8 Things This Library of Congress Skintern Learned
Here are some of the eight most important things I learned this past summer:
1. Things will get “meta.”
I was hired as one of four interns into what we lovingly referred to as Team Metadata. It was our job to add and remediate metadata for many of the Library’s online exhibitions.
Now I know what you’re probably thinking: What the hell is metadata? Simply put, metadata is data about data. It is basically additional information apart from an object itself that allows you to classify and sort it. This is an extremely basic definition so please don’t quote me on it. One common example would be a music library. Items like genre, year, artist, track number, etc. are a song’s metadata. It can be more or less complex as needed.
We worked on a multitude of projects for a lot of different departments’ online exhibits. This all sounds a lot more exciting than it actually was. Day-to-day, we were mostly filling in information like locations, dates, author, correspondent, subject etc. for specific items like manuscripts. We also had meta-meetings which were our meetings to discuss progress on our projects. And we even held two meta-meta-meetings in which we discussed how we wanted to format our actual meetings, how often we should have them and if there was any way to improve the meetings. Yep. Inception has nothing on us!
2. Working at the Library of Congress does not mean you’ll see any books.
I knew pretty well going into the internship the kind of work that I’d be doing. I knew I was probably not going to spend my time surrounded by beautiful old books in all the gorgeous reading rooms. However, I did expect to see a lot of books on a day-to-day basis. Nope. Not a single one! Our work office was located in the Madison Building, which is very much a work office building. The walls are decorated with a lot of art reproductions and the hallways are adorned with displays, statues and even some beautiful old globes, but not a single book was detected. We did, however, get tours of the Madison and its many breathtaking reading rooms.
3. Never under any circumstances should you say, "The books are ready."
During our first week, among many presentations and orientations, we were also taken downstairs to receive our very own reader's cards. We were all very excited at the mere thought of checking out books from the nation's library. As we filled out our applications and took our pictures, we were as giddy as a group of kindergarteners getting their very first library cards.
Since we were unclear about how the borrowing process worked, we asked the clerks at the lending desk about the process. I remember we asked questions like: “So after we place the request, how do we know when the books are ready?” “When the books are ready, do we pick them up here or do they take them to our cubicles?” “Once the books are ready, how long do we have to pick them up?” “When the books are ready to be returned, where do we drop them off?” We were met with a lot of disapproving and disdainful looks. We didn’t really understand why they looked at us weirdly but as it was still our first week, we were too excited to care.
That same day, we had an emergency preparedness presentation in which one of the scenarios covered was what to do in case there is a non-life threatening emergency. The example they gave was if a crazy person burst in to our offices and began screaming at everyone. We were told that in a scenario such as this, we were to call the library police and say, “The books are ready,” so as not to aggravate the screaming person any further. We now knew why we were being side-eyed like crazy earlier that day.
4. Remember: No matter how hard things get, somewhere in the world there is a poor woman with a broken dock on her ocean front property.
I must admit I am borderline obsessed with the “First World Problems” meme. So much that a friend and I constantly text each other our own First World problems (with the accompanying picture of the dejected, crying young woman from the meme.) Lucky for me, one of my supervisors at the Library of Congress has a lifetime of First World problem to share with us.
I remember one of the first meetings we had with her we had been talking about the oppressive heat in Washington D.C. during the summer. One of my coworkers had mentioned that her roommate had almost fainted from heat exhaustion. I agreed and stated that it was hard walking home from the Metro without getting lightheaded. The supervisor nodded and stated that she had wanted to go to her weekend home on the Eastern Shore the previous weekend, but that it would be too horrible to enjoy the waterfront property. We just stared at her in disbelief. A few weeks later, the supervisor seemed really upset and she told us that some of the planks on her dock were broken and that she had had to “take out the boat to assess the damage.”
Here we were a bunch of lowly interns complaining about walking through the excruciating heat, unsure of whether we should have gone out to lunch or if we had been better off saving for the extremely expensive weekly pass for the Metro, while our supervisor had a broken dock on her oceanfront property. It’s safe to say that we truly learned about putting things in perspective.
