Archives & Active Learning Workshop

Guest author: Michelle C. Sigiel
MSLIS Student at Simmons College School of Library and Information Science

NEA Workshop 2

Photo by Marilyn Morgan.

This year I had the opportunity to attend an NEA workshop related to how archivists can better facilitate and develop active learning strategies in special collections and archives. As a current student at Simmons College who studies Library and Information Science, this workshop forced me to think about outreach and instruction. Furthermore, it proved me with a framework for how I can work creatively and collaboratively in the future to bring students, teachers, and the public into contact with archival resources. The workshop focused on how to create partnerships with faculty and teachers in K-12 in an effort to further engage key groups of potential users with archives. It also provided further insight and instruction to participants regarding the development of educational and instructional activities beyond a “show-and-tell” style of presentation.

This workshop sought to address some of the struggles archivists frequently face such as the issues of how to present collections in a way that can align with core curriculum requirements or course requirements at a university. It also taught participants how to establish and maintain lasting partnerships with faculty and teachers, and how to craft instructional activities that engage students and make them want to return or further explore the archive’s collections. Four archivists led this workshop: several from academic institutions, a city archives, and the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, MA, providing a great variety of perspectives on how to promote active learning with archival collections.

Participants in the workshop highlighted how one of the challenges early-on involved determining whom to contact for partnership-building and how to make activities align with teaching expectations and goals. Workshop leaders recommended that archivists seek-out educators with common goals, and to think in-terms of how that partner may search for narratives in collections that align with their common goals. For example, a high school history teacher may be interested in working with collections that align with a core narrative in U.S. history such as perspectives on the Revolutionary War.

The next challenge or hurdle discussed by the participants in the workshop involves maintaining those partnerships once they begin to develop. Faculty and teachers become pressed for time, they may not recognize the value of bringing students to the archives or the first session may go poorly and they may not see the value of returning. Workshop leaders offered several methods to make the first “make or break” visits to the archive successful. They proposed offering multi-modal forms of activities during the educational session that engaged listening, speaking, writing, and reading; as well as co-authoring with the faculty or teacher questions and activities that will promote thought and engage students. They also emphasized how archivists should be confident, utilize expertise of collections, and not be daunted by the depth of faculty subject knowledge when it comes to collaboration. Furthermore, it pays to know a little bit about the faculty member’s teaching style. (Are they hands-off? Will they let you take the lead in the classroom?) This advice will certainly help someone new to the profession like me if I should want to further develop instructional and educational activities.

NEA Workshop 1

Photo by Marilyn Morgan.

Another key take-away of this workshop includes developing an approach that is more collaborative than customer service. Customer service approaches, one leader highlighted, may sometimes work well in reference settings, but not in more structured, educational environments. Faculty must work together in an equal partnership with the archivist and recognize that the archivist’s presence brings a certain perspective that may differ from their own. The archivist-faculty relationship must also build-upon the pre-existing relationship between faculty and their students. With this approach, faculty and archivists can work together to determine what informational and content value lies in a collection that will benefit students in a class.

During the workshop, the leaders highlighted how every class differs and that the most reliable metrics for assessing success come from observing broad patterns over time, and tweaking upcoming instructional sessions based-upon those metrics in evaluation or feedback whether it be gathered as forms or surveys. Student feedback matters immensely along with faculty feedback as students are all potential users of the archive. Workshop leaders also promoted the use of digital tools for longer-term archival projects carried-out by students.

Some of the digital tools discussed in the workshop included Omeka, Tumblr, and other social media. Technology has become a major component of education in classrooms, and integrating a technological component into instruction in the archives’ reading room or beyond may help to improve learning outcomes that assist in reaching common goals. All students will need to be functional in the digital world, and finding a way to integrate this need into an archival setting may also help students see that information and content contained within archives can be more dynamic and applicable to their own lives than they previously imagined.

Archives & Active Learning taught me more about the collaborative partnership approach, and how this approach can be utilized to achieve the outcomes archivists desire for their collections such as increased visibility, access, and use. Furthermore, this approach informed me of how archivists can facilitate broader, community-wide efforts in education and community-consciousness building. For example, for a digital initiative The Boston City Archives utilized letters they held in a partnership with local schools to build awareness of segregated busing in Boston, and to help inform students about the nature of mid-20th century discrimination in Massachusetts. Not only did this increase visibility and use of these materials, but it made students more conscious of city history during the 20th century. Thus, through collaborative projects and partnerships, archives can have an impact on an increasingly broader community.

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