History student interns at Library of Congress – remotely

Samantha Dickson

As a public history graduate student, Samantha Dickson needed an internship credit for her classwork. She was supposed to fulfill it with a summer job at the archives in UWM’s Golda Meir Libraries – appropriate, since she is also working toward her Master’s in Library and Information Science. Then, coronavirus hit and student positions were cut.

“I was like, who might be hiring?” Dickson said.

As it turns out, the Law Library of Congress was – and their internships were all remote.

The Library of Congress is the official research library of the U.S. Congress and includes several branches like the Law Library. With millions of materials spanning books, manuscripts, newspapers, congressional proceedings, digital records, and more, the collection is housed in three buildings on Capitol Hill. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the buildings have been closed to visitors.

But the Library still needed interns for the summer to help compile metadata for its online collections. Dickson originally applied for that position, but the hiring personnel had a different calling in mind.

“Because I’m also studying public history and not just for my MLIS, they had me join the Creative Project under the umbrella of the remote metadata internship,” Dickson said. “Basically, I got to go through their digital collections, find things that I found interesting, and then I had the option to do a blog post and/or story map out of that material.”

In Dickson’s opinion, pirates are pretty interesting.

“(The Law Library) has a really fascinating collection on piracy trails mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries,” she said. “I was trying to think about what would be interesting to a lot of people – what in pop culture that you could have a legal take on. I think everybody hears ‘piracy’ and thinks about ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’ But piracy is a bit different when it comes to the actual day-to-day, legal side of things.”
For her research, Dickson created a story map – a creation akin to a Powerpoint presentation that tracks a particular narrative – outlining the history of piracy and laws concerning piracy.

“When you say ‘piracy,’ nowadays, you think of ripping a DVD or downloading something illegally online,” Dickson said. “That’s an idea that’s existed since the 17th and 18th century with literary piracy. Books were stolen and recopied and then sold in the colonies, for example. There are all of these little facets to piracy.”

Of course, the definition of piracy includes acts of murder or robbery on the high seas, but in the last half-century, the legal wording has expanded to include aircraft piracy or hijacking, as well as digital and online piracy.

“The term has been applied to many different facets of life and crime in the United States. I think that’s probably the most interesting part – one term can mean so much,” Dickson said.

In addition to her story map, Dickson also crafted a blog post for the Law Library of Congress’ website, focusing on a piracy trial from 1800, back when the Supreme Court justices actually rode circuit. The case, an incidence of mutiny in the Caribbean, was heard by Justice Samuel Chase.

What’s unique about this trial is that the Law Library of Congress’ collection includes two accounts – one from the captain of the ship and one from one of the three mutineers standing trial.

“The captain (says), I didn’t trust these three men from the start of the voyage. The one pirate claims a lot more innocence; that he was forced into it or else he would be killed. … It was essentially a case of mutiny where three crew members took over the ship. They were arrested and executed for their crime,” Dickson said. “I always like when you can get two sides of the same event. It allows for a lot more critical thinking. What are the biases inherent in both stories?”

Dickson’s blog post is under review and may not be published for some time yet, but her remote internship proved fruitful – even if her summer didn’t turn out the way she had planned.

“It was a new experience,” she admitted. “It’s been a very odd summer, but an interesting learning experience as a remote intern. I think it’s a valuable one, considering how up-in-the-air a lot of jobs are right now. What does librarianship and public history look like in the COVID world where remote work and online reference and exhibits should be taking precedence?”

Dickson will continue to volunteer remotely with the Library of Congress during the fall. She added that she’ll be keeping an eye out for job openings with the Library when she graduates – and hopefully by then, she’ll be able to work there in person.

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science