How a courageous leap led to a hands-on internship

Marica pictured here in front of the Alma Mater statueMarica Szczybura is a sophomore at the University of Illinois, majoring in history and minoring in secondary education.

Over a year ago, I applied for an undergraduate internship at the Illinois History and Lincoln Collections (IHLC), a unit of the Special Collections Division of the University of Illinois Library. For me, taking that step had been a leap of faith. I had been so afraid that it would seem silly for a first-year student—with no prior experience in either history or archival work—to apply for this position. Despite my fears, the IHLC welcomed my eagerness to learn, and I became an intern in September of 2022!

I started my internship with little knowledge of how archives functioned or even what they were. Save for some limited library experience—I had only a shaky grasp of the Dewey Decimal System—I was essentially a blank slate. Thankfully, my supervisor and the graduate students at the IHLC were exceptional at guiding me through our unit’s archival procedures. With their help, I acquired skills I never pictured myself learning. Throughout my time at the IHLC, I have mastered tasks such as retrieving and photocopying materials for researchers, updating finding aids, editing collection descriptions, evaluating manuscript conditions, and more.

One of the aspects I particularly enjoy about my job is helping researchers. Whether responding to reference questions or retrieving requested materials, it deepens my familiarity with our collections. Helping individuals in their research is rewarding, even though we often remain unaware of the full scope of their projects—be it family genealogy, paper writing, or thesis work. Yet, there was one occasion when I got to see the tangible results of my work.

A fellow intern and I were tasked with retrieving material about Illinois wildflowers for an art class at UIUC. The materials we pulled—primarily scientific depictions of Illinois flora—were used as references for a mural the students created for an elementary school in Savoy. Knowing that I had a hand in bringing about an art installation that is enjoyed by hundreds of children each day is deeply rewarding.

This internship broadened my understanding of archives and the substantial effort required to run one. Despite IHLC's smaller size compared to other collections, it houses thousands of manuscripts and hundreds of collections, all necessitating regular cataloging and assessment. My role, alongside that of my supervisor and team members, is vital for maintaining our unit's functionality. Taking a chance on this internship has been exciting, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to work at the IHLC. I strongly recommend LAS undergraduates explore the many internship opportunities UIUC offers—it's absolutely worthwhile!