In this second installment of "Diary of an Online History Student," Ben Miller '22 takes us on a tour of his remote internships at the National Archives and the American Historical Association. For more of Ben's writing, check out "Diary of an Online History Student, Part 1" or his blog, Circa.
Back in March, when I still hoped the COVID-19 pandemic would be a fleeting frustration, I secured an internship at the National Archives. I was thrilled. Not only would I be working on an impactful project—an exhibit on the history of institutional racism in America—but I would be surrounded by some of the most important physical artifacts in U.S. history. I imagined walking past the Constitution on my way in to work each morning and pulling boxes of rich archival material at will. Of course, this vision was undone by the pandemic. I did not spend a day all summer inside the Archives, and instead worked through Zoom calls at a basement folding table. But despite the limitations, my time at the Archives was still significantly rewarding. I did meaningful historical work, built relationships, and had something approximating the immersive experience that internships exist to provide. As we (cautiously) look toward a world after COVID, I think remote internships should stay prevalent and relevant.
When I started at the Archives, the experience was strange and a bit isolating. Acclimating to a new job is always a challenge, but the virtual format made seasoning much tougher. My project was never intended to be remote, and without access to physical museum space or records, I had to work on the fly with my supervisor Alice to find ways to push forward. Other COVID externalities at the Archives made this even more challenging. Financial concerns caused the exhibit to be delayed until 2024, and because final approval from the board of the Archives Foundation was delayed too, I could not work on outward-facing products to promote the exhibit. Beyond the project itself, trying to meet and get to know people through video calls alone was daunting, and without the cues of an office environment I struggled mightily to make it through eight-hour days.
Quickly though, my Archives colleagues and I found ways to make the internship work. Finding elements of structure was key, as joining team calls and other meetings broke up my days and gave me a better sense of the institution as a whole. For my project, it did not take long to sort what was possible to do remotely from what was not. Specifically, I poured my efforts into creating research reports to inform the exhibit, writing nearly 40,000 words on the history of race and different areas of federal policy (housing, immigration, criminal justice, etc.) and linking current scholarship to Archives materials. Though I could only access a fraction of the Archives’ holdings online, the pandemic made it easier than ever to obtain secondary literature from sites like HathiTrust and JSTOR. I gradually took on other tasks that could be completed remotely, like writing exhibit label copy, and though the internship never resembled a “real” in person experience, I soon had a full plate that kept my digital days busy.
Counterintuitive as it may seem, building relationships ultimately became the most meaningful part of my time at the Archives. The team I worked with put considerable energy into creating venues for casual conversation, for instance, weekly “Coffee Klatches” where we chatted about non-work topics. The video format was not ideal, but it did give me the chance to meet staff from outside D.C. who I would not have spent time with otherwise. I set up weekly meetings with Alice and another curator to learn more about their work and to discuss career perspectives. The world’s forced digital pivot also made it much easier to have informational interviews with other Archives staff and alums, which were consistently useful. By the time my 12 weeks at the Archives ended, I felt satisfied that I had developed the sort of relationships I was hoping to build, despite a virtual landscape that was very different than what I once imagined.
Recently, I started a new remote internship at the American Historical Association. I am examining racism in the American Historical Review as part of a broader project on the AHA’s institutional history. Unlike my Archives work, this internship was born digital, and shaped specifically to work in a remote environment. Though I am only two weeks in, I am extremely pleased with how successful it has been so far. The flexible schedule and lack of commute makes it possible to balance classes and internship work. I am also trying to build off relationship successes at the Archives as much as possible, having weekly conversations with my supervisor Sarah Weicksel (PhD ‘17), joining brown bag lunches on Zoom, and planning informational interviews to connect with AHA staff. This internship, occurring during the school year with an organization based 700 miles away from me, could only exist virtually, and I am quite glad it does.
My experiences with remote history internships have been decidedly positive, and rather than viewing them as a temporary stand-in for in-person work, I think they should remain available after the pandemic concludes. Some experiences are undoubtedly better suited to be in-person- I think my Archives job falls under that category. But not every internship requires a physical presence, and the digital model offers some major advantages. The flexibility of virtual work makes it ideal for a part-time project concurrent with full-time coursework. Remote work also eliminates a major geographic bias against people who live farther away from areas where internships are concentrated. I am very lucky to have long-term housing options in both Chicago and D.C, but I would struggle to secure housing if I found internships elsewhere, especially when those internships are usually unpaid or underpaid. To mitigate geographic barriers is to mitigate the socioeconomic ones, which must be a core goal of the historical field. While I am eager to hold an in-person history internship at some point, I am pleasantly content with what current remote experiences can offer.