History Education in All Shapes and Sizes

The Fall/Winter 2012 issue of the American Archivist recently appeared on my desk.  I’m still working my way through it, but I found the article “Archival Document Packets: A Teaching Module in Advocacy Training Using the Papers of Governor Dick Thornburgh” by Richard J. Cox, Janet Ceja Alcala, and Leanne Bowler insightful and thought inspiring.

The article focuses on the University of Pittsburgh archival program‘s introduction of a course project to engage archival students in archival advocacy in outreach.   In particular, the students in a course called Archival Access, Ethics, and Advocacy under took a project to create teaching packets based on archival records relating to Dick Thornburgh.  The article outlines the experience of the students and their introduction to archival advocacy and addresses the relationship between archives and K-12 education.

September to December of 2012 was a particularly slow period for elementary and high school visits to the archive I work at.  This can largely be attributed to the Ontario English Teachers decision to cut extra-curricular activities (including field trips) in reaction to Bill 115.  In previous years, the archive has typically hosted one or two school groups a month.  Instead, September to December saw a large number of post-secondary and professional groups visiting the archive.  This shift in visitor trends contributed to me thinking about how archival visits can be bettered geared to each group.

As an archive we are lucky to be ideally situated on a historic site that reflects the type of material we collect.  Students groups often visit us to learn about the history of the site and not about archival practice.  That being said, I have a really hard time resiting an opportunity to explain the importance of historic documents, archives, and heritage institutions.  Any school presentation I give explains how the archive I work at was started as a community effort to collect lost pieces of history, includes slides of archival photographs and documents, and highlights the fact that archives are much more than just boxes of paper. 

Explaining research practices and archival selection to a grade four class isn’t really the way to win supporters of archives in the education world.  But, I do think it is possible to begin introducing archives to students at a young age.  When a K-12 class visits our archive we typically try to pair their visit with a visit from a local Elder, who explains their personal experiences to the students as a form of oral history.  Having a living person sharing their experience tends to add a tangible element to the archival visit, it brings the photographs I use to describe the past to life.

I think my first visit to an archive wasn’t until sometime in my undergrad. That visit included a standard introduction to archival research and prepared myself and my classmates to work on a source finding assignment in the archive. It was an okay introduction to the archive, but it really didn’t inspire any interest in learning about about how archives are organized or historical research.

I also don’t remember really being exposed to documentary heritage in any way in my earlier education.  I recall a couple of museum visits, but I think those were outside of school.  Heritage institutions have the potential to enrich history, social studies, civic lessons, geography, and so many other school topics.  But, for educators who have little to no exposure to heritage organizations or their holdings it’s understandable that this avenue of instruction is often overlooked.  Archives shouldn’t simply expect school groups to show up at their door.  Outreach and advocacy is needed to highlight the value of documentary and material cultural heritage within the formal education system.

How can archives/heritage organizations and educators collaborate more effectively?

Photo Credit: North Carolina Digital Heritage Center

Leave a Reply

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