SAA Talk Preview

One of the things I did this week was write my lightning talk for the SAA Archival Educators Roundtable.  About 7 or 8 people are going to give 5 minute talks on archival education outside the class room.  I couldn't resist the opportunity to brag about how awesome I think my class is. 

If you want to read my talk, it's below:

I’ve been lucky enough to teach the Preservation Management class at the School of Information at UT-Austin for the past 3 years.  The class draws largely from students who are focusing on archives and libraries, who are interested in everything from audiovisual materials to rare books to corporate archives.

When I initially designed this class, I thought about what I use every day as a preservation field services officer dealing primarily with local history institutions that face lots of funding and training challenges.  I wasn’t interested in teaching a class that was purely theory.  Instead, I wanted to give the students a real world experience, in some VERY real world situations.  I also feel strongly that community service is important in our field and wanted that to be a core principle of the class.

From that, I came up with what I think is a pretty cool project based approach to preservation management.  The first class of the semester is my “Preservation 101” talk that gives everyone some common background in preservation, as many students have no prior preservation experience when they start.  Shortly thereafter, we have a class where I talk about how I do preservation assessments.  After that, the real fun starts.

In small groups, the students spend the first half of the semester doing a preservation assessment for an archive, library or museum that interests them, and for the second half, they research and prepare a grant application for a small project based upon that assessment.

I don’t have a lot of requirements for the institutions selected.  They have to hold collections, and they cannot be affiliated with the University.  I figure that UT’s collections have a lot of resources and I want my students to come up against basic real world problems that are common outside of an academic setting.  For a lot of our clients, just persuading them to use acid-free boxes is a huge step in the right direction.  I also try to steer students towards projects that I think will be tough, knowing that I’ll be there the whole way to provide lots of support and advice.  Some of my most adventurous students have wound up in pretty crazy situations.  My favorite was the community museum that had holes in the floor and its balcony shored up with a telephone pole.  Preservation Nightmare! 

While the students work independently, they’re not really on their own.  We have weekly check-ins in class, communicate frequently outside of class, and I even go on client visits with the students, if requested. After midterms, we have a series of classes on fundraising and grant writing to give the students the background they need to find an appropriate grant funder and write the grant for their client. We also do two drafts of each assignment, and I’m happy to look at more, if that’s what it takes to get things right.

The class has been hugely successful and gets consistently strong evaluations. Students have told me they love feeling like they’re doing something that helps small institutions in a very big way.  And they come away with a couple of strong writing pieces to put in their portfolios.  And, of course, everyone feels like having some grant writing knowledge will make them more hireable.  I totally agree.

For my part, I’m thrilled that the students are challenged, and learn to research complicated preservation issues and set preservation priorities, which are good real world skills. It’s gratifying to see them grow in confidence in their own abilities because most of them start the semester pretty freaked out.

I also love how much help we are able to provide to deserving institutions.  Up to now, we have performed assessments at nearly 25 places, that are as varied as the students’ interests.  A few clients include Austin Parks and Recreation Department, the American Genre Film Archives, the Texas Medical Association, a rural public library, and numerous community museums.  The vast majority of these collections could never afford any kind of preservation assessment on their own, and are profoundly grateful for the assistance my students provide.

The next challenge that I have is that none of our clients have received any funding so far.  The closest we’ve come is a client who got a Preservation Assistance Grant from the NEH 3 years after her assessment, largely based upon student work.  I suspect that much of this is because the clients aren’t actually submitting the grants, so this year I’m adding a component to the grant assignment so that the students have to create a checklist for the client of tasks they need to do to complete and submit the grant application. I’m also going to have the students help me design a Survey Monkey survey to send to the clients to see what the effects of the project are.

Classes start up again in September, and last time I checked, I already had 14 students registered for fall.  I expect to pick up another 3 or 4 more, which will be my largest group to date.  If you know of anybody in central Texas who needs a preservation assessment, I hope you’ll let me know so that we can try to help them out too!