on experience in a library," said Jessica Thelen. "This seemed like a great opportunity."

Article by Ann Manser; photos by Evan Krape

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Students from the Museum Studies Program, in an intensive effort known as a  SWAT Team, spent two weeks helping process items in a research library collection.
2/19/2019
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Hands-on history