Archivist on the Issues: The Best of Both Worlds, Combining physical & digital primary source education

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from Adriana Flores, Assistant Archivist for Acquisitions at Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center.

If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email archivesissues@gmail.com. Please note that opinions expressed in Archivists on the Issues posts do not indicate an official stance of SAA or the Issues and Advocacy Section.

 

If you have been keeping up on current trends in the archival profession, then you have heard about teaching with primary sources. The topic has had a distinct presence at the past few annual meetings, particularly the Reference, Access, and Outreach section’s full-day unconference, “Teaching With Primary Sources,” happening for the third time in Portland. However, another trend has also sparked my interest: creating education programs that utilize digitized archival materials. These programs offer access to primary sources in a whole new way and force archival educators to re-imagine the ways we’ve taught archival intelligence in the past. Clearly, teaching with primary sources is a vast subject with many approaches.

As an early professional, I am torn over how best to bring materials to college students. Should students be brought into the reading room to handle our rare and exciting materials themselves or should our items be scanned so students can access them from the comfort of their laptop? Or should students be exposed to both? To explore this issue further, I reviewed current literature on primary source education that highlight projects involving both physical and digital primary sources.

First, a quick overview of teaching with primary sources. Many archivists are not professionally trained educators so new publications, webinars, and other tools are vital to the transition from custodian to educator. Professors often enjoy incorporating primary sources into their classes because it gives their students an opportunity to engage with their lessons in a new and exciting way. In Teaching With Primary Sources, authors Elizabeth Yakel and Doris Malkmus write:

Textbooks and lectures present information in an authoritative voice, striving for clarity and concision, but research shows that students learn best when they experience cognitive dissonance and must struggle to make sense of new information by integrating it into an existing framework or building one around. (p. 35)

When engaged with primary sources, students are forced to think beyond the pre-packaged information often found in textbooks or articles. This method of teaching presents numerous opportunities for archival repositories to become more involved in course curriculum on campus.

When teaching with primary sources, the first approach that archivists can employ is straight-forward: bring students into archives. By allowing students to see archival materials first-hand, to touch them, to even smell them, understanding of the item can completely change. Physical materials often spark an interest in history by making an event or idea seem more tangible. Additionally, by being in an archival repository, students are able to learn more about how archives work and how to do research, also known as archival intelligence. As described in “AI: Archival Intelligence and User Expertise”:

Archival intelligence is a researcher’s knowledge of archival principles, practices, and institutions, such as the reasons underlying archival rules and procedures, how to develop search strategies to explore research questions, and an understanding of the relationship between primary sources and their surrogates. (p. 52)

By bringing college students into the archival repository and showing them primary sources, the archivist is able to impart archival intelligence, which will hopefully impact their future research skills. Overall, working with physical archival materials can make a lasting impact on students, which is both exciting and rewarding for archival educators.

Another approach to teaching with primary sources involves digital surrogates, which can be used to create online collections or exhibits, and expose a wider audience to archival materials. These platforms oftentimes make students feel more comfortable with the process of using primary sources; students can access documents from the comfort of their laptops without the limitations of reading room hours. Additionally, these methods can be great for distance or online-only students who are unable to visit campus. Digital projects will only become more prominent in our profession and it is worth investing the time to learn how to implement them.

It seems that the best way to expose students to primary sources is through a combination of physical and digital methods. By doing so, instructors are able to broaden their students’ research skill-sets and foster comfort and confidence with both in-person and online research. Yakel and Malkmus write:

While online sources are increasingly being used as substitutes for physical documents, both educators and archivists have also used online and physical records in a complementary sense. Instructors may introduce documents online to familiarize students with the sources and then bring students into the archives to focus on some of the material aspects of the items. Likewise, archivists may begin by introducing students to the actual records and then have them finish assignments using online collections…In the end, the important thing for both primary source and archival literacy is that students understand the advantages and disadvantages of using only actual, only online, or both types of primary sources. (p. 44)

By using primary sources in multiple formats, students are able to gain complementary research skills that will help them throughout their college career and beyond.

Lastly, working with both physical and digitized primary source materials presents one more exciting opportunity: digital humanities projects. At Nebraska University, archivists worked with faculty to create a series of classes that explored the relationship between physical and digital primary sources. Their goal for their students was to “…personally work with collections and learn more about the benefits of archival research through use of the materials in potentially compelling interpretative projects, and the online world would be able to discover our collections digitally” (Brink et al, p. 163). Digital humanities projects hold a great deal of potential for what primary source education can look like in the future; these projects are creative, collaborative, and constantly evolving. If you are struggling for a way to connect with humanities professors on campus, this is a great place to start.

Teaching with primary sources cannot be ignored by college and university archivists. Both physical and digital sources have their benefits and disadvantages while teaching, but I believe an education program is strongest when they are combined. If you are interested in learning more, I highly recommend SAA’s Teaching With Primary Sources, ACRL’s Past or Portal: Enhancing Undergraduate Learning through Special Collections and Archives, as well as attending RAO’s unconference. Any success stories, ideas, or reading suggestions? Please leave your comments below!

 

Adriana Flores is the Assistant Archivist for Acquisitions at Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center. She graduated in 2016 with her MLIS from Simmons College, with a concentration in Archives Management. Currently, Adriana is also a contributor for SNAP’s “Year in the Life” blog series.

 

Sources Cited

Brink, Peterson, and Mary Ellen Ducey, Andrew Jewell, and Douglas Seefeldt.”Teaching Digital History through the University Archives: The Case of Nebraska U: A Collaborative History.” In Past or Portal?: Enhancing undergraduate learning through special collections and archives, by Eleanor Mitchell, Peggy Seiden, and Suzy Taraba, 163-68. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2012.

Yakel, Elizabeth, and Deborah Torres. “AI: Archival Intelligence and User Expertise.” The American Archivist 66, no. 1 (2003): 51-78. Accessed April 20, 2017. doi:10.17723/aarc.66.1.q022h85pn51n5800. http://americanarchivist.org/doi/pdf/10.17723/aarc.66.1.q022h85pn51n5800?code=same-site

Yakel, Elizabeth, and Doris Malkmus. “Contextualizing Archival Literacy.” In Teaching with Primary Sources, by Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe and Christopher J. Prom, 5-68. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2016.

 

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