When I was filling in my application for an InterPlus internship, I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I got was an incredibly fulfilling experience working towards a project with wonderful colleges and opportunities to engage with the wider university community. But let’s start at the beginning.
My name is Bārbala and I am currently a second year undergraduate student studying neuroscience with psychology. In November 2021 I was selected to be an intern at the Directorate of Digital and Information Services to do foundational work in decolonising library collections. Decolonising in the context of a library means reassessing how we are collecting items for the library and how these items are then catalogued. Since the University of Aberdeen spans back more than 500 years, a significant part of the library collections still reflects an antiquated worldview.
On my first day, we decided that my first month would be spent researching the topic, familiarising myself with all the research that is out there and what other academic libraries have done in this regard. I learned an incredible amount of new information in topics I hadn’t even thought about before and personally got in contact with representatives of multiple UK universities to discuss their work in decolonisation. At first it seemed a little overwhelming, but approaching the research one day at a time, I gained invaluable experience in analysing findings, collecting data, using the right keywords to find what I’m looking for, presenting what I’ve found in a summary form as well as many other important research skills. And this was just the beginning.
After the initial research was done (and I say initial because, of course, there is always more and I was learning new things all throughout the project), I had to grab the bull by the horns and start analysing the possible issues that need fixing at university libraries. Initially, I didn’t even know where to start, but my amazing colleagues were incredibly helpful in explaining how the library systems work to get me started. Library of Congress subject headings are used to apply standardised keywords to items in library collections and the Dewey Decimal System is used to categorise items based on their subjects and assign them to a number. Both systems are controlled by centralised institutions. Both systems are very Western centred, with questionable representation of other parts of the world both in the wording of subject headings and classification decisions. Libraries also often encounter issues with their collection diversity (most items come from Western European countries or the USA), which also trickles down to course reading lists, too many of which are representative of only one worldview by one type of author (white man from the UK or US). One of my main responsibilities was to get a scale of the issues at the university and find out what we could do about it.
I spent the next months familiarising myself with library systems, running analyses and reporting on what I found. I looked at a myriad of things, from problematic subject heading numbers at the library, to place of publication analysis and how to best run reading list audits. I think the main skill I honed was data analysis. It is such an important thing to master in this day and age when we have so much data from so many sources all the time, and this is true in pretty much every profession. As a neuroscience student this skill is especially relevant since data analysis is a huge component of any modern science field. Being able to integrate large amounts of data and not get overwhelmed by it is crucial.
After running the analysis, I had to present my findings as well. This involved preparing presentations and blog posts, talking to other interns around the university, preparing documents and step-by-step instructions for people who will continue this work after me. I learned a lot in communication and how to best present my findings based on my target audience. This is a skill that can only be learned by practicing, so I am very grateful for the opportunity. You can be amazing at your job, but if you don’t communicate your findings effectively, no one will ever know. Especially in science, where you need to be able to crunch huge amounts of data and complicated mechanisms into relatively simple explanations.
I still have a month left in my position, but this has already been an absolutely amazing experience! I am so thankful to everyone who I have worked with, everyone has been wonderful. Shout out to the Acquisitions and Cataloguing office and my amazing manager Emma! I have learned so much and gained so many skills that will follow me in my future life and career. Being trusted with such an important project as an undergraduate student has been an unbelievable opportunity.