On my last week, while walking to work, I was caught in the middle of a monsoon without an umbrella, looking like I had just jumped into a pool, when it truly hit me. I could have felt bad for myself or even cried at the thought of arriving to work looking like a drenched rat. I could have ran back home and called in sick. But I held my head up high and strutted my way imagining I was in some sort of rain challenge on “America’s Next Top Model” because I knew there were those, such as my supervisor and her broken dock, who had to overcome much more difficult challenges in life. She became a symbol of perseverance and strength in the face of adversity.
5. If you haven’t yet, it’s time to come out of your shell.
I, for the most part, am very shy. It is often difficult for me to speak up. This is something I have dealt with my whole life, but it has never challenged me more so than this past summer. In my past work experiences I was often given feedback and clarification, and was asked questions for ideas and suggestions. The work environment at the Library of Congress was extremely different.
I was working for people that for the most part are extremely busy. If I had thoughts or suggestions, I had to become more proactive in speaking up. We also did not receive much feedback, so I had to request a time that worked for my supervisor's schedule to talk about the work I had been doing and receive meaningful feedback on it. I also had some issues with my cubicle and workstation that I had to contact several people about. A lot of the time, I was worried about being labeled a complainer or seeming ungrateful when I wanted certain things fixed or more feedback for a specific project. But I quickly learned that you only truly get things by speaking up and in most cases those you work with are happy to help you once you do.
6. People are not always going to like you and that’s okay.
One very important lesson I learned is that throughout your career trajectory you’re going to encounter a lot of different types of people. During my short internship I made a lifelong friend, was mentored by someone who was completely willing to help me in any way she possibly could, and made a lot of great professional connections. Unfortunately, I also met people who I rubbed the wrong way, who had different styles of working, or who for no other discernible reason seemed to dislike me before they even met me.
I spent the first half of the internship trying to win people over. There was a staff member in our offices that just seemed to dislike everyone. One of the intern coordinators did not care for me at all. And a fellow intern who I thought was my friend completely did a 180 and started acting really shady towards the end of the internship. She ended up extending the internship and I later found out she’s tried to exclude me as a contributor on many of our projects.
A wise person once told me that there is a reason why someone becomes jaded or bitter. They were disillusioned by something in their life or career that made them want to spread that feeling to those around them. There are also some people that you are just going to rub the wrong way and, short of changing your personality or who you are, there really is not much you can do but remain professional and friendly no matter what.
Finally, there are all too many people that are solely focused on their own interest without caring about who they have to hurt or step on in their way. They may be your friend one day and see you as their biggest competition the next. What I truly learned from them is to strive to be a better you. Focus on your own work and doing it to the best of your abilities. You can stoop to their level and partake in petty feuds but that gets you nowhere. As I’ve learned from experience, the best revenge that exists is success.
Post internship I learned that an email I sent updating my former coworkers on my recent career success sent this particular person on a wild tirade in my name.
7. The word 'skintern.'
That is all.
8. No matter how small your duties seem or how discouraged you get at your lack of progress, always know that your work really does make a difference.
Oftentimes while punching in that metadata, I felt a bit discouraged by the lack of a dent I was making in thousands of Access pages. I also sometimes, due to a lack of context for some of our projects, failed to see the real impact of the work we were doing. While other interns were writing press releases or designing posters for conferences and seminars, I sometimes didn’t feel like our work was as important. This all changed during one meeting when we actually saw what the new version of one of the online exhibits is going to look like after our changes to the metadata are implemented. The new website makes all the objects much easier to find and the entire exhibit is much more accessible and user-friendly. I was beaming with joy to see what a huge difference our work made for accessibility and usability. It made me realize that all work is important because it is part of something bigger and the experience you gain from it is invaluable.
Jesus Espinoza is a librarian living and working in California.