Student Exhibits vs. Staff/Admin Exhibits

The Bryn Mawr Now article, ‘CATALOGING FEVER’ STRIKES STUDENT ORGANIZATIONS, got me thinking about the important differences between student exhibits and admin exhibits. Expanding that thought into the larger Public History world, it could be seen as a difference between participant-created exhibits and those crafted by outside forces (ex. government, those representing though not part of a given group, etc.)

While both student and admin exhibits have a good deal in common, there are important differences between the two. Student exhibits or projects inherently express the needs, desires, and character of the student community. They are driven by something of a grass-roots movement, pushing for a goal, uncovering an important historical point, or, as in the case of the article, allowing information to be integrated into archives for the benefit of all students. Conversely, admin exhibits are a reflection of either what that particular department or individual needs at a given time (much like the student, but at a distance from the lived experience of the institution) or what that department/individual believes would be beneficial to or representative of the student body. The ownership of the exhibit or project has real implications on what is being presented or achieved and how that gets done. In the example of cataloging books from the BCC library and the Rainbow Alliance/Women’s Center collections, it is very likely that the project would not have even been proposed, had students not designated it as valuable or necessary. In the view of admins, staff, and faculty (with the possible exception of activist library staff or faculty in relevant departments), the books existed and were in an acceptable place. Accessing them through the library catalog is a nearly exclusively student concern.

Further, there are practical concerns that come into play here. Funding, time allocation, workers, space designated to such projects or exhibits, advertising/outreach (both for support and attendance, as needed), and myriad other necessities of getting the project off the ground, let alone completing the work. Admin-led projects have the benefit of funding, representation, access to the power structure (gaining clearance or support), and an inherent notoriety. However, like any bureaucracy, they are also shackled by their department, the opinions of their fellow admins, the questions of legitimacy, and the official image that any admin-led action presents. Student-led projects are much the opposite: While they don’t have the (relatively) easy access to funding or the higher-ups for clearance and representation, students have more room to pursue the project without being bound by expectations or official representations.

In the article, this situation of student-led projects is made apparent. The Chief Information Officer of Canaday (in 2004) stated that “before Information Services became involved, we wanted to make sure this would be the students’ project, rather than the library’s project.” Now, that could be to retain the students’ intent and hopes for the project itself, but the remainder of the quote clarifies her reasoning. “Once we got a commitment from the students, we provided a little seed money to kickstart the process. We funded a certain number of student-worker hours for each organization, with the understanding that they would find additional funding if the cataloging couldn’t be finished in one semester.” Translation: We’ll help you get it started, but this is on you to organize, maintain, and follow through to completion. It would have been a burden for the library staff to take on, both financially and as a time commitment. While it appears that a member of library staff trained students in the cataloging process, the burden of the work and project as a whole was entirely on the students. Both Turner and Hills, those students spearheading the cataloging projects, had to recruit other students, manage the project on a large and small scale, and pass the torch on to younger students who would continue to catalog existing and new donations. Despite that tremendous workload, a project vital to the students, and one that likely would not have existed without their intervention, was presented and (at the time of the article’s posting) well on its way to completion.