Teaching the Archives

2011 June 10
by Shane Landrum

Yesterday’s “Teaching the Archives” session at the Big Berks was really wonderful. Featuring 3 archivists from the Sophia Smith Collection— Sherrill Redmon, Maida Goodwin, and Karen Anderson— it was full of insights about how to teach students to work with archival materials.

As someone who learned archival research at the SSC and Smith College Archives (housed in the same building), the whole session left me profoundly grateful that I had the opportunity to work with such amazing collections as an undergrad. (For example: before she was a famous historian, Natalie Zemon Davis was Natalie Zemon, Smith class of 1949, and editor of the weekly campus newspaper, The Sophian. Her signed editorials made fun reading for a senior-thesis writer researching campus anti-communism and its effects.)

Rather than rephrasing my Twitter reportage of the session, I’m trying an experiment: repeating it below, so that the links stay intact. I’m hoping that its information-dense content makes up for the stylistic brevity. Let me know what you think.

  • Sherrill Redmon of Sophia Smith Collection, @smithcollege: visits have increased 25% over the last decade. #Berks2011 ->
  • 3 special collections groups at @smithcollege have 1/3 the staff of the Schlesinger Library & handle almost 75 4-credit classes. #Berks2011 ->
  • Budget pressures mean that SSC staff are teaching more 4-credit classes as well as running intros for faculty-led courses. #Berks2011 ->
  • Correction: that figure of 75 4-credit classes is courses which do any kind of work at SSC, not courses taught by staff. #Berks2011 ->
  • Kelly Anderson, oral historian at Sophia Smith Collection, up next. #Berks2011 ->
  • Oral history collections @smithcollege include interviews about the Puerto Rican independence mvmt. #Berks2011 @PhDeviate ->
  • KA reviews list of oral histories at SSC: http://bit.ly/ilTgIf ; Voices of Feminism http://bit.ly/mHjWL1 now being digitized #Berks2011 ->
  • Full-life oral histories at SSC range 4-12 hours; searchable transcripts in the 80-page range. #Berks2011 ->
  • (In case it wasn't clear, this is session 3, "Teaching the #Archives" at #Berks2011 ) ->
  • Faculty at @smithcollege using oral histories more in teaching; good assignmnts interrogate construction of interviews as sources #Berks2011 ->
  • There's a bibliography being distributed on teaching with oral histories; I don't have one yet. #Berks2011 ->
  • Anderson has taught 3 courses on oral history @smithcollege: women and activism, queer oral history, documenting lesbian lives. #Berks2011 ->
  • Documenting Lesbian Lives: Student Oral History Project #Berks2011 http://bit.ly/jvWmMf (Doesn't yet include this yr's crop of interviews) ->
  • Anderson's syllabi: 2ndary literature, methodology, oral-history methods; students get IRB approval & do full-life interviews. #Berks2011 ->
  • Teaching oral history lets students meet the "elders" (over 50) in lesbian community & "disappear into someone else's life" #Berks2011 ->
  • Students doing interviews learn to break down false generational dichotomies between older feminists/lesbians & themselves. #Berks2011 ->
  • Students also end up engaging with their own emotions in reaction to interviewees: excitement, connection, disappointment. #Berks2011 ->
  • KA plays a clip of Loretta Ross that she uses to teach critical thinking: LR talking about what she doesn't say in interviews. #Berks2011 ->
  • In video interview, LR says "this interview feels like… emotional… exploratory surgery," talks about her discomfort. #Berks2011 ->
  • Anderson begins section on best practices for oral history in the classroom. #Berks2011 ->
  • KA used to assign oral history as a final project option; she developed an OH class to make sure this work was preserved. #Berks2011 ->
  • KA's guidelines: 1) set oral history in context 2) make students proficient in OH methods … #Berks2011 ->
  • … 3) rigorous practices (informed consent, IRB, etc) 4) material must be shared & preserved. #Berks2011 ->
  • Anderson has students do dramatic performances based on their interview subjects, to "restore orality" & create public dialogue #Berks2011 ->
  • "teaching our students to fish" by showing them how to do oral histories. #Berks2011 ->
  • Next up: Maida Goodwin, Big Berks '84 organizer & SSC outreach coord, talking about student responses to materiality of #archives #Berks2011 ->
  • Goodwin on teaching students to "settle in for a meaningful rummage through the #archives"– explaining what archivists do #Berks2011 ->
