Opening the Historian's Toolkit at ProQuest
In January, when most graduate students were settling into their teaching assignments, Meg Showalter and David Spreen were settling into their internships with ProQuest.
Headquartered in Ann Arbor, ProQuest is a leading content provider for academic, government, school, and public libraries around the world. As the inaugural students of History’s Career Diversity Internship Program, Showalter and Spreen had access to six billion digital pages of newspapers, books, journals, and more.
U-M History is one of the first departments in the nation to incorporate funded, in-term internships for PhD students as alternatives to traditional teaching assignments. Interns receive compensation at the current instructional rate, plus tuition and benefits like health care. They’re each expected to work at the company twenty hours per week.
With this program, graduate students don’t have to take a financial hit to gain experience outside the classroom. Nor do they have to arrange these often-elusive internships on their own. It’s built into the structure of the graduate program.
“The idea is to provide students with practical experience beyond teaching, to show them how their historical research skills might be applied in contexts beyond the academy, to help them navigate another institutional setting as a professional,” said Professor Rita Chin, also the associate dean for academic programs and initiatives at Rackham Graduate School. Chin was instrumental in establishing the ProQuest partnership.
“It was a chance to figure out how the stuff we do translates to the outside world,” said Spreen.
Showalter and Spreen were brought on board to work on projects that were not necessarily related to their areas of historical expertise. Instead, they were asked to contribute the skills they’ve learned as historians.
“If you get a PhD in history, you’re good at research, you’re good at writing, you’re self-motivated, you’re a critical thinker,” said Showalter. “I was interested to see how these skills translate to a sphere that’s not academia.”
ProQuest doesn’t just provide access to source content through its databases. It offers curated collections focused on topics and themes. Showalter worked on a collection designed to historicize current events related to US immigration policy. The idea was to link primary source content with major events and trends, and to provide additional background on concepts like family unification and chain migration.
“It was exciting to think, ‘What matters? What’s important?’” said Showalter. “[We had] to think about voices, sources that are often marginalized, to think about laws or events or things that normally wouldn’t be put on a standard timeline of immigration.”
One of Spreen’s projects was assisting with a mixed-media database of primary and secondary sources designed to amplify voices that are often unheard in the historical record.
“Locating sources to bring to the fore underrepresented voices and perspectives on themes such as environmental history, human rights, revolution, and protest allowed me to bring the historian’s toolkit to ProQuest,” said Spreen. “On the other hand, I learned a lot from the challenge implicit in writing about those sources for a general audience.”
At the end of the term Showalter and Spreen shared their experiences in a company-wide meeting. ProQuest leadership was impressed, and the company is committed to continuing and expanding the partnership with U-M History.
“It’s a great thing to put on my résumé as I try to prove to people that I can do things other than write a dissertation,” said Showalter. “It proved to me that I could do something outside the academy.”