History Student Gains Career Experience in Public History

07-24-2019


by Kristina Garvelink (M.S. ’15)

From the start of his college experience, senior history major Owen LaVigne (B.A. ’20) directed his passion for history toward a career in public history rather than education. A semester-long internship spent digitizing old mugshots and preserving other types of records for Grand Rapids' Community Archives and Research Center reinforced his decision.

"It helped open my eyes to the wealth of resources that we have here in the city, especially with what the Community Archives has," LaVigne said. "The Community Archives has tons of different types of records that you can use to infer information. For example, people can use the mugshots for genealogical research and see different types of crimes that were committed back then."

When not uploading mugshots attached to select fingerprint cards of individuals arrested by the Grand Rapids Police Department in the 1920s and 1930s, LaVigne assisted with the retrieval of photos requested by visitors and processed incoming records acquired by the Community Archives. His work included organizing city appraisal cards dating back to the Great Depression and preparing blueprints of new city buildings for long-term storage.

Tony Wright, city archives officer, affirmed LaVigne's appreciation for history and aptitude for the careful, efficient preservation of its artifacts.

"Owen volunteered at the City of Grand Rapids Archives, and his main responsibility was digitizing our historic police fingerprint cards along with some of our historic police mugshot images," Wright said. "We recently purchased Omeka, an open-source web publishing platform, and Owen uploaded images to it, plus he was responsible for the metadata work. Owen also assisted on various research projects, and he assisted with some of the basic day-to-day duties as assigned. Interns at the City of Grand Rapids Archives are told before they begin their internship to expect anything to happen in the way of requests and research projects, and Owen performed very well during one of the busiest times in our department's history.

"We have been very pleased with the energy, attitude and professionalism of students from Cornerstone University. Owen was a fantastic intern, and he was an asset when it came to our digitizing project. His passion for history and helping out any way possible was impressive. Instructors and staff from Cornerstone do a great job communicating with us the goals and expectations of the internship programs, and we are happy to partner when it comes to internships."

After he graduates from college in the spring, LaVigne intends to pursue additional education and apply for jobs in public history. He aspires to promote the proper use of history through being hired as a full-time archivist for a public or private organization.

"Owen has been a dedicated history major, and I was pleased that he secured this internship at the City of Grand Rapids Archives and Research Center," Dr. Martin Spence, associate professor of history, said. "When people think of career options for history majors, they often think of teaching and perhaps museums. In fact, studying history provides great skills in a range of public and for-profit sectors, including information management, archival work, digital media management and community engagement. Owen's work at the City of Grand Rapids Archives has combined several of these things, helping to digitize files, managing public requests for information and making records about the city's past more accessible to the public. It is a great example of the kind of work that history majors can excel at."