  • "Archives are not places you go as a tourist, or just to hang out"– student "psychological barriers" to approaching #archives #Berks2011 ->
  • MG refers to TV shows which show original historical research: "African American Lives" & "Who Do You Think You Are?" as intros #Berks2011 ->
  • (Aside: for me, resrching in SSC/College Archives as a @smithcollege undergrad was a *really* useful apprenticeship in history.) #Berks2011 ->
  • Explaining the basic rules of #archives use to students: procedures can "feel like a strip search" the 1st time #Berks2011 ->
  • Importance of teaching careful students preservation-oriented resrch practices without "giving off that scolding librarian vibe" #Berks2011 ->
  • Students learning that the #archives often won't be able to provide exactly what they *think* they're looking for. #Berks2011 ->
  • The slide on screen for this talk is an interview subject holding up a sign: "Member of Ladies Sewing Circle & Terrorist Society" #Berks2011 ->
  • Teaching students to read the *** finding aid and interact with the archivist when they're curious about a collection. #Berks2011 ->
  • For an unprocessed collection, finding aid may not even be a blunt instrument- "positively gelatinous." Talk to the archivists. #Berks2011 ->
  • Talking to the archivists gets you things you wouldn't find in an online search. If 1 doesn't answer your ?, try another one. #Berks2011 ->
  • "Researchers should really make use of our jaded archival perspective as a shortcut to narrowing in on the good stuff" #Berks2011 ->
  • Reading #archives material is very different from standard student course readings; every student reading something on their own. #Berks2011 ->
  • Historical subjects don't write w/topic sentences. Student: "I read like an English major…need to learn to read like a historian" #Berks2011 ->
  • Talking about students reading women's magazines for a course, & historical format differences: 19c bound lady's mags #Berks2011 ->
  • Students have to learn to read handwriting; can be important to give them options for not having to learn that skill. #Berks2011 ->
  • Telling students about the technology of making photographs & how that affects what images display & how they survived #Berks2011 ->
  • Teach conventions of how records are kept and how records are made: like dictator/typist initials at the end of a letter. #Berks2011 ->
  • Encourage students again & again & again to use 2ndary sources. It's normal for them to be confused. Teach them to plan ahead. #Berks2011 ->
  • 1 prof last semester told students "Plan ahead: this assignment will take awhile because It Is So Cool." #archives #Berks2011 ->
  • Maida Goodwin fills her presentation with quotes from student evaluations of their experiences in the #archives– great stuff. #Berks2011 ->
  • Students doing #archives research learn to schedule time in the library, like schedule time to study. #Berks2011 ->
  • "None of the research I've done @smithcollege has been as time-intensive or as manual… can't Ctrl-F #archives to find things" #Berks2011 ->
  • 4th panelist, Susan Van Dyne of @smithcollege Studies of Women & Gender, can't be present. #Berks2011 ->
  • Sherrill Redmon of Sophia Smith Collection back on podium. They teach dozens of intros to archives for different disciplines. #Berks2011 ->
  • New(ish) @smithcollege concentration/minor in #Archives , can be combined with any major: http://smith.edu/archives/ #Berks2011 ->
  • Archives concentration @smithcollege requires a practicum & capstone seminar, "Making History Public;" this yr they made exhibits #Berks2011 ->
  • Exhibit on WW2 journalist Pauline Frederick created by an Archives student for capstone seminar: http://bit.ly/l3wxsc #Berks2011 ->
  • Do's & Don'ts for putting archival research in syllabi: get on the archives calendar as early as possible. Really. #Berks2011 ->
  • Teach students to limit topics for feasibility. Communicate & conspire with archivists often. Come *with* classes to #archives #Berks2011 ->
  • Successful profs circulate around reading room while students work, to underscore that #archives work isn't a throwaway/filler #Berks2011 ->
  • Sit down w/an archivist b4 you finish yr syllabus to pre-screen collections applicable to course; helps avoid student overwhelm #Berks2011 ->
  • "It's not good to throw [students] off the deep end" in #archives #Berks2011 ->
  • Lead off w/icebreakers, like going around the room, each student reading 1 sentence of the same longhand letter #Berks2011 ->
  • Students working in pairs is great to keep quieter students from getting lost & keep them on task. #Berks2011 ->
