[Series] So What Do You Do? My Practicum Experience at a Small Academic Archive

This post is part of a new series called “So What Do You Do?” in which LIS students talk about their experiences as interns. We want to showcase the wide range of things people are doing in the world of library and information science.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

My name is Nicole Helregel and I’m in my second year of the MLIS program at the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign. My undergraduate degree is in American History, from Beloit College (in Wisconsin!). I’m currently a graduate assistant at an academic library, where I mostly work the reference desk, create exhibits, and update web content. On a more personal note, I’ve recently come to the conclusion that delicious soups are good for the soul and perhaps the best way to combat the winter blues.

So what do you do?

This past semester I spent over 100 hours working at the Illinois History and Lincoln Collections (one part of the larger University of Illinois Library system) as part of a practicum experience. Because I’m a townie, I was able to start my practicum during the summer (even though I was technically registered for it in the fall semester) and worked, on average, about six hours a week from August through December. It’s a small unit, with two full time employees and no graduate or student assistants; thus, they were very grateful and receptive when I approached them about a practicum.

While I’d worked in archival settings before, I really wanted a more independent, project-driven experience. My supervisor at the IL History & Lincoln library was very accommodating and supportive; I was pretty much given free rein to work on whatever interested me. I ended up processing a number of different collections, including Civil War letters, suffrage materials and ephemera, and Quaker meetinghouse papers. And my final project, which is a requirement of the practicum at Illinois, was to inventory, organize, and catalog the library’s map collection.


Cool old maps!

Did you find your coursework helpful in that position? In what way?

I definitely found that a number of courses informed my work. I’d taken an Archival Organization & Management course which, in addition to my job experiences, really helped me notice things about the structure of the institution and how it functioned.

I haven’t actually taken a full cataloging course yet, so the map cataloging I needed for my final project was fairly self-taught and cobbled together from online resources. However, we did learn some basic cataloging tenets in my introductory LIS course (Information Organization & Access) that were definitely helpful. Some of the handling techniques we learned in my Rare Books & Special Collections Librarianship course were also helpful, especially for some of the very old and delicate maps.

What would you say are the lessons you’ve taken away from this job/internship/etc?

I think the main lesson I learned from my practicum is that you have to find a balance between taking on new things when you can and knowing when to ask for help when it’s too much. My supervisor really encouraged me to take the initiative and go outside my comfort zone in terms of picking projects, which was great because I really stretched myself. But he was also always there to give advice, offer a helpful reference source or two, and point me in the right direction. I think finding a supervisor who is at once challenging and supportive is key in finding a great site for a practicum.

Another lesson that was important for me was that you can learn a lot from asking people candid questions about their job, their institution, and how it functions. One of the practicum requirements at Illinois is your participation in a series of online forum posts; most of the posts require you to talk with your coworkers to find out more about their daily work schedule, the institution’s inner workings, and their thoughts about the future of the field. These conversations were very eye-opening in a way that I feel only face-to-face interactions can be. While maybe not as cheery or polished as published interviews or profiles (like the ones found in LIS magazines and blogs), I think conversations with LIS professionals can really open our eyes, as students, to the realities, both positive and negative, of the careers we aspire to.


I also learned that when you work at a Lincoln Library, there is Lincoln art EVERYWHERE. Check out this awesome Grecian bust of Lincoln. You know you love it.

How do you think this will help with your career?

While there were certainly days that I felt very confused and out of my depth, I really enjoyed the independent nature of my practicum. It really made me seek out new resources, both online and in person, to learn what I needed to so that I could  get the job done. From what I’ve heard and read that is pretty much what I’ll often be expected to do as a librarian. With new technology and tools available every day, librarians have to be willing to adapt and learn new skills even after they leave library school. While I certainly hadn’t initially planned it that way, I’m glad my practicum gave me a small taste of what my professional life will probably be like.

Interested in sharing your internship experience? Contact us at hacklibschool@gmail.com.

4 replies

  1. I love how you found the internship and had the creative freedom to do your own project. I have had a variety of different internships over the undergrad and now graduate school, but I have always applied.
    I like the idea that if I can’t find it I can create it. Thanks for sharing.


  2. Thanks for sharing your experience, Nicole! I think it is incredibly smart that you sought out this opportunity rather than waiting for it to fall into your lap (which it probably wouldn’t have). Often all it takes is asking! I’ve tried to take this same attitude and seek out places to intern/volunteer. You’re right that often smaller libraries and archives will give you more leeway to pick projects, which is always nice.

    Oh, and don’t mind the charming troll above. We all make mistakes and it doesn’t detract from the quality of your post in the least 🙂


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