As our summer interns complete their season, they take time to consider what they have learned. Hannah Gramson enjoyed working with the personal correspondence of Theodore Roosevelt, a change from government document.
Interning for the Theodore Roosevelt Center's Digital Library this summer was challenging, edifying, and invaluable. Although I came to the internship already equipped with a Master's degree in Archival Studies and almost two years of professional experience, I knew I still had a lot to learn. As an archivist who has primarily worked with government records, I rarely encounter personal manuscripts, and the unique challenges they present (particularly when you have to transcribe twelve pages of horrendous handwriting just to understand them) kept things interesting.
Most of our time this summer was spent cataloging and reviewing the metadata for hundreds of documents created by or related to Theodore Roosevelt, in order to make them accessible online. The records I usually work with as a government archivist are very straight forward and don't leave a lot of room for subjectivity when it comes to description. But after both creating metadata and reviewing the metadata of others for these documents, I have a new appreciation for the art of archival description. A thorough, well described document doesn't happen by accident. It's the result of a careful and thoughtful cataloger who cares about the needs of the person who will someday be searching for that document. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to description. Because of that, what we decided to include or what subject headings we chose were left up to our best judgement, and it was interesting to see what choices other interns made, and how those choices may have differed from my own.
As part of our internships, we were also asked to complete a project that would showcase some of what we learned and give us the opportunity to delve deeper into some of the intriguing crumbs of information we had stumbled upon throughout the summer. I chose to write two posts for the library's blog. The first post was on yellow journalism, inspired by a New York Sun article I had come across earlier in the summer about an interview published in the New York Journal, which Roosevelt claimed had been entirely made up. The article (as well as the letter the reporter later wrote, challenging Roosevelt to take him to court for libel) immediately sparked my interest and compelled me to look more into the nature of journalism in Roosevelt's time. My second post dealt with Roosevelt's infamous and ill-fated battle to simplify the English language. Although I had been aware of this effort, I had never before considered what the motivations behind it might have been until I came across a letter to Roosevelt from James Jeffrey Roche, in which he framed spelling reform as a battle against elitism. It was moments like this – when you realized what you were looking at was just a small fragment of a much larger story – that made this internship so fun.
What I enjoyed most, however, was getting to know Theodore Roosevelt. I majored in history, so I was of course familiar with Roosevelt the politician, but through this experience, I got to know Roosevelt the human being. When you spend hours reading through someone's personal letters, you get to see who they were when no one was looking. You get a glimpse inside their head. Sometimes I laughed out loud at his jokes, sometimes I sympathized with his frustrations, and once I even shed a few tears reading a letter sent to him after his son, Quentin, had died. This is what I love most about history and archival work – the connections you develop across time and space with the people you're reading about, and that feeling of familiarity you develop, as if they're someone you've met.
This internship reminded me of why I decided to study history and go into the archival profession in the first place. It gave me the chance to brush up on my research skills and expand my cataloging experience, while learning about one of the most interesting leaders in American history. This has been a wonderful experience, and I walk away from it a better archivist and a better historian.