Browse By

On the nature of special collections, and on partnering with educators

There are a growing number of articles within the professional literature that address the inclusion of archival projects within undergraduate curricula (Doris J. Malkmus provides a useful overview in her article “Primary Source Research and the Undergraduate: A Transforming Landscape,” found in Journal of Archival Organization, 2008). Panel sessions at the last two national Society of American Archivists meetings also examined archivists’ roles in bringing their materials to educators: “Beyond Show and Tell: Engaging Undergraduates with Primary Sources” (August 30, 2008) and “Collaborative Teaching and Learning in the Archives: Assessment and Insights” (August 14, 2009). Archivists who work in repositories that are part of academic institutions find themselves within the “laboratory of the humanities.” We are intimately aware of the research potential in our collections—and we should communicate that potential to educators at our institutions.
As Clifford Lynch writes: “Each great research library has its own unique character; special and distinctive collections have always been integral to shaping this character….Such collections link research libraries directly to the core missions of the academy…simultaneously, they represent unique responsibilities for research libraries as stewardship institutions for cultural memory….” (“Special Collections at the Cusp of the
Digital Age: A Credo.” Research Library Issues: A Bimonthly Report from ARL, CNI,
and SPARC, no. 267 (Dec. 2009): 3–9)

Particularly in a library atmosphere of shared—and, oftentimes, electronic—resources, special collections increasingly entice users through the library door (whether that door be physical or on the web) and set libraries apart from their peers.
Lynch goes on to describe the digital delivery of special collections materials as a way for research libraries to preserve and provide extraordinary access to these collections. Whether we deliver archival materials in person or via digital surrogates, I believe that it is incumbent upon archivists to consider how our special collections relate to the “core missions of the academy.” We must reach out to faculty and teaching assistants to make them aware of what we do and what information we have. Archival materials in the classroom can revitalize the study of history and related disciplines.
Accomplishing this goal requires, I think, an element of service-related advocacy that not all archivists have time or are prepared to adopt. How do we reach those who teach (or those who are learning to teach)? And when we reach them—whether through a concerted effort to target faculty teaching courses related to collection topics, networking at university events, relying on personal connections with professors or graduate students, or other means—what can we offer them? Some institutions coordinate these endeavors by hiring folks dedicated to working with professors to integrate archival materials into curricula. Other repositories have educators on staff who create interpretive guides to archival materials. In my own repository I have been fortunate to work with dedicated faculty and graduate students whose enthusiasm at incorporating archival materials into their courses has led to presentations—by us and by students—that has raised awareness of the archives’ resources.
Once a relationship has been established, though, how do we interact with students? Do we invite professors to bring their students into the archives? If we do so, how do we reach these students in a meaningful way (that moves productively past an “archives’ greatest hits” look at collection materials)? How do we keep reasonable our expectations about what students can learn about the process of archival research in an hour, or a week, or a semester? And, perhaps most significantly, how do we navigate partnerships with faculty or teaching assistants (especially if we’ve never taught ourselves)?
In my experience working with professors (teaching at both the undergraduate and graduate levels), there are a few basic lessons I’d like to share.
First, before the course begins, consider the scope of any archival projects to be included in the syllabus. Students cannot realistically be expected to conceptualize a project, find relevant archival materials, digitize them, contextualize and interrogate them, and combine all this research into a paper, website, or exhibit in a period of a few weeks. Second, become comfortable with the tension between the serendipity inherent to archival research (that is, the value of browsing within a collection and approaching records contextually) and the logistical demands of the semester (that might require directing students toward particular collections or selections of documents). Third, ensure that your staff is prepared to handle the demands of large numbers of first-time users. This may require staff working weekends or evenings to accommodate student schedules, and it will definitely require repeated explanations of how to read a finding aid.

One thought on “On the nature of special collections, and on partnering with educators”

  1. Hillel Arnold says:

    This is a great article with a lot of really provocative questions. I’m wondering how a more intentional focus on integrating archival materials with education across the curriculum might affect our descriptive practices, both in terms of our standards as well as the descriptive content we create.
    It seems to me that a lot of current archival description is geared towards scholars, particularly historians. Even scholars in other disciplines sometimes have trouble reading a finding aid because, let’s face it, they’re not the most intuitive descriptive standard out there. As you say in your final paragraph, engaging students with archival material requires significant investment of time explaining how finding aids work. If we’re spending a lot of time explaining how our descriptive standards work to the very people we’re trying to get into our archives – both now and in the future – shouldn’t we be taking a good hard look at those standards and maybe asking why they’re so difficult to understand?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *