Teaching and Learning in the Archives

231011361_4a4a257a60The Hack Library School (HLS) blog recently included a post titled “How to Librarians Learn to Teach?”  The post looked at the challenges of being thrown into the librarian instruction fire and the lack of formal training many librarians (and archivists) have in teaching, despite the fact that many will probably run instruction sessions at some point in their careers. Last year HLS also featured a two part post by Liz McGlynn’s on “Instruction Instruction” which looked at learning about instruction while in library school and seeking out opportunities related to teaching and educational programming.

I’ve written about archival literacy before and both of these posts had me thinking about all the instruction and education based outreach work I do and how to create better learning experiences for new professionals.  For the past number of years I’ve handled 75 to 100 educational groups a year.  Often these groups are coming to learn about the history of the Shingwauk Residential School site and about residential schools more broadly.  The style of each visit varies but generally includes a presentation, a walking tour, discussion, and maybe a hands-on activity or two depending on the length of visit and the age of the participations.  I’ve done this style of programming for a whole range of groups: day camps, K-12 classes, post-secondary classes, professional organizations, and small family groups.  This type of instruction is more public history/heritage site in style and is a bit out of the norm for most archival settings.

When I started there was no training process of learning how to conduct our standard walking tours – essentially you went along a number of them with a more experienced coworker and then were thrown into the fire to handle your own group.  I still encourage new staff or student assistants to go on a number of tours before asking them to run their own.  However I also often have them co-facilitate a couple of tours before handing over the reigns and I’ve also created a ‘tour cheat-sheet’ that has important dates and talking points that they can use while they are still learning.  We also now have a more formal walking tour companion handout that staff and visitors can use to guide them around the site.

The other type of instruction I do occasionally is more standard archival literacy based instruction and focuses on teaching about our collections, accessing archival materials, and what archives actually are. These sessions tend to be very syllabus driven and are often shaped based on faculty collaboration. This type of archival/special collections instruction can be very case specific but having some type of documentation about your process can be a huge boon for future coworkers and provide institutional consistency to programming.

I’ve also been working the past couple of years to develop a small teaching collection that can be pulled out when classes visit.  The collection is made up of duplicates and de-accessioned material and can be passed around without fear of damage.  I often pull a couple of boxes of relevant material to the class as well but I’ve found it’s nice to have a prepackaged toolkit of material that has lots of different formats and is in varying states of preservation to use as examples, without having to lug up a mountain of different boxes.

I really enjoy the instruction and educational outreach part of my job.  It can be exhausting – every time I have a group of particularly energetic school children I am very glad I didn’t go into teaching – but the rewards are well worth the effort.

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