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

Archival Outreach and Community Based Heritage

Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the role archives can play in community based heritage initiatives.  The bulk of my thoughts have centered on the idea that archives have the potential to become community heritage hubs and places of active history. Of course, just because archives have the potential to do this doesn’t mean they instantly become centers for community heritage.  A tremendous amount of effort, planning, and outreach needs to occur for archives to become more than repositories and facilities for occasional researchers.

 A colleague and I recently ran a professional development workshop on community based heritage projects.  The workshop spent a great deal of time focusing on outreach and education programming our archive has undertaken in the past; while highlighting the resulting successes and failures of these efforts.

This presentation and audience questions pointed out the importance of archives knowing their audience and creating outreach geared to their audience.  Similarly, most archives serve more than one type of patron and as such they require more than one type of outreach if they wish to appeal to a range of people.   That being said, due to limited budgets and staff time a lot of archival outreach has a tendency to be broad ranging and not geared to a particular user group.

How can archives and other heritage organizations take an existing outreach initiative and efficiently make that initiative tailored to a range of users? Content development is probably the most important part of this process. It also tends to be the most labour intensive process. If you only have one handout for your archive or one set of research guidelines, consider spending some time creating additional content which can supplement existing handouts.

This might be as simple as creating different archive worksheets for genealogists, professional researchers, and students.  Front-line staff most likely already know which resources are used most by each of these groups and what common questions are asked by each group – it is a matter of committing it to paper or online resources.

Picking the right medium for their message can be just as important as the content archives with to deliver.  Paper resources are good for onsite visitors, digital content tends to appeal to students and distance researchers, interactive workshops may appeal more to community based researchers and genealogists than to academic researchers.

It might be tempting to do so for cost saving and efficiency’s sake but creating all your content in one medium simply doesn’t work.   Different user groups want different types of information.  It might be useful to conduct a user survey or to have front-line staff share user observations over a period of time prior to selecting a medium.  There is no point in creating content in a format that people don’t find accessible.

Keep it simple.  Outreach activities do not need to be these elaborately complex schemes that take years to bring to fruition.  Start small and work towards larger outreach goals.  This could mean starting by creating a facebook page, creating bookmarks with hours/archive info on them, or creating simple handouts that are given to new researchers when they arrive at the archive. 

Outreach has the potential to be an enlightening and rewarding experience. Planning, thought, and time is required to create successful archival outreach programs.  But, increased outreach can help archives learn more about how to better cater to their users, can help increase use of the archive, and can raise awareness about historical issues.  

Photo credit: artofdreaming,…tanja…, and nick wright planning