Interview: Starting a Student Chapter

We’ve talked before about the value of having professional-association student chapters on campus, whether it’s just general awareness of career options and extracurriculars or the impact on your resume of helping to manage and plan events, fundraisers, field trips, etc. There are no ARLIS/NA student chapters (yet), but that doesn’t mean you can’t start one! (I guess ArLiSNAP is sort of your virtual student chapter.)

During my MLIS these past two years, I watched some fellow McGill students start up a student chapter of the Association of Moving Image Archivists. As media preservation is a pretty important topic to arts-librarianship students, I thought I would ask a few questions about the process, the need, and the benefits of bringing special-interest representation to your school. Justin Mckinney kindly agreed to answer my questions about his work founding the chapter.

(Photos by Fiona Mak.)

Film handling workshop with George Eastman House
Film handling workshop with George Eastman House
George Eastman Film Handling Workshop
George Eastman Film Handling Workshop

ArLiSNAP: Let’s start with student chapters generally – were you members of other student chapters to start?

Justin Mckinney: During my first year of library school, I was a member of the Association of Canadian Archivists student chapter at McGill. I started out keen and not knowing what I was doing and imagining all the great things we would accomplish, but nothing really happened all year and I wasn’t exactly as active as I could have been.

ArLiSNAP: What’s the value of having local representation of professional associations?

JM: I think it has the potential to help raise awareness about the organization. Also, it can educate student members about issues in the field and maybe even lead to practical opportunities to do stuff. I think it probably varies from year to year and association to association, and is really dependent on the group of people involved at any given time.

ArLiSNAP: Why the Association of Moving Image Archivists specifically?

JM: I became really interested in film history and film preservation after my undergrad, which led me down the path to library school. I was already an AMIA member before starting library school, and my main interest in the archivy/LIS world was and is film preservation. After a sort of underwhelming experience of my first year at library school (which included a complete absence of film archiving content), I was determined to take more of an active role in my own learning. Fortunately, I had a couple of great friends in the program who had similar interests and were very supportive, and it snowballed from there.

ArLiSNAP: What was the process for starting a student chapter?

JM: I started emailing (and harassing) the fine people at AMIA about how to start a student chapter and they explained what was needed, which was mainly a constitution and that the executive members all be members of AMIA. They put me in touch with the folks at the NYU AMIA student chapter, and they were kind enough to send me their constitution, which I basically amended to change any mention of NYU to McGill — from there, we were off and running.

As for McGill, I just emailed people at the School of Information Studies (SIS) and let them know what I was doing and they got us a table at the student chapter fair at the start of the school year. Throughout the year they were generally helpful about any questions I had and they also helped us get connected with the Masters of Library and Information Science Student Association (MLISSA), and the Post-Graduate Student Society (PGSS), which both provide funding for SIS student groups.

In general, though, it was mostly a lot of me emailing and badgering people and then getting information as needed. It’s not really a clear process to setting up a chapter, and I think it would be beneficial if there were more guidance or upfront information given about the process of starting one.

In regards to gauging student interest, we really had no idea what would happen. To start it was just the executive (myself, Mark Haydn as vice-president, and Nicholas Avedisian-Cohen as secretary and treasurer). My main goal was to make the student chapter viable enough for someone to take over for a second year, once we all graduated. At the aforementioned student chapter fair, we were pleasantly surprised to get over 20 students to sign up for our email list, and we held our first meeting, which had over ten people, including first- and second-year students. This was a pleasant surprise and I think demonstrated that many people are interested in the field and also frustrated with the lack of film/media archiving content in library school.

The main paperwork was getting the constitution ratified. We also had to apply for funding for various events through PGSS and MLISSA. A lot it was just learning on the fly, as none of us had ever done anything like this before. So it involved a lot of asking questions of people at McGill and AMIA, and remaining persistent.

Probably the biggest challenge was forging a relationship with the Moving Image Research Laboratory (MIRL) at McGill, a research project which houses a wonderful cinema space and collection of 16mm films. Pretty much all of the Fall 2013 semester was spent sending emails, stalking professors, and showing up unannounced, just trying to get our foot in the door. Finally in January, we got access and that proved to be our greatest success, as it allowed us to start handling film, cataloguing the collection, and providing real hands-on experience in the field.

ArLiSNAP: You also organized a one-day symposium, which brought in guest speakers and gave students a chance to present their research. Why did you choose a symposium as your first event? How did that organizational process work?

JM: Technically, our first event was a field trip to the National Preservation Centre at Library and Archives Canada in Gatineau. We had 20 people come along and we got a great tour of the facilities there, and met a bunch of professionals in the field. Mark Haydn and I also attended the AMIA Conference in 2013 and met a bunch of the students at the Eastman House in Rochester, NY. Thanks to these friendships, we were able to organize a trip down there as well, where we got to tour their facilities and participate in a film-handling workshop.

As for the symposium, I heard that all the other groups were doing one, so we just copied them. The process of organizing it wasn’t that difficult. We booked the space at SIS and just sent out a call for papers and presentations to members of our email list. I also contacted David Stevenson, the conservator at the Canadian Centre of Architecture, whom I met on a class field trip, about presenting. I also contacted Phil Spurrell, the proprietor of CineClub Film Society, who I’ve known for several years and volunteered with. He is very knowledgeable about the medium of film and had a lot of interesting experiences working with film.

ArLiSNAP: Have you found someone to hand off the reins to? Do you have any thoughts on the sustainability of the group, long-term?

JM: One of the really encouraging things about our membership was that we had a lot of first-year students who were incredibly eager and motivated. So by the time we started cataloguing the MIRL collection, we were regularly getting 15 to 20 people out to volunteer. So we knew we had a solid base of people who might be able to take over next year. From there, we asked for nominations and were able to come up with a four-person executive committee for another year.

My hope is that some of the connections we made with the folks at LAC, and the folks at Eastman House, will continue and allow for more educational opportunities and networking. Also, the MIRL collection is really outstanding and needs a lot of work to catalogue, plus the cinema space allows for screenings and projections of the collection. This hands-on practical experience is invaluable and I think should be a major factor in the success of the group long-term.

ArLiSNAP: Do you have any ideas or recommendations about how to improve LIS curricula to contain more of the useful things your AMIA chapter is trying to do? Or do you think it’s better off as extracurricular activity?

JM: I feel like the major deficit of the MLIS program is the lack of hands-on experience of working with materials regardless of type. Particularly in the archival end of things, where the theoretical felt very abstract and weird to me. I found my understanding only started to come together through some of the volunteering I was doing at the Jewish Public Library Archives, where I was handling documents, creating finding aids, and writing accession numbers on folders.

Obviously, because of the broad focus of the program, it would be hard to have a dedicated film archiving course, but it is certainly something that could be touched on. Maybe a course dealing directly with the preservation of objects, rather than the theoretical preservation of objects would be useful.

Unfortunately, I think everything is becoming so focused on digital objects and becoming “information specialists” to the detriment of acquiring actual tangible physical skills, which I fear is leaving a lot of graduates ill-equipped to manage the physical aspects of library and archive work. Maybe it’s for the better, as having a broader and more transferable set of skills could help grads deal with the job market, but I can’t help thinking something valuable is being lost in the transition.

AMIA Montreal Meets AMIA Rochester
AMIA Montreal Meets AMIA Rochester in New York

We’d love to hear about your experiences with professional associations, and if you’re thinking about starting a student chapter at your school (ARLIS/NA or otherwise). It’s not too late to plan something for the coming school year. Let us know in the comments!


About allanaaa

allana.mayer [at] mail.mcgill.ca

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