In this "hands on history" profile, Professor Suzanne Smith interviews undergraduate history major Amy Glen.
1) Where was your internship and how did you find it?
My internship location was at the Fairfax Circuit Court Historic Records Center. Information about this internship was sent to me via email by the history department.
2) What were your main responsibilities on the job?
My main responsibility was to go through late nineteenth century court papers, which were kept in brick-like bundles, and try to organize them into archival collections. Some papers were delicate and needed specialized protection folders (which I made), while other documents were so badly creased that I had to put them into a chamber that added moisture to the documents so they could be safely opened and read. I set up the document chamber and flattened documents that were ready to come out of the chamber. Nails, brads, glue, and nineteenth century rubber bands were obstacles I had to watch out for when going through document bundles. I also had the opportunity to conduct independent research when writing the November edition of Found in the Archives, which is a monthly e-newsletter publication that focuses on different aspects of history pertaining to the court. In conducting my own research, I searched for information on a turkey theft case in a court minute book, which is where court minutes and proceedings were recorded.
3) What were the most rewarding aspects of your internship?
The most rewarding aspect of my internship was the fact that my work actually made a difference in the court and was helpful to other people. There are so many documents that need to be organized into collections, but the court really needs volunteers and interns to help them make collections accessible to researchers (genealogists, especially). The clerk of the court thanked me for my time; and a number of people were happy when they could find information on an ancestor they knew little about. Hearing the stories of the many families that lived in Fairfax has made me really appreciate the history of this county.
4) What was your biggest accomplishment?
My biggest accomplishment was organizing six archival collections and producing a published article. These archival collections and my published paper help people better understand the lives of the people who lived in Fairfax in the late nineteenth century. Most American history books gloss over Reconstruction, but I am proud to have been part of an effort to raise awareness to the fact that nineteenth century Fairfax was diverse and that the people of Fairfax were able to survive multiple economic recessions.
5) What did your internship teach you about being a professional historian? Did anything surprise you?
My internship taught me that a historian has to accept the fact that the questions we often want answered will not be answered and that making speculations about history will prevent you from seeing the bigger picture. In handling law cases spanning from 1887 to 1892, I learned about the social and economic issues that concerned the people of nineteenth century Fairfax. Theft of livestock, crops, rifles, and clothes became more commonplace as Fairfax entered a new decade (1890s). Thieves in Fairfax were often not malicious people – they were often hungry or poor people who struggled to survive the many economic recessions that plagued post-Civil War Virginia. Descriptions of murder or theft cases are occasionally detailed, but even when there are many details about these types of cases, there are many questions left unanswered (ex: Why did a poor mother decide to strangle a child she had out of wedlock when everyone knew she was pregnant? Why did a thief steal men’s pantaloons, silk handkerchiefs and candlesticks, but not food?). Recessions and conservative ideology may partially explain some of these cases, but at the end of the day, you have to realize that it is impossible to know what people were thinking or why they felt certain decisions were the right decisions to make.
6) Is there anything else you would like to share about your internship experience?
I would like for others to know that there are many different preservation projects available to interns and that this is a special opportunity in that you can gain preservation experience as an undergraduate while many preservation focused internships cater to graduate students.
December 19, 2016