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Teaching with Archival Materials

Information about using archival materials/primary sources in lesson plans and educational sessions.

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What are Archival Materials?

Archival materials are records--doLetter from Santa Clara University student to his mother written in 1852. Letter says son studied and played that day and was well.cuments, photographs, videos, etc.--that were created in the 'general course of business' of living life. These items (also called 'primary sources') give us a first-hand account of events and/or moments in time. Archival materials are generally housed in an archive--an institution that collects records pertaining to certain events, people, or moments in time. For example, Santa Clara University Archives & Special Collections holds official documents related to the founding and running of the university, as well as the personal papers of people related in some way to the university (such as playwright Clay Greene). The terms 'archival materials' and 'primary sources' may be used interchangeably throughout this guide.

Letters, like this one to the right, can be great resources to use with students. Letters like these give a first-hand account of life at Santa Clara during the 1850s.

This video (2:43) from the University of Guelph gives a brief overview of what primary sources are and how they differ from secondary sources.

Why Teach with Archival Materials?

Why Teach with Archival Materials?

  • Directly Connect Students with the Past

    • Using archival materials allows students to engage directly with people and stories from the past. 

    • Students can hear about events directly from those who experienced them.

    • Students can relate the lives and experiences of primary source creators to their own lives and experiences. 

  • Different Materials for Different Types of Learners

    • Using different types of archival materials allows for different types of learners to excel in their classes. For instance,

    • Visual learners may have greater success analyzing photographs or videos than a text.

    • Audio learners may benefit from listening to speeches or oral histories of people describing past events. 

  • Help Students Develop Analytical Skills

    • By critically examining archival materials, students can practice their analytical and critical thinking skills.

    • Students can ask questions about the materials to infer information and motivations that may not be directly presented.