[Series] So What Do You Do? Historical Collection Evaluation

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.


Books patiently awaiting evaluation.

I’m Madeleine Mitchell, and I’m lucky enough to be contributing to HLS during my last semester in library school. I’m earning my MLIS at San Jose State University’s School of Library and Information Science, a program that’s conducted entirely online. While my experience with the online format has been quite good, I would say that the hands-on nature of my internships has been crucial to my professional preparation and training. I earned my BA in English Literature and an MA in Comparative Literature, so librarianship felt like a pretty natural step to me, and I’m also a writer – mostly short stories, but occasional articles make it past the gates, as do various blog posts and book reviews.

So what do you do?

I’ve done two internships during my time at SLIS, but the one I’m going to focus for this post was at San Jose State University Library in the Educational Resource Department. This internship ended in December but I’ll be continuing on with the project as a volunteer, which is why a lot of this is written in the present tense. The ERC department is meant to contain K -12 curricular materials and California’s state approved textbooks, but due to budget cuts, it’s grown to unofficially include the King Library’s large collection of historical textbooks, and even larger collection of historical children’s materials. These collections have been collecting dust, (literally), for years, mostly because the job of evaluating and re-cataloguing them is huge. Undaunted, my supervisor stepped up to the challenge and put out a call for interns, which is where I come in.


A handwriting manual, circa 1910

The historical children’s collection contains over 6,000 titles, roughly 1,000 of which were formerly in Special Collections but were, for various reasons, banished to the less-than-ideal conditions of the lower level. My job last semester was to design an evaluation criterion for the collection and, using that criterion, appraise and evaluate the materials that were formerly in Special Collections. This semester, I’ll be continuing my evaluation with the historical collection’s fairy tale and folklore sub-collections, a task I’m really excited about since I’ll be able to bring my MA to the job, as well as my impending MLIS.

To prevent myself from going into truly exhaustive details about what it is, exactly, that I’m doing (and believe me, I can get exhaustive), here’s a nice, tidy list:

1. Research best practices for collection development of historical children’s materials / special collections, both online and through various institutions, such as the San Francisco Public Library‘s Fox Collection of Early Children’s Books and the University of Washington’s Historical Children’s Literature Collection.


Appleton’s Third Reader. (1877).

2. Establish evaluation criterion based on best practices.

3. Flag titles for preservation / transfer to Special Collections.

4. Perform evaluation and appraisal, including initial preservation survey, using a variety of tools and resources.

6. Document evaluation / appraisal data in spreadsheets.

7. Create and maintain a Pintarest board for the historical juvenile collection.

8. Write bibliographies for titles in the fairy tale, folklore and mythology sub-collections.

9. Research and implement practical ways of increasing patron access to the historical collections through Lib. Guides, pathfinders and webpages.

Are you finding your coursework helpful in that position? In what way?

The answer is yes and no. I’ve taken several classes in children’s materials, which helped me identify titles and authors requiring special attention. I’ve also done a lot of coursework in collection development, which provided a baseline understanding of collections that was invaluable. For the most part though, I taught myself what I needed to know about historical materials and special collections along the way. This isn’t due to a deficiency in SJSU’s program, but rather to the fact that I haven’t done much coursework work in archives and manuscripts. This internship was a great crash course, and really expanded my understanding on a lot of professional levels. My supervisor was also very supportive, which helped in the stressful early days.


Alice au pays des merveilles (Alice in Wonderland). (1974).


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

This might sound a bit cavalier, but the most crucial thing I’ve taken away from this internship is the importance of doing one. Initially, I was a little reticent at the idea, but I’ve filled in gaps that I didn’t even realize I had and, aside from the professional experience, I’ve learned a lot about librarianship, job-hunting and career options from random conversations with my supervisor and her colleagues. I can’t say enough to encourage other library students to find an internship that appeals and go for it – odds are you’ll be surprised at how much you get out of it, even if all you walk away with is the knowledge that you’d rather not pursue that particular career path.

How do you think this internship will help with your career?

Personally speaking, my resume looks a heck of a lot better for having done this internship and I feel a little bit more prepared for me impending job hunt. My big, professional hope is to one day work in children’s and / or young adult’s collection development, so the combination of my two internships will, hopefully, be an asset. The fact that I spent, and am continuing to spend, time working with an unruly historical collection has given me the confidence to look for positions that I might otherwise feel unqualified for. I feel like I can proudly say that I have worked with collections and, while I know that there are a million things I still don’t know, that I have valuable experience to contribute. It’s a good feeling, and based on that alone, I can’t recommend internships highly enough.

Have you done an internship with a historical collection, or in an academic / special collections setting? I’d love to hear what you have to say about the experience!

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

6 replies

  1. I would love to find a job in a special collections setting at an academic library! Dream job! 😀 I live near a children’s literature research collection, the Kerlan: http://special.lib.umn.edu/clrc/ and keep an eye on it in case an entry-level position opens up.

    I meant to mention in my internship post that one of the things I find most valuable about the experience, like you, is having a chance to interact with library professionals in their natural habitat. Informational interviews and job shadowing are great opportunities as well, but there’s nothing like a more extended time period of contact with librarians and also the fact that you are doing work for the library as well that helps to open up conversations about the field, about the work, and about life in general as a librarian.

    Also, I just heard a few days ago about a related situation in Minnesota a couple decades ago with the state education agency’s library being cut…..


    • Oh my gosh, working in special collections at an academic library would be such a dream job! I have to admit that I’m a little envious that you live near the Kerlan – it’s an amazing collection and I’d love to see it in person. I’ve got my fingers crossed that a beautiful position opens up for you to swoop in on :). There are a couple of very nice children’s collections in the Bay Area where I live, but nothing on that scale.

      As to interacting with librarians in their natural professional habitats, I couldn’t agree more. It’s one of those experiences that you wouldn’t realize you’d missed if you hadn’t had it, but that is really proving to be helpful in a lot of ways, especially now with so many budgets cut and departments merged and everyone doing two of three people’s jobs. Hopefully, it will all mean a little room for new librarians like us to join the ranks.


  2. Hi Courtney! You’re very welcome – I’m glad it was helpful! Starting a project like this from the ground up is an amazing experience, but it can also be overwhelming. And your new internship in the art collection sounds fascinating. I will definitely be popping over to your blog to read about how it goes. I suspect I could learn a lot from your experiences 🙂


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