  • Oral presentations on research give students a chance to be experts on something– a bit of campus history, for example. #Berks2011 ->
  • At topic-choosing stage: "you don't have to know what you're looking for. Keep looking & yr topic will find you" #Berks2011 ->
  • (Redmon admits that advice is from Ancestry.com commercials, & says it's really good.) #Berks2011 ->
  • Sherrill Redmon: #archives research teaches that "all that glitters is not findable by Google" SSC has 20,000 linear ft of docs #Berks2011 ->
  • Students who work in #archives become more critical consumers of online info: they learn what's *not* online & how cool it is. #Berks2011 ->
  • SR: "We now serve more distant scholars thn evr… ppl who wdn't think of coming to a women's history #archives… Google sends them" #Berks2011 ->
  • "At least 1 student discovered that some of YWCA staff were socialists; she used that info to write a paper in her next course" #Berks2011 ->
  • When students see a single item online, ask them to go look at real folders & contextualize the item using items before/after #Berks2011 ->
  • Students drafted wikipedia entries on some of the women they studied. #Berks2011 ->
  • After the course is over, be sure to debrief the archivists using student feedback: what worked, what didn't, what they loved. #Berks2011 ->
  • Students pay attention in the #archives: no sleeping, texting, etc. #Berks2011 ->
  • Going to Q & A in "Teaching the Archives," Campus Center 101. #Berks2011 ->
  • K. Anderson: students practice interviewing one another to learn to manage their notes, operate a camera, & talk simultaneously #Berks2011 ->
  • Anderson's students practice getting comfortable interviewing about "private matters" like sexuality by interviewing one another #Berks2011 ->
  • Some of Anderson's nontraditional students who are 50+ have been interviewees in oral history classes. #Berks2011 ->
  • Audience #archives professional expresses envy of SSC staff getting to work directly with students. #Berks2011 ->
  • Aside: I'm thrilled that @BerksConference had this room set up so that there are chairs near the power plugs. Thanks! #Berks2011 ->
  • I want to ask why the SSC staff had students draft Wikipedia entries & then held them for review before submitting them. #Berks2011 ->
  • Redmon expresses pleasure that a "brave faculty member" asked "what is a finding aid?" in front of students, bc ze didn't know #Berks2011 ->
  • My Q on adjuncts' #archives assignmnts in short time: "have each student look at 1 box of a collection & compare what they find" #Berks2011 ->
  • Faculty member asks for ideas on teaching about #archives when their .edu has no good collections: local hist soc, churches, etc #Berks2011 -> [Edited to add: read how Tona Hangen works with the Worcester (MA) Historical Society to teach her students about archival research at her DigitalWorcester page. She’s also written a series of great blog posts about how she teaches the history-majors’ methods course; see, for example, Letter Detectives. Tona’s an alum of the Brandeis Ph.D. program in American history, where I’m studying now.]
  • Faculty member talks about teaching "graduate students, undergrads, & 5th graders" using old bible records & birth certificates #Berks2011 ->
  • Someone asks for ideas on teaching an intro to #archives for grad students who *aren't* in history programs. #Berks2011 ->
  • Faculty member: "assume that they know nothing, even if they *are* history grad students… they grew up in a google world" #Berks2011 ->
  • Importance of teaching grad students archival etiquette & practices: gloves, asking about camera usage, etc #Berks2011 ->
  • Grad assignment: weekly reports from students on a single primary source & what can be found in it. #Berks2011 ->
  • Sherrill Redmon mentions Center for History & New Media's websites for guidelines on doing research & oral history. #Berks2011 ->
  • I explained Jane Kamensky's grad seminar "#archives field trips"– 1 library per student, w/oral reports about its local culture #Berks2011 ->
  • Faculty member has students all take pictures of their dorm rooms, then talk about what they could learn from that collection. #Berks2011 ->

The whole conversation leaves me really excited for the start of Day 2.

3 Responses
  1. June 14, 2011

    This makes for fascinating comparison with, and addition to, my own (handwritten on a steno pad) notes. V.v. cool.


  1. Teaching the Archives @ the Berk « Issues in Digital History
  2. Berkshire Conference of Women Historians | Blog Wrap-Ups

Comments are closed.