Parting words from a student processor
One of our student manuscript processors recently graduated from BYU, and the following is a post regarding her experience working in the Perry Special Collections, written on Wednesday, April 22. It is a great example of a student’s perspective of the benefits of working in Special Collections and what can be learned from historical documents. May it provide some words of wisdom and inspiration to the reader.
By: Zoë Brimhall
I am graduating tomorrow so today is my last day working in L. Tom Perry Special Collections. I thought for my last blog entry I would reflect on my experience and perhaps explain a bit what it is like to work in Special Collections. I am a student manuscript processor, which means that I help create the information about library materials that allows patrons to find them through the library system. I do something called “describing” materials—I sift through the old documents and materials that my boss assigns me and I input the dates, subjects, size, and information about the content of the materials into the library software. Then other employees check it and eventually make it publically accessible. In my job, I want to ensure that everything is as accurate as possible so that students and other library patrons have accurate information when doing research. Luckily, I have been able to rely on great supervisors to help and guide me in this work. Like any job, some aspects of working as a student processor can be dry, but the majority of the work is interesting. The best part of the job is getting to look through the actual materials themselves. Since I work in the 19th century department, I get to see a lot of cool letters, diaries, and other documents created by both notable and ordinary men and women, in the Mormon Church and outside of it. Nothing compares to the experience of reading the thoughts and ideas of these historical figures in their own handwriting. I have been able to learn more about historical figures through their own words and in their own hand. As such, I can see how universal human experience is—even though cultures and settings change, essentially humans then still worry and care about the same things we do today.
For instance, in one of her diaries Emmeline B. Wells writes that she hopes to raise her daughters with a strong sense of self and a willingness to work hard so they can be self-sufficient, independent, and able to achieve their goals as adults. How many parents today hope the same for their children?
Other documents create a unique window into the parts of American history that I did not know much about. One of the first collections I worked on was a diary belonging to William Derby Jr. that documented his travels in the American West and his explorations of places like northern Arizona. Having only ever learned about the adventures of Lewis and Clark, it was fascinating to learn about a Mormon man’s own explorations of the Grand Canyon and Colorado River. In addition, the summer I spent editing the Thomas L. Kane collection was a useful and fascinating way to learn about American history in the late nineteenth century. Rather than just learning about Thomas Kane’s aid to the Mormons, I had the opportunity to learn about the rest of his family. I read about John K. Kane’s interactions with the national government (even reading some letters from prominent American politicians of the time, including the POTUS).
I learned about Elizabeth Kane (Thomas’s wife) and was impressed at her work as a photographer, writer, and mother. Her writings and observations of the Mormon settlements she visited are a particularly important way to learn about perceptions non-Mormons had of polygamous Mormons at the time. Although she held certain prejudices against them, meeting actual Mormons profoundly changed and shaped the way she viewed them. She did not necessarily fall in love with polygamy, but she did begin to view Mormon women as civilized individuals. Processing these materials actually helped me do well on a history exam because I knew who Elizabeth Kane was from looking through old letters! While I don’t have time during my work to read or research these materials in depth, the parts I do find present unique and fascinating insights into the lives of people whose bodies have wasted away but whose lives live on through their words and artifacts left behind.
Ultimately, I believe my experience at BYU Special Collections to have been a very rewarding experience. I was able to work alongside great people to dig up the secrets of the past and make them available to anyone who wants to learn. I was able to learn more about history and make connections between my own life and the lives of people who have gone before me. I read some fascinating documents about prominent and regular Church members, Americans, and immigrants. Sifting through old papers and trying to decipher faded ink and difficult handwriting revealed truths about history that I would not have learned any other way and I am grateful for the opportunity I had to learn more about my culture and history. I highly recommend to those interested in learning more about the library or the nineteenth century that they take advantage of their library card and visit special collections! I am graduating now and moving on to different experiences, but I will always remember the library and I will miss being surrounded by the books and other materials that give the ghosts of the past a physical presence in our world today.