My Summer at the Smithsonian

Did you know that not only is the Smithsonian made up of 19 museums it also has 21 libraries? I, for one, will readily admit that I had no idea until only a few months when I started looking for what I would be doing this past summer. Now I not only know the Smithsonian has 21 libraries, I can also point to parts of their website and say, “Hey, I made that.”

Backing up a little bit let me let y’all in on a little secret, this is not my first go-around in graduate school. Around a decade ago I started a masters degree in mathematics, and let’s just say I did not exactly take advantage of all of the opportunities which were available to me the first time. This time though I am doing all that I can to wring every drop of water out of the graduate school towel. I have been working for multiple departments across campus, going to student organization meetings, attending as many conferences as I can fit into my schedule, and cramming in extracurriculars guarantee such as writing here for HLS; but I knew that the real jewel in the crown of a fully lived graduate student life was the cool summer position.

(HLS has a thing for posts about summer, you can find other examples of how our writers have spent their summers here and here and here and here and here and here. As I said, we like writing about summer)

The biggest lesson I learned when I started looking for summer experience was that I should have started sooner, for example all the Library of Congress positions were already closed by the time I began my quest. The next biggest lesson was, and this also holds for normal job applications, if you want a summer position apply for it. You have no idea who else is applying, and I can guarantee that perfect applicant who has all the qualifications who you have no chance of beating does not exist. The final lesson I learned was to expand outside of the academic and public library worlds. We can all work in academic libraries during our schooling, or a local public library if that is your focus, but during the summer is the perfect time to experience something new and different.

It was when I expanded my searches that I stumbled onto the internships offered within the Smithsonian Libraries. I applied for a position helping them rebuild the subject guides, an area of great personal interest, offered by the National Museum of Natural History Museum’s libraries. I can express my happiness when I learned I would be spending my summer in the Smithsonian. I have been visiting the museums since before I can remember, so being able to contribute something back and go behind the scenes filled me with all of the excitement. I will admit I would not have been able to accept the internship if I did not have family who were willing to house me in the D.C. area for free as the internship was unpaid. I understand this is a privilege not everyone has, but I did hear that the Smithsonian will potentially be opening up some paid library internship soon. I will also add that they are aware of the cost of spending a summer in D.C. and they are willing to work with your schedule so you can afford it. In my case this involved letting me work my internship part-time so I would be able to work a paying job as well.

Working in the Smithsonian was incredibly interesting, but not for the reason you probably have in your head. I was not running through the back rooms of the museum trying to solve mysteries with forgotten relics. I was instead seated in a cubicle working on a computer. That is not to say I did not have moments of excitement, but they were much more about learning about amazing resources I could share with the public like the Global Volcanism Program and less exposing treasures hidden by the Illuminati. Aside from finding amazing things to include in the subject guides I was building out, learning more about how museum libraries function was one of my biggest takeaways. Similarly to academic libraries they help support the researchers at the Smithsonian, and the Smithsonian has a ton of researchers, but there are no students to support. As you would expect this has spill over effects to things such as collections and reference work which are both much more research focused than educational. It also meant the librarians had relatively narrow subject areas to focus on, such as vertebrate zoology or entomology, instead of the wider academic liaison position where it is not uncommon to see librarians covering Physics, Astronomy, and Mathematics (PAM) or all of biology or even STEM.

Of course spending a summer at a place like the Smithsonian comes with benefits outside of just the cool work. My badge let me jump the line at any of the museums, including the new National Museum of African American History and Culture which you should make sure to visit the next time you are near D.C., and there are events for interns across the Smithsonian such as tours through the museums before the crowds are allowed in, talks by Smithsonian researchers, and even a scavenger hunt which had us running around the mall looking for exhibits (my team took 2nd!).

Finding the right summer position while in library school can really help add important experience to your resume and knowledge to your brain, but more than anything else it can add fun to your life. For me it offered the opportunity to work in a different kind of library, live in a new city, and experience the Smithsonian from a completely new perspective. With some planning, and getting an early start, you can also find the summer position which will leave you not only smarter and more employable, but also excited and chomping at the bit to tackle that second year of your schooling.

Editor’s note: this post was originally published August 20, 2018.

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