Teaching: Select Topics in Community-Based Public History

This fall I’ll be teaching HIST 3296: Select Topics in Community-Based Public History at AlgomaU. I’m thrilled to have this opportunity and excited to be able to share my love of public history with students.

From the course calendar: The course will introduce students to the theory and practice of community-based public history, with reference to local and regional examples. Students will explore the history and relevance of community-based efforts to make the past visible and comprehensible to the public. The social functions of museums, libraries, archives, and monuments, as well as web-based sites of historical commemoration, will be critically assessed. Contrasts between history, heritage, social memory, and tools such as oral history will be examined.

I’m still working on the planning of the course but in the meantime I’m using this as a reason to enjoy some public history focused books that I have been on my to-read list for ages.  So far my reading has looked at Parks Canada, commemoration in Canada, participatory heritage, museum writing, and exhibit design.  If nothing else this reading has filled my head with a lot of great ideas and also reminded me about the diversity of public history.  So much of my work is archives focused theses days. I do engage in a lot of educational programming, community outreach, and the occasional exhibit design – however it is all through an archival lens.  It’s been nice to take a step back from that really focused form of public history and to look at broader social trends, work that is going on in my local community, and interesting projects occurring across Canada. Onwards!

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.

Introduction to Archives

As my last post indicated I’ve been thinking a lot about archival instruction and introducing students and other new users to archives.  As part of this process I’ve been gathering resources that explain how archives are organized, introduce the basic of archival processing, and explain different aspects of archival theory.

Some of the best resources I’ve come across so far include:

  • How do Archivists Organize Collections?” by Peel Art Gallery Museum and Archives (PAMA). A clearly written introduction to how archives are organized.  This post touches on physical processing, the concept of fonds, and how archives are different from libraries.  PAMA has also written excellent posts on what archivists do and on what it’s like to visit the archives.
  • Archives Association of British Columbia Archivist’s Toolkit. The toolkit provides resources for archivists on a range of archival topics including basic archival principals, uses of archives, and a range of outreach topics.
  • Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology created by the Society of American Archivists. The glossary contains more than 2,000 entries on a wide range of archival terms.  I’ve used this resource when creating presentations to help explain terminology specific to archives.
  • About records, archives and the profession” by the International Council on Archives.  A primer on archives and archivists.  My favourite line of this piece is “archives are for life and for living.”
  • Animating the Archives video series by Tate Gallery.  The series explores the different facets and uses of archives. A number of the videos explore art based archives and the relevancy of archives to artistic and research practices.
  • Archives Association of Ontario Introduction to Archives Youtube series. Includes presentations on using archives, describing archives, arranging archives, and wikipedia for archivists.

What resources do you turn to when teaching about archives?

Teaching in the Archives

Teacharchives.org a website dedicated to promoting teaching with primary sources and archives in new and innovative ways.  The site was developed through a grant that enabled the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) to partner with 18 faculty at three colleges near the archive.  This initiative, Students and Faculty in the Archives (SAFA), saw over 1100 students visiting BHS from 2011-2013 to engage with archival sources.

The site documents the three year project and provides an excellent resource for both archivists and instructors looking to engage students with primary source material.  After many student visits and the experience of inviting so many new visitors to the BHS the project came up with some basic guidelines for instructors wishing to integrate archives into their classroom:

  1. Define specific learning objects for each visit to an archives.  Each visit should be centered around an objective and relate to overall course goals.  
  2. The fewer documents the better.  Archive activities for students newly exposed to archives should focus on item-level document analysis.  Spend lots of time with fewer documents.
  3. Create opportunities for group learning.  Groups of 3-4 students work well for dealing with standard documents.  Group work can promote community, allow students to work through difficult sections together, and highlight the fact that document analysis can vary greatly between people. 
  4. Use direct and tailored research questions to guide student work. Avoid show and tell sessions in the archive.  Generic questions (what is this document, who created it) don’t highlight the intricate nature of archival sources and often don’t apply to all documents.  A couple of great examples of creating tailored handouts can be seen here.

The site is worth exploring if you’re looking for archives instructional resources.  The set of exercises on a range of common historical topics provided on the site is a great tool for those looking to develop their own instructional programs. There is also a selection of pedagogy based articles written by archivists and educators experienced with student archival instruction.

Many archives and educators struggle with effectively integrating collections into a range of courses.  Archival instruction and lessons based around primary sources can be valuable outside of historical methods classes.  Research, analysis, communication, and the ability to synthesize content are skills which reach across disciplines and can be reinforced by working with archival sources.

National Film Board of Canada and Public History

Earlier this week one of my colleagues hosted a professional development presentation on the National Film Board (NFB) of Canada.  Since that presentation, which mainly focused on how to get the most out of the NFB database, I’ve been thinking a lot about the applications of NFB material in instructional or public history settings.

I’ve always had a bit of a fond spot for the NFB– mostly because of amusing animated shorts that were deemed educational enough to be shown in school (eg. The Cat Cam Back and The Big Snit).  However, I had no idea how much history content and archival footage is held by the NFB.  At this point, I have been able to find clips on almost any historical topic I’ve looked up.  Additionally, the “Explore Film by Subject” feature allows users to search periods of history (1967-1919, 1920-1945, 1946-Present, and Pre-1867).  Each time period can then be divided thematically, making finding useful films fairly painless.

Some of the best examples I’ve found of historically relevant footage on the NFB:

  • Vistas: InukShop, focusing on the appropriation of Inuit culture throughout Canada’s history.
  • Action: The October Crisis of 1970, a full length documentary film looking at October 1970 when Montreal awaited the outcome of FLQ terrorist acts.  This film includes a lot of archival and news footage from the era.
  • Westray, a feature documentary focusing on the Westray coal mine disaster that occured in Nova Scotia on May 9, 1992.

There are multitudes of other examples and options for any subject that professors, interpreters, and education staff might be trying to bring to life.